Poetry in Prose

The Use of Repetition in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love


*I am using a 1961 Penguin edition of Women in Love so page numbers may vary

Prose and poetry are often confused and their edges blurred due to the perception they both use words to convey their meanings, yet stylistically and practically there are profound differences between the two. They also provide very different functions overall; Prose has the ability to convey an overall mood and sustained argument through narrative, poetry is more tonal and succinct, imparting its message through connotation due to its brevity and complexity. Prose has a definite set of rules that can define it as poetry once did but whose rules are now somewhat subject to interpretation. Modern writers and critics in recent years have taken to writing and reading these two distinct styles in unison in the hope one can offer the other its own virtues to varying degrees of success. Belles Lettres are often referred to when writing in prose that is particularly florid or verbose, ‘Prose Poems’ have become more common place too in modern literature. However in most cases these require a certain bending or blurring of the individual rules or precepts of the given form that the author has been writing in.

The ‘rules’ that I speak of used to be very clearly defined and are, by and large, still observed by most writers whether intentionally or not. Prose normally is laid out in sentences of indeterminate length with a functional syntax and diction to convey a point, mood or understanding of a given topic situation giving a sustained mode of thought or argument. Any and all literary devices can, and often are, used such as similie, metaphor, dialogue, monologue, duologue, varying point of view, imagery and so on normally to create a sense of immersion with the reader or a propulsion to the piece’s climax or conclusion. Poetry can now utilise similar devices in its style but traditionally it used a shorter mode and separate stanzas as opposed to paragraphs in prose. The most significant difference between poetry and prose historically and still today is poetry’s use of form, rhythm (or meter) and its use of rhyme. For instance were you to start reading a novel and, ignoring line delineation, it were to start reading as a limerick (‘There once was a man from Nantucket’) you would feel an internal pulse or rhythm. A good writer is aware of this natural tendency to find a certain musicality in our words and sentence structure but the nature of prose and a need to impart a point is often found to take presidence over a lyrical or musical sense. This is often thought to trivialise prose and, more so in today’s appraisal, poetry too. This does not, however, mean it is not used to a great degree in modern literature and dialectics as it is also a useful tool to aid memorisation and instill a certain meaning. Some of the world’s most famous aphorisms, phrases and sayings that many know by heart are in Iambic Pentameter. It is acknowledged we as a populace in the western world quote Shakespeare at least once a day.

As such, it is difficult to draw a definite line between the two styles and approaches to writing but there is definitely still a distinction between the two that persists. The blending of the two however is not a solely recent phenomenon. Despite the fact from the early twentieth century and before poetry was seen as a more sacrosanct art and more doggedly adhered to in its rules and form, writers were still utilising the same tools for prose and poetry long before. Most glaringly and an example I would like to use here is DH Lawrence’s Women in Love.

Lawrence currently languishes in something of a strange context, derided and vilified during his lifetime he was revived in the middle of the twentieth century by critics such as FR Leavis and by the various legal entanglements of Lady Chatterly’s Lover into a writer who is practically a household name and much more respected in the world of literary criticism. He does however persist in the minds of some as deeply flawed and difficult figure and writer. His rather right wing personal views and contempt for socialism are often cited as a problem in his writing, as is his perception of women in his novels. Despite normally casting women in pivotal and leading roles in his novels as well as giving them more character and depth than some writers give any character in modern literature, his motives and depictions of and towards women is often disparaged in current feminist thinking. He is most noted for his novels but composed somewhere in the region of 800 poems that are largely overlooked. His Piano is probably his most famous poem, being featured as a ‘Poem on the Underground’ and seen no doubt by millions for this very reason. It is indeed a classic of poetry, however, and has earned the right to be so widely seen. In three stanzas Lawrence conjures a sense of nostalgia and longing many writers are unable to summon over much longer works and with fewer words than many poets. His vocabulary in this poem is particularly rich with emotive and simple language creating an ephemeral effect akin to de ja vu. Strings are ‘tingling’ and ‘tinkling’, time and memory are constantly evoked with words like ‘vista of years’, ‘I see a child’, ‘manhood’, ‘flood of rememberance’ but a darkness, almost a negativity (a common feeling in his work), are also running in tandem with what could be seen as mere indulgent memories, words like ‘insidious’, ‘betrays’ and the singer is ‘vain’. Lawrence’s use of rhyme is interesting also; the rhyme words themselves are not of particular note but how they are used is. The technique ‘Enjambment’ is a much used but little understood tool in poetry. Enjambment is borrowed from the French meaning of ‘straddling’ or ‘bestride’ and in poetry refers to when the writer ends a line but not the sentence or, indeed, the meaning of a syntactic unit. The reason for using enjambment is often practical, if you are writing in a prescribed meter this will mean the sentence or ‘point’ you are making may not fit onto a single pentametric or heptametric line, say, therefore you ‘run on’ to the next line. The definition can be a little fuzzy as sentences in prose often ‘run on’ in this fashion (indeed are doing so in this very article), the difference being that in poetry, specifically Piano in this case, that often the end of a line, if this is your chosen mode, must rhyme so having a word in the centre of a sentence that must rhyme in the middle of another yet must end a line is somewhat counter intuitive to prose writing, one of the many differences and need for greater care and structure inherent in poetry compared with prose. Piano ably displays Lawrence’s knack for this technique, all but four lines utilise enjambment. One of the most common reasons for using enjambment is to ‘hide’ a rhyme or give a poem a more natural sense of sound, more like everyday speech and to disguise the rhythm. Lawrence is commonly described as one of the early Modernist writers and his frequent use of enjambment to disguise commonly held poetic norms of the time is good evidence for this. Enjambment is a very common device in modern poetry so when read aloud the poem can appear more natural and therefore more acceptable to those not well versed in poetry and its rhythms.

Lawrence’s adeptness with traditional poetic conventions is apparent in many of his other poems such as Snake, The Bride and Song (Love Has Crept into her Sealed Heart) yet he wrote many poems in free verse. Free verse with its disregard for meter, form and rhyme utilises, whether knowingly or not, enjambment frequently and is often confused with prose or criticised as prose with poetic intentions.

Most interesting and, again, overlooked is Lawrence’s use of repetition in Piano. The words ‘Child’, ‘Weep’ and ‘Piano’ are all repeated as well as the word ‘Sing’ but normally hidden amongst ‘Singing’, ‘Sings’ or ‘Singer’. Repetition, like rhyme is a powerful tool in poetry. Rhyme is described as a “chiming” creating music and a locking of sense between lines. A similar sense is achieved through repetition, an incredibly common occurrence in almost all poems.

One of poetry’s defining characteristics is its Form. Most people will define a poem simply by looking at it on a page and notice its similar line length and separation into stanzas, it is a poem because it looks like a poem. This is often true: A sonnet is a very common form traditionally consisting of fourteen lines and looks like a very pleasing ‘box’ of words on the page, particularly if it is written in a strict meter. However there are much more strict forms of poetry that are much older: The villanelle, pantoum, sestina, kyrielle and rondeau are all strict forms of poetry that base themselves on the repetition of a line, phrase or word. Many in current poetics dismiss these forms as merely word games or displays of ability with language. Poetry, however, relies on words taking on new meanings due to their position or association within a poem, unlike prose. As such, these forms of poetry can lend new meanings to words as they cycle within, say, a sestina’s unforgiving structure. A villanelle has been described as an ‘echo chamber for words’ which is a very apt description; words bouncing back at you without an intent or context can be disconcerting and cause you to question their origin and indeed their meaning. It is often remarked that if you are to read or repeat a word continually in a short period of time it seems odd or loses its meaning or sense altogether. The very structure of poetry seems to be aware of this, by repeating words it strips them of your preconceived idea about it or its connotations and by placing it within the narrative (or lack thereof) of a poem it lends it new meaning and creates an alternate sense or understanding in the reader.

Lawrence uses this in his poems to create a similar ‘chiming’ effect in the reader and results in the development of new connotations. What begins as dreamy fog of nostalgia in Piano quickly turns into a deep despair and frustration brought about by the music the listener is hearing. The remembered child were are left with at the end of the poem is a very different child than the one we are presented with at the beginning by the listener’s memory. This development of sense and meaning found in Lawrence’s poetry is apparent in his novel Women in Love.

Though not immediately apparent, Women in Love has a poetic structure and narrative that runs parallel to the overarching tale of the Brangwen sisters. This is most evidenced in, what I believe is, his clearly deliberate use of repetition. Whilst it is obvious words will often be repeated in a novel of this length, articles and such, many words are repeated throughout and create a singular meaning for each word by the novel’s close. The words repeated are almost all negative or have negative connotations. The words ‘ironic’, ‘conscious’, ‘sardonic’, ‘death’, ‘dark’, ‘love’ and ‘hate’ are the most obvious words that are repeated throughout the novel (a similar phenomenon referred to as a ‘constant’ in physics) to deliberately negate their original intended meanings and create in the reader an analytical eye toward them so that the four main characters and the relationships are equally reappraised. However, this is a very broad use of repetition to convey a new meaning and could easily be argued against or simply cited as smaller technique in Lawrence’s arsenal for an intended reading of Women in Love. Yet repetition is used much more frequently than this, to the point where mere poor editing or lack of a wider vocabulary becomes a much less valid argument.

It begins subtly on p16 with the repetition of ‘paroxysm’ at the top of the page and then the repeat of ‘invulnerable’ at the bottom of p17. This can easily be dismissed as merely being about paroxysms or invulnerability, say, but, this is not in isolation at its occurrence so early in the text is suggestive to say the least. On p18 the immediate repetition of ‘vulnerable’ and ‘triumphant’ after each use of each word is again cleverly hidden by the apparent stylistic choice of using the word once for purpose then again to define it but it is still apparent that this stylistic choice has been used twice on the same page. It is also interesting to note that if one were to broaden the definition of enjambment to a page (perhaps a Novel’s idea of a stanza) repeating the word ‘vulnerable’ after repeating ‘invulnerable’ on the previous page the meaning of ‘vulnerability’ is called into question, particularly when bookended with the repetition of ‘paroxysm’ and ‘triumphant’. For argument’s sake lets say this is mere coincidence and not attribute too much importance to this just yet.

At the top of p22 the word ‘common’ appears three times but is embellished from ‘common’ to ‘commonplace’ to ‘commonplaceness’. Then on p23 the phrase “One must discriminate” is spoken by Ursula then repeated by Gudrun. Again, perhaps a stylistic choice to embellish the sister’s relationship but still a definite repetition.

On p28 the word ‘accident’ is repeated no less than seven times in the same paragraph. This is clearly to confront the reader’s understanding of what an ‘accident’ is but casts a different colour when brought together with Lawrence’s previous repetitions within a single page. ‘Accidentally on purpose’ is then repeated twice in the same paragraph on p33.

Other repetitions occur over the next few pages but from chapter three, ‘Class-Room’, they become evident on an almost per page rate. P44 uses ‘animals’ no less than four times, then repeated multiple times on p45 along with ‘instinct’ and ‘intellectualism’. This is also the first example in the book of a true abstract argument on human nature and not simply class or society is brought up in the book. The repetition therein is all the more important as it is, in the same way as in poetry, stripping back a typical meaning of the word in the hope of giving it a new one or giving the reader pause to consider its meaning. This being one of the central themes of Women in Love can then only be deliberate given similar repetitions in previous chapters. P46 is a volley of repetition, ‘deliberate’, ‘consciousness’, ‘spontaneous’ and ‘sensuality’ are all repeated. ‘Darkness’ and ‘jeering’ are then repeated in quick succession after each use on p47. ‘Conceit’ is then repeated four or more times on p48.

This quickly becomes an almost page by page occurrence, examples of which become too numerous. Some could be considered accidental but the sheer weight of repeated words soon becomes noticeable even to the casual reader and, thus, its meaning all the more loaded. This develops later in the book as a sense is then often repeated within a chapter. The chapter ‘Moony’ being particularly profound in this regard. Along with the usual repetition of certain words per page, ‘contemptuous’ repeated three times on p275, ‘repuditation’ repeated on p276, ‘perfectly’ on p277, etc and the constant use of the word ‘Moon’ throughout the chapter, there is a repetition of action but in a more metaphorical sense that becomes apparent. The chapter sees Birkin walking by the lake and seeing the Moon’s reflection in it in a perfect (a repeat word), unblemished mirror image, he desires to destroy this perfect rendition of the white orb so begins to hurl stones into the lake to disrupt the surface and cause the serene picture to dislocate and fracture. He later in the chapter goes to the Brangwen home to ask for Ursula’s hand in marriage but in such a dreadful manner he dissuades both her father and Ursula herself from the idea. Birkin’s actions are very much the metaphorical ‘stone in the lake’ of societal norms. He does the correct action of the time by asking the father before the daughter but does it in such a systematically destructive way he literally breaks apart what is expected of a suitor and his actions, further compounded by the debacle of asking Ursula herself who does not give an answer. He feigns an air of indifference as he leaves the peace of the family shattered by this proposal allowing the ‘water to return to normal’ after his departure.

This ‘Repetition of Sense’ is equally repeated by chapter, the action or sense that is to be repeated normally summed up in the chapter’s title. The following chapters ‘Gladitorial’ and ‘Threshold’ dealing with very literal interpretations of the title but a repeated metaphorical sense underneath. One can, if one were so inclined, begin to see the repetition of action by chapter. ‘Woman to Woman’ can quite easily be seen as a repeat of the sense of ‘Gladiatorial’ in that Ursula is understood to be duelling with Hermione.

The most obvious display of this similarity to poetry and the argument for a poetic narrative by Lawrence is as the novel draws to a close. In a sestina, there is an envoi which is a shorter stanza than the rest and must use the end words of the previous stanzas in a shorter space, thus concentrating the meaning of the poem and the new meaning given to the repeated words. A similar idea can be seen toward the end of Women in Love in two of the epic closing chapters ‘Continental’ and ‘Snowed Up’ in particular.

Continental’ begins with a dense barrage of repeated words, most that follow one another directly. ‘Soon’, ‘vague’, ‘smaller’, ‘folded’ and ‘nearer’ on p436 are all repeated within words of one another. The repetition of some of the ‘constant words’ is also apparent and much more frequent in these last chapters: ‘dark’ and ‘conscious’ recurring with immediate effect upon ‘Continental’s opening. These instances of repetition become much more frequent than previously. Lawrence is initially quite subtle with his repeat words, fashioning more of a subtle undercurrent of new meaning with each repeated use but as the repetitions become tighter, i.e. within the same paragraph, they equally become more frequent and more noticeable, echoing that idea of repeating a word over and over until it looks strange and unfamiliar. Lawrence’s sudden and excited re-use of words in these chapters can only be akin to a narrowing of his own meaning for these words or this ‘sense’ he is trying to create around the relationships of the characters and the various subplots of industrialisation and the human consciousness and instinct. His repeated queries into what is expected and accepted of a male and female, male and male and female and female relationship is repeated itself in his repetition of the words he uses to define these relationships and their stigmas.

The rhythm of the novel has also gone from short vignette-like scenes through to a much longer and grander appraisal of the four characters situation and even places them in a much grander setting, Lawrence utilising the technique of pathetic fallacy to reflect the internal goings on of the character’s relationships. Yet despite the textual and narrative scope suddenly widening in these chapters the syntax and vocabulary definitely narrows. The chapter ‘Snowed Up’, towards the end, gives the most evidence yet that there is forethought in this use of repeat words and ‘constant words’. ‘Desire’, ‘unconscious’ and ‘conscious’ are repeated in swift succession towards the chapter’s end as Gerald becomes violent and then suicidal, evidenced at the bottom of p530 with repeats of ‘desire’ and p531 with multiple repeats of ‘conscious’ in somewhat alarming conjunction with repetitions of ‘nausea’. The final and most obvious use of this technique is in the very last line of the book that seems to encapsulate what the book as a whole is about and what Lawrence himself believed in all the topics he analyses in the novel. Birkin, a self-confessed self-portrait of Lawrence, has the last line of the book and it is a repetition and refutation of a phrase and question given to him by his now wife Ursula: “I don’t believe that”. Taking into account the ‘constant words’ that are repeated throughout the story and the merely passing words that are repeated page to page in addition to this repetition of action and sense within chapters that begins to emerge under analysis, this final phrase, which itself is a repeat, is a call to question all that has been under discussion. Lawrence himself posits that he ‘doesn’t believe it’. The conventions and long held beliefs of an age have been swept away after a world war and the country left to redevelop and get back to its feet, trying to recreate itself in a previous image, an endeavour we know with the benefit of hindsight is doomed to failure with the coming of another world war but that Lawrence is already arguing against. Lawrence, through Birkin, is constantly arguing for a new look at old outmoded ideas on which we found not only our industry but our relationships and personal development. Birkin changes his desires, wants and needs throughout the book but continually asks for a reappraisal from either his friends or his lover, Lawrence demands this from the reader as well but much more subtly.

Readers by this period were much better analysts and far more used to deconstructing the idealogies of a given text and either accepting or disregarding it. Modernism, as it latterly became known, was an absorption of older texts and forms and a restructuring thereof as seen in the work of, now recognised ‘Modernist’, writers such as TS Eliot and James Joyce. Women in Love is a prime example of this idealogy in that the characters are constantly reassessing their relationships with each other and the world but most importantly and intriguingly Lawrence is doing that with the reader through this use of repetition. He confronts you with the given words, their meanings and their connotations and demands you analyse them, demands you reassess your own understanding of a given word. In the final line of the novel he culminates his overriding theme of the book both literally and metaphorically. His character does not believe, Lawrence does not believe and, through culmination of these repeated words now stripped of their traditional meaning through constant overuse, asks you not to believe too.

The real question this view of Women in Love asks is: Though it is clearly present, is the repetition intentional?

Repetition is inherent in language and particularly prose. Due to its length and normally the fact a novel or essay, etc, is on a given topic and set in a given arena, repetition is natural and unavoidable. Many writers of fiction and non-fiction do go out of their way to ensure they do not repeat themselves and often see it as a fault if a word is repeated in the same paragraph and it is commonly accepted wisdom when writing anything to never repeat a word within a sentence. This convention was even more prevalent at the time of Lawrence writing Women in Love. As such, I would argue this repetition is intentional.

The argument can be made purely from the sheer weight of repeated repetition throughout the book. The examples given above in this article are paltry and few, examples of words repeating themselves are evidenced on every page of Women in Love. It could be argued that names and words such as ‘you’, ‘at’, ‘a’ and ‘the’ are repeated frequently, which indeed they are, but the examples given and examples that can be further investigated page by page are normally much more complex adjectives or nouns that are not commonly repeated even in a novel about the given words. It could also be argued that the examples given of ‘constant words’ would naturally be repeated as this is essentially the topic of the novel which, again, is also true but considering they are not only spread throughout the novel but repeated within paragraphs and then focussed into being repeated in the same sentences by the end to ‘chime’ their meaning and force your awareness of them, this cannot be an accident. These words recur with such frequency and that frequency itself is so recurrent.

Another argument could be: Is this use of repetition conscious?

As stated earlier, analysing his poem Piano is a clear indicator of Lawrence’s poetic ability and understanding so the effort required to write, rewrite and edit a novel would void any possibility that he was unconscious of this frequent and accumulatively very apparent re-use of words. Lawrence is also noted as believing in spontaneity in writing which could also be seen as an argument for unintentional repetition as, naturally, human beings repeat themselves in natural speech when discussing. However, Lawrence himself reveals his awareness of this natural mode of speech and his subversion of it in Piano. The use of enjambment that uses rhyme words in that poem shows a very clear awareness of construct and the use of artifice to falsify natural speech whilst maintaining a clear poetic structure and diction. Saying this repetition is unconscious or not deliberate is doing a great disservice not merely to Women in Love but Lawrence’s writing as a whole by intimating he does not understand literature and, worst of all, his own writing. Not only this, any good copy editor would enquire as to why this constant repetition was necessary.

Most convincingly for me, however, is that it feels correct and intentional. Lawrence wants to create the same dreamy, rolling, naturalistic writing he achieves in his poetry and so utilises the most subtle of poetic techniques: Rhyme is too obvious and jarring within prose, he wishes to write a novel so could not write in a poetic form, meter would be too obvious and could belittle the text and his argument but repetition, as the great orators of history know, is a powerful tool to reestablish a message and cement an argument. Not only this but as poets for centuries have been aware, the human ear’s sensitivity to our strange noises and scribblings we define as language is the way we develop and evolve most and quickest. Anyone can hear or read any language, whether they understand it or not, and ascertain a repeated word or phrase simply because we can recall it, repeat it often enough while pointing at a given object and we realise the word ‘Livre’ means Book in French. Repetition gives all words their meaning and it is apparent Lawrence, a keen essayist and literary critic himself, is aware of this. His sensitivity to language should not be in doubt given his body of work and particularly given the current view of Lady Chatterly’s Lover as a modern classic despite and indeed because of its use of foul language which to modern ears (ironically through repetition) is no longer as offensive. This understanding of form, structure, technique and words themselves is as strong an argument as the fact that by the end of Women in Love you have already confronted your perceptions of love, death, society and relationships, something other authors of the time either struggled to actualise or did so in a much less subtle fashion.

What I hope this proves is that there is very clearly a use of repetition in Women in Love that is not only clear but perhaps even overt. Acknowledging this illuminates the fact Lawrence knew his craft well and understood the conventions of both poetry and prose, therefore the use of this technique is of profound importance to the text and its ability to effect the reader. Whether this effect was intentional or conscious is in fact the smallest part of the point. If it was intentional and conscious it is proof of the fact Lawrence was an extremely adroit writer with an eye for a metatextual narrative and techniques more so than may have previously been considered but even if these choices were purely accidental or not conscious, the fact this use of repetition and its effect is most certainly within the text would mean Lawrence was the most naturally gifted writer of the age to have written a novel with such a deep subtextual technique that carries throughout the whole book. The fact remains whether conscious or unconscious (two of the oft repeated ‘constant words’ in Women in Love) Lawrence’s ability and skill with the written word was masterly and much underestimated in his time. These skills which were only being incorporated later in the century and have only become the norm in the last twenty years, Lawrence was using to great effect at a time of significant cultural upheaval. Most significantly and pertinently is how this impacts on us as readers today. The themes in Women in Love of questioning long held beliefs by society on the most important topics: Industrialisation, Class, Love, Death, Instinct and who we are is as poignant today as they were nearly a hundred years ago. With clashes in class and society evidenced by recent riots, disparities in the financial sectors still very much present in the recent economic crisis and most importantly, with the all permeating world of online social networking, how human beings relate to one another, Lawrence’s novel and his truly devastating technique for getting us to reassess our understanding of and, by its end, hoping for a dismissal of the world’s purported ‘norms’ is as prescient as ever. Controversial upon its release, Women in Love is as unsettling today as it was after one of the most titanic shifts of society in history and this is, in large part, due to Lawrence’s skill as a writer born out of his understanding of language that comes equally from his career as a writer of prose as it does from his life as a poet, these two distinct and separate skills that he blends masterfully in this novel to create an otherworldly atmosphere that is immediately engrossing and challenging. By confronting us with the repetitions in life and its monotony Lawrence challenges us to find something new in ourselves and makes us demand a similar quality from our art. As David Herbert himself once said: “But better die than live mechanically a life that is a repetition of repetitions.”