Tuesday, 19 October 2010

D. H. Lawrence: 'Bombardment'

In Kangaroo, D. H. Lawrence remembers watching a Zeppelin raid on London during the Great War. He had seen the Zeppelin 'high, high, high, tiny, pale, as one might imagine the Holy Ghost far, far above.' The metaphor's provocative pairing of the deadly and the divine prepares the way for T. S. Eliot's bizarre and (to my mind) wholly inappropriate attempt, in 'Little Gidding' two decades later, to Christianise the Blitz: a German bomber begins as 'the dark dove with the flickering tongue' before metamorphosing into a 'dove descending' which 'breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror'. The fires of the Blitz become the fires of purgatory, so that 'tongues of flame' are ecstatically 'in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one.' 'Little Gidding', as I have argued elsewhere, cannot bear very much reality. For all that it inspires a po-faced High Church sobriety in many of its readers, the transubstantions are a conjuror's trick.

Lawrence succeeds where Eliot would later fail. Eliot's 'dark dove' will be whitewashed into the Holy Ghost descending on the people; Lawrence invokes the Holy Ghost only to point out how tiny and seemingly irrelevant (although potentially destructive) it would seem if it were visible. And in 'Bombardment', the 'dark bird' stays dark and predatorial, hunting out the 'creatures' which it would devour. No opportunity for mystification spiritual communion here, just random and violent death for scuttling, bug-like humanity.


The Town has opened to the sun.
Like a flat red lily with a million petals
She unfolds, she comes undone.

A sharp sky brushes upon
The myriad glittering chimney-pots
As she gently exhales to the sun.

Hurrying creatures run
Down the labyrinth of the sinister flower.
What is it they shun?

A dark bird falls from the sun.
It curves in a rush to the heart of the vast
Flower: the day has begun.


  1. Not bad. If the poem was written after March 21, 1918, I'd wager that it refers not to the aerial bombing of some generic town but to the bombardment of Paris ("red [roofs?],""a million petals") by the German Paris gun from an incredible seventy-miles away. The first shell hit around daybreak of March 21 and about 350 had been fired by the time the gun was dismantled in August.

    The Paris Gun was too inaccurate to be directed against an ordinary target and thus was employed as an out-and-out terrorist weapon. The Allies considered the indiscriminate bombardment of civilians in a great city from a safe distance to be at least as criminal as the German Zeppelin raids. By civilized standards they were right.

  2. I wondered at the dove when I first read it- it does seem a bit of an odd image. There was a german bomber, the Taube, in the early stage of WW1 that flew over Paris in the evening and dropped a few bombs- it was referred to as the 'six o'clock Taube'. Given Eliot's Parisian links, I wonder if there's a resonance. (sorry if I've mentioned this before...)

  3. Maybe it is a gun, albeit still a kind of aerial bombardment. If anyone knows, I'd be grateful. The upper case 'Town' perhaps suggests a capital city.

    Not sure why an enemy plane should be a 'dove', except as a rather crude way way of setting up the Christianising...

  4. in this case, it was pretty descriptive


  5. The image of the opening lily seems rather sexual (and since this is Lawrence, that's probably a safe bet). The Zeppelin's "rush to the heart of the vast Flower" reminds me of Blake and the "dark secret love" of the invisible worm for the Rose's "bed Of crimson joy".
    Or am I imagining things?

  6. Having seen a Zeppelin in action, Lawrence would have known that its movement was stately and level.

    As Dru's source indicates, the Taube was a very light and vulnerable plane that could carry a few lightweight bombs. Mostly they were used for reconnaissance, and the German Air Force took them out of combat early in 1915.

    Of course, the "dove" reference is in Eliot's poem, not Lawrence's. The principal German bomber during the Battle of Britain, the Heinkel 111, did indeed look more birdlike than most. Its form and its pale undersurfaces might well have suggested a dove to a poetic imagination looking up from far below.

  7. Not a pale dove, but the 'dark dove with the flickering tongue'. The enemy bomber is a Rorschach test for Eliot. He manages to transform a German bomber into the Holy Ghost. That takes some doing.

  8. " He manages to transform a German bomber into the Holy Ghost. That takes some doing."
    ...except that Eliot's view of christianity wasn't a "gentle Jesus meek and mild" view but one that regarded christianity as cruel and redeeming together, that redeemed people evenagainst their will. Eliot wanted christians to become both "intolerant and intolerable".

  9. The little death sung of by ever-sexual D.(eat)H.--and I am willing to suggest that this 12-line poem could just as well be about the female Town offering herself to the Sun's renewing Bombardment, while the ordinary folk scurry and peep about, shunning all that vast sexuality. Then what might the unseemly dark bird be?