LITERATURE- AUSTRALIAN - D. H. LAWRENCE'S 'KANGAROO'
colour and sedition:
place of D. H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo
in Australian creativity and criticism appears as paradoxical as the
platypus. The Lawrences were in Australia for 100 days, spending only
seventy-seven around Sydney where most of the novel is set, and where he
completed the first draft within six weeks. Yet Lawrence has
been praised for getting that strip of landscape right. The Bulletin
conceded that “he has written a very beautiful book that is full of
the sunshine and flowers of Australia”.
The Professor of English language and literature at the University of
Adelaide, Archibald T. Strong, recognised:
or two remarkably vivid and sympathetic pictures of Australian scenery,
especially of Pacific coastal scenery, and of the blooming of the wattle
in the Australian spring. He has been in Australia long enough to
understand the spell which the Bush slowly, but surely, weaves around
many who are at first repelled by its strangeness.
In advocating “The
Genius of Place” as one of The
Foundations of Culture in Australia (1935), P. R. Stephensen
acknowledged that “[v]isitors, such as D. H. Lawrence, have discerned
a spiritual quality of ancient loveliness in our land itself”.
The founder of the Jindyworobaks, Rex Ingamells, reveled in “the
indestructible spirit of the place about which D. H. Lawrence has
written in such a superb piece of natural description at the beginning
The acceptance of Lawrence’s eye for nature raises the first query
about cultural regionalism: how could a tourist beat the locals?
The question is the
more perplexing once we compare this praise for Lawrence with the
assertion that only the native-born could paint the landscape. Frederick
McCubbin headed a protest during 1913 to secure commissions for
native-born painters who had stayed here, at the same time telling
expatriates to return to soak in the atmosphere.
In praising the colours of Arthur Streeton, Lionel Lindsay in 1916
argued for nativism:
flat masses of gum leaves, with their metallic luster and elusive greys,
their sheen and shimmer in bronze with blue reflections – how could
eyes, accustomed to the rich distinctive greens of England, hope to
render their difficult nuances?
problem could only be solved by a native-born artist possessing the
necessary genius, whose vision had never been disturbed by the schools
of the old world.
prejudice festered throughout the 1930s, by when Lindsay saw art
“threatened everywhere by the same aliens, the same corrupting
influences that undermined French art”.
distance between the literary critics’ appreciation of the visiting
author and the disparagement of foreign-born and expatriate painters is
one instance of how easier it is for an experienced writer to paint
pictures with words about a new place than it is for an accomplished
artist to achieve tonal harmonies of an alien land with oils or
watercolours. The technical demands are of different orders, despite
pleasantries surrounding ut
pictura poesis. The craft of writing is another kind of work.
Lawrence’s ability to convey some aspects of a landscape through which
he was passing should be understood in terms of the part played by every
type of labour in the transition from experience to imagination.
Lawrence could not have succeeded in portraying
any segment of the Australian bush had he not apprenticed
himself to the writer’s trade during the previous fifteen years. His
poetry and imaginative prose had helped him find the words to express
his responses to a fresh environment, though the sun was not new to him
had been “south” to Italy before 1914 and went there again on his
way here, reaching Florence in November 1919. By March 1920, they had
moved to Sicily where they remained until February 1922.Stephensen
convinced himself that travel had taken Lawrence “out of the wet and
stifling, local and insular, atmosphere of England”, which was such a
miserable place that only an infusion of southern warmth and colour had
allowed it any literature beyond Wycliff or Bunyon.
The Italian half of Aaron’s Rod
(1922) is indeed sunnier than the opening English chapters. Lawrence’s
Italian years had prepared him for Australia’s climate rather as
Mussolini’s fascists did for his creation of the Diggers’ leader,
Lawrence was no modern tourist who had never been out of Nottinghamshire
before being jetted into a Sydney January, but had enjoyed two years in
the warmth around the Mediterranean. Lawrence thought Ceylon too humid,
too soft, a moral failing he associated with its coloured population.
The Lawrences arrived at Perth early in May, safely into autumn. They
got to Sydney later that month and had left by mid-August, and so
experienced only a winter, during which Somers bathed in the ocean. Had
the Lawrences been in Sydney through a humid summer, would he have been
able to write at all? He treated early August as the Australian spring,
as if the wattle were a “host of golden daffodils”. For all his
references to the fern continent, he had not learnt that some Australian
natives have the sense to flower during the cooler months.
mediating power of human labour on the landscape of the Nottinghamshire
mining districts had helped to make Lawrence a regional author in Sons
and Lovers. He carried that experience through later novels and
travels. Thirroul abutted a mining community with its share of English
immigrants. He was not as remote from Australians as he depicted his
Somers character who declares them more alien to him “than Italian
scoundrels, or even Indians”. (127)
landscapes that Lawrence encountered here were not “primeval” as he,
Stephensen, and Ingamells used that word. The environment had been
altered by human presences, to some extent through indigenous practices
and more rapidly by settlers. Those changes were wrought by activities
which we can sum up as “work”. Writing from Sydney to Katharine
Susannah Prichard in July 1922, Lawrence confessed to some of the
troubles he had faced in picturing the Australian component in his
feel I slither on the edge of a gulf, reaching to grasp its atmosphere
and spirit. It eludes me, and always would. It is too far back. It seems
to me that generation after generation must people it with ghosts, and
catastrophes water it with blood, before it will come alive with a new
day of its own.
create his alter ego in
Richard Lovatt Somers, Lawrence could not wait for those ghosts to
appear and so he summoned a version of his Dark God: “it seemed as if
the aboriginal daimon entered his body as his slept, to destroy its old
With “black” recurring six times in fifty lines, Somers asks
himself: “Is this devil after all my god? Do I stand with the
debbil-debbil worshippers, in spite of all my efforts and
protestations?” (165) Such dream-work can succeed for an individual
visitor crafting a single novel: layers of experience and reflection are
required to establish a regional culture.
attachments that people develop towards a place grow tight because they
remake themselves in the process of remaking it. John Shaw Neilson’s
yacka as an bushman allowed him to sing for the endangered birds:
urge to versify one’s toil need not aspire to Neilson’s lyricism to
be irresistible or revelatory.
In no human activity can the physical be severed from the mental.
essay “The Spirit of Place” drew on the power of the soil to explain
why the Puritan-Jesuit colonisation of the Americas had brought about
“the transmutation from men into machines and ghosts”. The notion of
blood and soil relied on a vulgar materialism summed up as “What you
eat today walks and talks tomorrow”. The linking of race with food
sounded convincing for as long as most supplies were sourced locally and
blood was assumed to be the carrier of inherited characteristics.
how in the name of heaven is this world-brotherhood mankind going to see
with one eye, eye to eye, when the very blood is of different
thicknesses on different continents, and with the difference in blood,
the inevitable psychic difference? Different vision! … (148, cf 145)
transport of grains and the identification of the DNA as the node for
inheritance have still not erased misconceptions about blood and soil as
the determinants of national character. Such follies cannot be contained
without recognizing how human labour mediates nature, including its
did not mention the contribution of human labour to his environmental
values, but set “place” as their foundation stone. He called on
“Cape York poets to make the Cape York people more aware of Cape
York”, without realising that those locals, through their labours,
were making Cape York available to the poets.
Ingamells similarly ignored how human activities alter landscapes and
cultures, and how those actors remake themselves in the process of
remaking their physical, social and poetic environments.
might, for instance, have examined Jean Devanny’s 1936
Sugar Heaven as one aspect of the sugar industry. Despite the
intensity of tropical foliage for its setting, Devanny’s novel is
almost devoid of colour adjectives. She uses seventeen in the first
seventeen pages but only seven during the next 300. In that opening
section, she links the rich wine of the cane stalks to the blood
squeezed from the workers. (pp. 11-14) Three pages later, she leads us
through the colours of the landscape to have her protagonist, Dulcie,
proclaim that the North is “heaven”. (p.17) Later, Devanny declares:
“Here was drama! Here was colour! The great Painter, Life, was at work
on the hitherto dull canvas of her existence”. (p. 55) That is the
last we see of his palette.
Ingamells stressed that “the prime point of the Jindyworobak argument … concerns the accurate use of language”. He supposed that Lawrence had succeeded in portraying the bush “because he was a great writer and instinctively avoided incongruities”. This explanation in terms of innate genius sits uneasily with the Jindyworobak claim for environmental values. Some of what Lawrence accomplished in “the accurate use of language” can be evaluated by examining Kangaroo for its language of colour, particularly “blue” and “the rainbow”.
Ellis concluded his 1896 analysis of colour in poetry by remarking:
Ellis had drawn this
expectation from his year in the late 1870s as a teacher in the bush
beyond Scone, New South Wales. The novella that he later wrote about
that time, Kanga Creek, did
not match his promise. “Blue” appeared four times in its fifty pages
to describe eyes or clothes, but never as a metaphor for the
metaphysical, or even for the heavens.
A concordance of
Australian writing would be necessary to determine whether any writer
had lived up to Ellis’s prediction. When Dorothea Mackellar penned a
paean to “Colour”, her palette contained no trace of “a sunburnt
country”. For instance, her “sunburnt wheat” was “yellow”, the
mountains “larkspur” and the “hillsides golden-green”.
She thanked God for letting her see saffron, pearl, emerald,
scarlet, jade, azure, lemon and lilac, “Though I were stricken
blind” – as she was to the tones of her “wide brown land”.
John Shaw Neilson –
known as a “Poet of the Colours”
- used “white” more than any other colour term. The frequency of
“green” was followed by “blue” which he often treated as a
synonym for the sky. When he used “the blue” symbolically he did so
through his relations with birds, which he anthropomorphised. In the
“The Gentle Water Bird”, God appears “terrible and
thunder-blue”. In “The Blue Wren in the Hop-Bush”, the poet
“The Whistling Jack” takes blue as the symbol of
nothingness. The bird defends its eating a baby chicken by reminding its
human accuser of the slaughter along the Western Front:
“red” throughout his writing and almost always in association with
murder, often in battle.
For a sometime painter
himself, Lawrence recorded scant curiosity about Australian canvases.
Perth did not have a public art collection to speak of. During the
stopover in Adelaide, he called by its Gallery but did not comment on
Tom Roberts’s “The Breakaway” with its hot, dry sky. After a visit
to the Melbourne collection, he came to associate the layered sky in the
French Symbolist Puvis de Chavannes’ L’Hiver (Winter) with the Australian bush:
appears not to have visited the National Gallery in Sydney where he
could have seen the glare of Streeton’s “Fire’s On!”
speed of Kangaroo’s
composition encouraged Lawrence to raise his splash of colours to an
aesthetic precept. Shortly after completing the manuscript, he heard
about the attacks on James Joyce’s Ulysses,
but did not have a copy. He assumed that he and Joyce shared a
stream-of-consciousness approach to writing. He soon found that Joyce
had spent years arranging his syllables and so that
stream-of-consciousness applied to his protagonists, not to their
storm of creative consciousness flashes through the following passages:
were so blue and pure: the blue harbour like a lake among the land, so
pale blue and heavenly …
was strange that, with the finest of new air dimming to a lovely pale
blue in the distance, and with the loveliest stretches of pale blue
water, the tree-covered land should be so gloomy and lightless.(19)
Lawrence’s resort to
“blue” intensifies the capacity of his imagery to summon infinity:
above the ridge-top the pure blue sky, so light and absolutely
unsullied, it was always a wonder ... into a sky of such tender
delicacy, blue, so blue, and yet so frail that even blue seems too
coarse a colour to describe it, more virgin than humanity can conceive,
the land inward lit up … (82)
the frequency of Lawrence’s association of blue with transcendence. He
never tied a colour to only one response.
recent critic, W. J. Lillyman, has proposed a reading which rescues
“blue” from timeless universal, locating its symbolism alienated modernity:
blue sky … is a symbol throughout post-romantic literature … to
reveal man’s isolation … an example of … a ‘true modern
symbol’ [that is] the sign of the absence, or the non-being of what
was formerly believed to be the perennial divine reality. ‘Le ceil est mort’. (Mallarme, 1864) They first reveal the anguish
caused by an unmediated, unapproachable, swiftly receding deity.
attempted to fill this social vacuum with his “Dark God”, while many
of his contemporaries also drew comfort from one or other variety of
mysticism, though he tied his spiritual quest to the flesh rather than a
of these seekers was the Theosophist Annie Besant who had arrived in
Fremantle on the same ship as the Lawrences.
Although Lawrence had no direct contact with her, he dabbled in the
occult and dipped into Theosophist writings. In 1901, Besant and Charles
Leadbeater had published a Theosophist account of colour harmony, Thought-Forms, in which they associated “blue” with “Devotion
to a Noble Ideal”:
different shades of blue all indicate religious feeling, and range
through all hues from the dark brown-blue of selfish devotion, or the
pallid grey-blue of fetish-worship tinged with fear, up to the rich deep
clear color of heartfelt adoration, and the beautiful pale azure of that
highest form which implies self-renunciation and union with the divine;
the devotional thought of an unselfish heart is very lovely in colour,
like the deep blue of a summer sky. Through such clouds of blue will
often shine out golden stars of great brilliancy, darting upwards like a
shower of sparks.
of these characteristics could be applied to some element in both
Lawrence and Somers. A residue of social reform in this connecting of
anyone with a selflessness would have irritated Lawrence/Somers whose
Noble Ideal was “freedom of the individual”.
Lawrence’s complaints about the smothering of the individual by
mechanisation was his quest for the “Dark God” that did not dwell in
villadom. When the
Somerses first rent a house – ‘Torestin’
- on the North Shore, (actually a picture of “Wyework” at Thirroul),
these contrary attitudes flare in a disagreement about the domestic
one must. And floors too it appears because, seventy pages on, after the
Somerses have shifted south to “Coo-ee”, they spend the day, with
help from Jack and Victoria Callcott,
threatened whitewashing, like the actual waxing, followed a utilitarian
approach to decoration. The colours of nature better suited the free
individual, except that they tied him to a place, and that meant to its
detachments - emotional, physical and intellectual - that had been
keeping Somers from saying “Yes” to the leader of the fascist
“Diggers”, Kangaroo, were also expressed through colour. Kangaroo
concludes with the departure of Richard and Harriet Somers. Their last
day is filled with a longing to stay in the bush, and with reflections
on the significance of their sojourn. Their connections to the place are
suffused with colours:
bush now and then glowed gold, and there were almond and apricot trees
near the little wooden bungalows, and by the railway unknown flowers,
magenta and yellow and white, among the rocks. (356)
sixty lines of type, Lawrence put twenty-three colour adjectives, as
well as the word “colour” five times, and such cognates as
“rainbow”, “darkness”, “brilliant” and “glittering”.
that rejection had happened, “[t]he coloured bubble had burst”.
(133). When Somers is leaving, he sees:
lying on its many-lobed blue harbour, in the Australian spring. The many
people, all seeming dissolved in the blue air. Revolutions –
nothingness. Nothing could ever matter. (356)
Here, “blue” is an expression
of the void, the blindness in sight, thought and feeling that flows
from the play of sunlight on the surf and then the harbour. Here is a
source of that emptiness that Somers finds inside Australians. (131)
“Blue” as nothingness arches back to the misery that Somers had felt
Even at its most
exalted, “blue” could not carry his responses to their zenith. For
that, Lawrence relied on the rainbow:
Many times in his life
he had seen a rainbow. The last had been on his arrival in Sydney.
the wharf looked black and dismal, empty.
…. Black, all black …
even the green grass …
Yet over it all, spanning the harbour, the most magnificent great
rainbow. His mood was so miserable he didn’t want to see it. But it
was unavoidable. A huge, brilliant, supernatural rainbow, spanning all
was thinking of this, and still watching the dark-green,
yellow-reflecting sea, that was like a northern sea, a Whitby sea, and
watching the far-off fume of a dark rainbow apparition .... (155)
Lawrence had not placed
this epiphany in its chronological order on the opening page. There, its
metaphysics would have overpowered the mood he needed to establish about
the newcomer as isolate.
To describe the
steaming away from the wharf, Lawrence turns the streamers between ship
and shore into a summation of his political and personal reactions to
the love that he has refused:
this was the last tie, this ribbon of coloured paper. Somers had a
yellow and a red one: Victoria held the end of the red streamer. Jaz’s
wife the end of the yellow. Harriet had blue and green streamers. And
from the side of the ship a whole glittering tangle of these colours
connecting the departing with
the remaining, a criss-cross of brilliant colour that seemed to
glitter like a rainbow in the beams of the sun ...
the criss-crossing web of brilliant streamers, red, blue, purple, white,
yellow, green, went from the hands of the departing to the hands of
those who would be left behind. (357)
By the final page,
Lawrence has created the conditions for a rainbow made out of streamers,
one no less laden with thoughts than that presented by nature on
One measure of the
colours that Lawrence lavished on the last pages of Kangaroo
comes from comparing his departure scene with that in Henry Handel
Richardson’s Australia Felix, published in 1917. Richardson had completed the
draft in England before her return visit in 1912, during which she would
have experienced the streamers but could not use them for a sailing set
fifty years earlier. The emotional significance of such colours as
Richardson chose is different from Lawrence’s because Mahony is
heading towards “the dear old mother country – home”, and is
several times gladder to be quitting Melbourne than Lawrence is sorry to
be leaving Sydney. Instead of streamers, Richardson portrayed her
characters waving handkerchiefs, damp with tears, or tied to canes but
she made no mention of their colours – were they all white? As
Mahony’s ship, called Red
Jacket, moves through Port Phillip Bay, the settlements are reduced
to ‘whitely smudges” before “the Dandenong Ranges, grown bluer and
bluer, were also lost in the sky”. Mahony’s temples are
“graying” but his “faculties green”. Richardson used the Rip at
the mouth of the Bay, with its “white lines of foam” and churning
ocean, as a metaphor for Mahony’s mental state. Here is excitement,
but also menace, a forewarning of the wreck that her protagonist’s
life will become, an end foreshadowed in the trilogy’s opening
sentence of a man’s being buried alive.
The Boy in the Bush, which Lawrence rewrote after leaving Australia,
was nowhere near as chromatic as Kangaroo.
The final paragraph wins its effect from a restrained use of colour when
“[t]he pale blue ocean full of light” is contrasted to “the silent
grey bush” in which the young Englishman no longer feels lost.
As Somers is leaving
Sydney, he spies some Chinese on the dock, a sight which summons a
tripled invocation of “darkness”:
felt another heart-string going to break like the streamers, leaving
Australia, leaving his own British connection. The darkness that comes
over the heart at the moment of departure darkens the eyes too, and the
last scene is remote, remote, detached inside a darkness. (357)
extended synaesthesia beyond a merging of the senses to encompass
politics. The rainbow of streamers formed a bridge, a pledge, just as
the streamers were a bond among the white race. Crossing the Indian
Ocean on his way to Fremantle, Lawrence had written of his distaste for
natives are back of us – in the living sense lower than we are. But
they’re going to swarm over and suffocate us. We are, have been for
five centuries, the growing tip. Now we’re going to fail. But you
don’t catch me going back on my whiteness and Englishness and myself.
English in the teeth of all the world, even in the teeth of England.
Within Kangaroo, Lawrence expanded on thoughts he had put in his
Moby Dick essay:
knew. He knew his race was doomed. His white soul doomed. His great
white epoch, doomed. Himself, doomed. The idealist, doomed. The spirit,
doomed. … What then is Moby Dick? He is the deepest blood-letting of
the white race; he is our deepest blood-nature. And he is hunted,
hunted, hunted by the maniacal fanaticism of our white mental
consciousness. And in this maniacal conscious hunt of ourselves we get
dark races and pale to help us, red, yellow, and black, east and west…
This tangle of colours
and places is a reprise of the streamers tying Somers to his white race,
but they are not strong enough to hold him. Lawrence was alarmed not
only at the upsurge of the coloured. He had been repelled by the
European masses, just as Somers rejects both the “Diggers” and the
“Reds” in Sydney.
Grace Cossington Smith
began her engagement with a Modernist palette by creating “Sock
Knitter” (1915), an image of domestic security which nonetheless
implied the violence of soldiering. She continued to shift between the
realms of suburban safety and public menace. “Reinforcements” (1917)
and “The Prince” (1920) presented city spaces that upheld the values
of her class, threatened by the masses in “Strike” (1917),
“Crowd” (1922) and “Rushing” (1922). The pastel pinks in
“Strike” are challenged by the hammers carried by the workers.
Elsewhere, Cossington Smith selected colours and tones to confirm
her prejudices. In “Reinforcements”, she constrained the khaki of
the troops with a foreground of brightly dressed civilians and
high-keyed buildings behind. Even the presence of her beloved royalty
was portrayed in brown and fawn, with the flags lost in shadow, unlike
the festive streetscapes of Manet and Monet. Her 1922 pair were in dark
brown, blue serge and tan.
What was gloomy in
Cossington Smith was a brilliant red in “Yarra Bank Meeting” (1923),
once called “Strife”,
by Patrick John Harford who glorified the social forces that Cossington
Smith feared. His abstracted figures were of the anti-conscriptionist
union official Fred Riley, and the Communist Party solicitor Christian
Jolly Smith. Harford applied his craft as a stained-glass maker to this
painting with its diagonal slash of red lightning. He had married Lesbia
Keogh (1891-1927) whose poems grew from the struggles of girls in
miles away from the voluntary sewing circles of Grace Cossington Smith
along the North Shore.
The street scenes of
Cossington Smith and the Harfords crossed the political and industrial
conditions that the Lawrences encountered. He interpreted them in Kangaroo
through the prism of the world class war between fascism and Bolshevism.
That contest had informed the second half of Aaron’s Rod, passages in Sea
and Sardinia, and his essays on Melville and Whitman.
Lawrence had characters
in Aaron’s Rod gabble on
about exterminating the brutes as the path back to sanity: “You’ve
got to have a sort of slavery again. People are not men: they are
insects and instruments, and their destiny is slavery”.
In the “Nightmare” chapter of Kangaroo,
Somers rails against “all the teeming human ants, human slaves”.
(150) Lawrence also hated the mob, but refused to surrender to “the
vast mob spirit” behind that hatred when marshaled by the upper
classes: “He still believed in the freedom of the individual. – Yes,
freedom of the individual!’ (227) Kangaroo’s lieutenant, Jack
Callcott, knew that, in a war between classes, as between nations,
“what you depend on is a general, and on discipline, and on obedience.
And nothing else is the slightest bit of good”. (89) The majority
could not afford the luxury of standing outside or above the conflict,
as Somers decides to do in Kangaroo,
before fleeing from one scribbling place to the next.
Lawrence opened Chapter
XVI of Kangaroo by asking
“And what is a mob?”, and answered with a contrary: “But the only
way to make any study of collective psychology is to study the isolate
(294) This paradox set him off through a ten-page essay on “the Dark
the mob has no direction even in its destructive lust. The vengeful
masses have direction. And it
is no good trying to reason with them. The mass does no act by reason. A
mass is not even formed by reason. The more intense or extended the collective
consciousness, the more does the truly reasonable, individual
consciousness sink into abeyance. (298)
Lawrence continued that
“men are reduced to a great, non-mental oneness as in the hot-blooded
whales, and then, like whales which suddenly charge upon the ship which
tortures them, so they burst upon the vessel of civilisation”. (301)
In his essay on Melville’s Moby
Dick, Lawrence projected the Pequod,
with its polygot crew, as a “symbol” for mechanical,
“business-like Yankees”. The white whale was “the deepest
blood-being of our white race”, in revolt against the false values of
Peter Scheckner in Class,
Politics and the Individual suggested that Lawrence - through his
characters - maintained a creative tension inside himself about on which
side, if either, of the barricades he should take a stand. He could
never commit his individuality to any cause, or deny his working-class
Kangaroo can be read as a
study of these conflicts, in which Lawrence shifted around a Manichean
opposition between the black debbil-debbil of the mob and the white
whale of individualism. As fascinating as he made chiaroscuro in his
prose, its tonalismn did not allow him to paint his individuality.
Lawrence chased after exotic landscapes against which he could contrast
his Englishness. In Kangaroo,
he realised the effects of place on people and of people on place
through every colour of the rainbow.
David Ellis, D. H. Lawrence:
dying game, 1922-1930, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,
1998, pp. 24-54.