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“Beyond the Sound of Words”: Harmony and Polyphony in Women in Love

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in Music and Literature book series (PASTMULI)


“‘Beyond the Sound of Words’: Harmony and Polyphony in Women in Love” maps this novel’s oppositional modes of agitation and stillness against two sound worlds represented by Gerald Crich’s Wagnerian concept of harmony and Birkin’s more ethical polyphony. Gerald’s characterisation as doomed victim of an industrial society in love with war and death is compared with Arnold Bax’s use of Wagner’s “sick Tristan” motif in Tintagel. The composers Philip Heseltine and Cecil Gray rekindled Lawrence’s interest in folk songs, which feature in the novel as a counterbalance to the putative stature of Wagnerian opera. This interplay of the local and the universal in music resonates with Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite (1918), which also resembles Birkin’s “star equilibrium” as a music of the spheres.

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Fig. 5.1
Fig. 5.2
Fig. 5.3


  1. 1.

    Lissajous patterns are discussed, for example, in John Tyndall’s study of Sound (1857). Tyndall (1820–1893) was a prominent physicist who published popular books, based on his public lectures. Jeff Wallace provides some context of his influence, within a broader study of Lawrence’s engagement with science (Wallace 2005: 68–69, 92–93).

  2. 2.

    In the second opera in Wagner’s Ring tetralogy, Die Walkürie (first performed in 1870), the Valkyries are horsewomen who bear slain heroes to Valhalla.

  3. 3.

    The term “polyphonic novel” appears in the heading of the first chapter in Bakhtin 1984.

  4. 4.

    This well-known metaphor derives from Goethe.

  5. 5.

    For a discussion of parallels with Adorno and Schoenberg in Lawrence’s novella St. Mawr, see Moss 2015.

  6. 6.

    In my view, the best discussion of motion and inertia in Lawrence’s work remains “Lawrentian Stillness” in Bersani 1978: 156–85. In his psychoanalytical reading, Bersani notes how Lawrentian stillness maps against “a profound tendency in Lawrence to get rid of sex altogether” (Bersani 1978: 169), which problematises the relationship that Birkin seeks with Ursula.

  7. 7.

    For a discussion of the theme of “rites” in Women in Love, see Joyce Carol Oates: “Women in Love is a strangely ceremonial, even ritualistic work. In very simple terms it celebrates love and marriage as the only possible salvation for twentieth-century man and dramatizes the fate of those who resist the abandonment of the ego demanded by love: a sacrificial rite, an ancient necessity” (Oates 1978: 561).

  8. 8.

    Nijinsky introduced a new athleticism into ballet, which also drew attention to the male body, as discussed in Jones 2013: 8. In a section of her book titled “The Rite of Spring and D.H. Lawrence”, Jones mainly discusses “The Woman Who Rode Away” (109–117). For discussion of the “Russian Ballet” scene in the “Breadalby” chapter of Women in Love (and other dance scenes in the novel), see Zimring 2013: 69–71. There is also a reference to the “Russian ballet” in Lawrence’s essay “The Hopi Snake Dance ” (MM 80).

  9. 9.

    Debussy’s ballet Jeux (1913) was premiered one month before Le Sacre du Printemps and has been overshadowed by it, but his depiction of a tennis match between Bloomsbury artists might suggest another model for what Lawrence calls “frictional to-and-fro” (WL 486).

  10. 10.

    Heseltine “saw little merit in the early Stravinsky works (though he would later revise his opinion somewhat)” (Smith 1997: 14). Intriguingly, however, Heseltine may have been involved in making the first recordings of The Rite:

  11. 11.

    For a discussion of the complexities of Lawrence’s relationship with Futurism as it pertains to this novel, see Harrison 2003: 126–75.

  12. 12.

    There are many critical interpretations of this much-discussed scene: my intention here is not to elide other readings but to draw attention to neglected acoustic aspects of the novel. Most relevant to my analysis here is Terri Mester’s reading of Gudrun’s dance in front of the cattle in “Water-Party”, in which her “atavistic, convulsive movement reminiscent of Nijinsky’s Dalcroze-inspired choreography for the dehumanized masses in Le Sacre du printemps” becomes “a ‘constitutive symbol’ of an earlier scene in which Gudrun observed Gerald violently compel his horse at a railway crossing” (Mester 1997: 113–114).

  13. 13.

    For a brief consideration of the congruity between Gertler’s painting and Lawrence’s project in Women in Love, see Kinkead-Weekes 1996: 343.

  14. 14.

    Lawrence met Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, co-editors of Rhythm , following an invitation from Mansfield to contribute to the journal in January 1913 (1L 507).

  15. 15.

    Thomas Gibbons (1988) suggests that Lawrence discovered Chladni patterns through the theosophical book Thought -Forms (1901), by Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbetter.

  16. 16.

    The quotation is from Lohengrin and Parsifal (1904) by Alice Leighton Cleather and Basil Crump. Another theosophist, William Ashton Ellis, was the founding editor of The Meister, the quarterly journal of the London Wagner Society (Furness 1982: 90).

  17. 17.

    See also DiGaetani 1978; Martin 1982.

  18. 18.

    In this letter to Catherine Carswell, Lawrence also writes about rhythm and movement in her poetry and the free verse of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, which he commends as “good, but too static” (2L 503).

  19. 19.

    Despite their mutual despondency and distress about the war, both produced some of their best work during this period. Bax’s Tintagel remains his most played piece and Lawrence’s two major novels, The Rainbow and Women in Love, were substantially written during the war. This was a surprisingly prolific period for his writing and the development of his thinking: his philosophical essays The Crown were serialised in Signature (1915), four volumes of poetry Look! We Have Come Through (1917), Amores (1916), New Poems (1918), Bay (1920), his first travel book Twilight in Italy (1916), his first (unpublished) attempt at literary criticism/philosophy Study of Thomas Hardy and the beginnings of a second, Studies in Classic American Literature, and several short stories, some of which were later revised for inclusion in his second collection England, My England (1922).

  20. 20.

    William May suggests that Lawrence features Cohen in his poem “Piano” (1918), written “after their brief meeting” (May 2013: 51), although this seems unlikely given its origins in a draft written several years earlier in 1906–1908.

  21. 21.

    Bax also knew Heseltine, Gray, and Maitland Radford, the son of Dolly Radford and a doctor, who attended to Lawrence in Porthcothan in February 1916 (2L 530).

  22. 22.

    It is interesting to consider whether Bax’s Wagnerian background was a limiting factor in his success, in terms of what Lewis Foreman describes as a continuance in British institutions of “the very real musical conflict that had been fought on the Continent twenty years before between the partisans of Wagner” (Foreman 1983: 11). At the Royal College of Music, which Holst and Vaughan Williams attended, “composition was taught under the gimlet eye of Stanford, reflecting the Brahmsian approach”, while the Royal Academy of Music, attended by Bax, “tended to be freer and more Wagner-orientated”.

  23. 23.

    Delius wrote to Heseltine in January 1916: “Your song The Curlew is lovely and gave me the greatest pleasure … there is real emotion in your song—the most essential quality for a composer”. As Gray notes this setting was destroyed and has “no connection with the later song-cycle of the same name … although the germ of the music may have been the same” (Gray 1938: 110–111).

  24. 24.

    Jenner’s wife Katharine Jenner wrote the book titled Christian Symbolism (1910) that Lawrence read in the early months of the war and which helped him to “understand the Celtic Symbolism in its entirety” (2L 250). This interest in Celticism was another link with Bax, Gray, and Heseltine.

  25. 25.

    Cyril Scott is the name of another composer (1879–1970), also a poet, philosopher, and enthusiast of the occult.

  26. 26.

    Their relationship was increasingly strained, although Heseltine visited again in August 1916, made efforts in December 1917 to get Women in Love published and in January 1918 sent Lawrence a copy of the Book of Kells (3L 196). The final rupture came in 1921 when Heseltine demanded changes to allegedly libellous details in the final version of Women in Love (primarily relating to his relationship with a woman called the “Puma” thinly veiled as the “Pussum”).

  27. 27.

    The Deirdre legend had been taken up in the Celtic revival by W.B. Yeats (1907) and J.M. Synge (1910) and was a shared interest with Bax. Gray’s operas would only be finished many years later.

  28. 28.

    Terri Mester observes that Gudrun’s dance dramatises her “jealousy over Ursula’s self-sufficiency and her own feelings of jealousy” (Mester 1997: 114).

  29. 29.

    “Die Müllerin” is probably drawn from Frieda’s repertoire of soldiers’ songs (see WL 577 n.419: 38).

  30. 30.

    The evocation of Uranus as “a Magician” may point to theosophical sources, which Raymond Head has argued play a significant role in The Planets: he emphasises the influence of Alan Leo’s book The Art of Synthesis (1912) and of Holst’s association with George R.S. Mead, former secretary to Blavatsky and active theosophist until 1907 (Head 1993: 17–19).


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Reid, S. (2019). “Beyond the Sound of Words”: Harmony and Polyphony in Women in Love. In: D.H. Lawrence, Music and Modernism. Palgrave Studies in Music and Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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