Like most people, my PhD has changed quite a bit since I excitedly (read: frantically) wrote my proposal and started approaching universities three years ago. My original plan had been to look at talking animals as moralists in the poetry of Marianne Moore, Ted Hughes and Luke Kennard. As it stands, Mazza Moore may be the only one of the original trinity that makes the final cut since so many people have already said basically everything about Ted Hughes, and while I’d still like to look at contemporary poets using talking animals, I’m having the opposite problem in that no one has said nearly enough about their work for me to feel safe in my convictions. I’m also broadening my scope to look at “general animals” as well as the talking ones.
So, having chatted with my supervisor, I tentatively turned to Elizabeth Bishop and D.H. Lawrence instead. And, as you may have gathered from the 500,000 times I’ve mentioned him, I’ve been really struggling with ol’ D.H. Having only ever experienced his work vicariously through a few cursory glances at the naughty scenes in Ken Russell’s 1993 version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and knowing that he is an extremely influential presence for writers and readers alike, I was coming to him with a faaaairly open mind and was assured that Birds, Beasts and Flowers was a seminal collection for anyone interested in animals and the natural world. And so it is. I’ve got a decent chunk of a chapter written about a selection of the poems in there and I’m actually enjoying the new directions my work is taking. But I also, really do not like D.H. Lawrence or anything he stands for.
I recently listened to an episode of Radio 3’s The Essay, delivered by the poet Michael Rosen, called “On the Trail of D.H. Lawrence”. Towards the end he talks about Katherine Mansfield’s account of D.H. Lawrence severely beating his wife, Frieda Weekley, in “an uncontrolled attack”. And I’ve just not quite been able to stop thinking about this and a number of other less than savoury aspects Lawrence’s character that have been much chronicled (often by Lawrence himself in his Collected Letters). There are suggestions that he was a misogynistic racist with fascist leanings, who didn’t believe in democracy or in helping poor or disabled people. So literally everything I hate most in the entire world.
There are a number of critics who are still adamant that Lawrence’s contribution to literature outweighs any charges waged against him, but can that really be true? In the last few decades numerous writers have been exposed as essentially awful people with abhorrent views and yet they’re still lauded as “the greats”, and we continue to teach them in schools and universities, which, I can’t help feeling, only serves to perpetuate the idea that it’s okay to be a terrible person, provided you write really incredible books (I realise I mentioned Ted Hughes earlier…I still wrestle with my feelings about him too.)
But mates…D.H. Lawrence is really useful to my research, y’know? And when I’m close reading the poems of Birds, Beasts and Flowers it’s very easy to forget these things and just appreciate that he was doing something very fresh and interesting with animals in verse (I did, however, read some of the poems in More Pansies and got reeeeeeeeally annoyed with him – see below).
I’d be genuinely interested to know if anyone else is in a similar quandary and if they’ve figured out a way to get around it without feeling as though they’re betraying their lifelong moral code…
Also if you’d like to write a guest blog, get in touch by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @SGSAH_.
2 thoughts on “The Moral Maze of my PhD Research”
Thanks for the blog.
I have a question for you – is it the fact the animals are able to speak that makes them the guardians of the moral high ground?
The reason I ask is because in the 19th century there was a strong feeling in the church that without the ability to speak and listen, there is no route to God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God” and all that. The impact that way of thinking had in my own field was that a (misguided) policy of teaching speech and banning sign languages was enforced in Deaf education; and the aristocracy were forbidden in law to pass on their estates to children who couldn’t speak (which essentially meant to Deaf children).
Or is it just that talking animals are more cute?
Hi Michael, thanks for reading!
Interesting question, and one I’m not actually sure I know the answer to at this point. I’m very interested in the idea of writers using animals as masks to convey their own moral opinions, and I think to a degree, yes, this happens because animals are more cute! There’s can be a certain innocence in them, which somehow makes them more trustworthy, perhaps? It’s difficult to say for sure since it’s always going to be a human putting words in their mouths.
I read ‘The Beast Within’ by Joyce Salisbury, which does reference what you’re talking about. It also said that back in the day (like, 12th century, I think?) medical “experts” believed the birth of a female baby was an accident caused by the mother’s failure to properly insulate her womb during pregnancy, and that led to comparisons between women and animals (i.e. women were beast-like/monstrous), which in a sense takes away women’s voices in a similar manner. Oh also, it was a sin to personify God and angels, because they were far too great to be part of this earthly realm, so I think there was a lot of dangerous categorisation going on there which impacted on virtually everything!