The swooning obstructiveness of Lawrence’s style in The Rainbow

James Wood, in the Guardian, writing about the “swooning obstructiveness of [Lawrence's] style” in The Rainbow:

Repetition, so often misunderstood, is a good test-case of how Lawrence strives to capture the trembling stream of existence. Take this description of a hen on the Brangwen farm:

A grey hen appeared stepping swiftly in the doorway, pecking, and the light through her comb and her wattles made an oriflamme tossed here and there, as she went, her grey body was like a ghost.

Here, "grey" is repeated in the same sentence. And there is the peculiar little comma-enforced hiccup between "here and there" and "as she went", and the run-on of "her grey body was like a ghost". All in all, a grammarian's nightmare. But surely the repetition, the run-on and the rhythmic jumpiness are all related: the hen is passing by our eyes, is on the move, and the prose is adjusting itself to the hen's movement - first a grey hen (our first sighting); and then the light though her comb and wattles making a flaming banner (our more delighted viewing as the now-golden hen moves past us); and then the hen seen moving away, now no longer in the sun, its body merely grey once again - and not merely grey, but especially grey when compared to the remembered radiance of the comb and wattles (hence not just a grey hen, but now a "grey ghost"). So the word "grey" has changed its meaning in the course of the sentence: the second "grey" is not the same as the first; the word is the same, but the meaning is not.

I add to the above my deconstructon, using non-traditional grammar, systemic grammar:

There are three sentences, structured as S – Subject, P – Predicate, the first without C- Complement, the other two with it, inside this one long one, discounting all the subordinate ones.

(1) A … hen appeared

(2) the light … made an oriflamme

(3) her grey body was like a ghost

For (1), adding “stepping swiftly in the doorway”, Lawrence could be utilizing a similar syntax as one would write “he went running into the hills”. This can be parsed as: Noun-Verb-Verb-Adjunct; in Lawrence’s case, with an extra adjunct: Verb-Verb-Adjunct-Adjunct.

On the other hand that part of Lawrence’s sentence could also be interpreted another way, as though he deliberately omitted the comma after “appeared”, if he meant to structure it as: Main | Sub:

The reason I could surmise from this is, without the comma there we do not have to pause before reading “stepping …”, because the hen stepped out into the doorway with such speed.

Then (1) is tagged on a subordinate, with “pecking”, added with a comma, giving the hen pause as she goes about pecking for food.

There is also something similar in (2) with “tossed here and there”. This group qualifies “oriflamme” without a comma, giving an effect also of swiftness in movement. The hen is moving her comb and wattles so fast that Lawrence changed the subject so that we now see only the “light”.

“as she went” could belong either in (2) or (3):

(4) the light … made an oriflamme … , as she went ….


(5) … as she went, her grey body was like a ghost.

As again, the hen is moving so fast that instead of a full-stop to mark a long pause at either after (4) or before (5), as an ending to (1) and (2), both co-joined by “and”, Lawrence used a comma, which offers a shorter pause. The comma also effects a swift transition from the “light” to the hen, seen only as a “grey body” or “ghost”, her colour now gone, finally a grey blur, as she disappears, or moves quickly, away or out, from the scene.


  1. Madcap Machinist says


    What a beautiful sentence!

    On my screen the line serendipitiously breaks off between here / and there and I was stunned by the unintentional effect it had.

    The article in the Guardian is very interesting too. I'm glad you caught this.

    This will make a great post on PP as I think that by itself the sentence is pure poetry and the insight you are giving on the its construction is very practicable.


    Leon Wing says

    Yes, isn't it beautiful indeed. Lawrence has this knack of forging lines like this in all his works, by manipulating syntax. Like Woolf in The Lighthouse, he sometimes also used poetical elements, like alliteration and rhyming, to bring forth some effect. You can find such lines in The Chrysanthemum. And in Women in Love he makes use of parallellisms a lot.

    Should I post this posting on PP, you think? It's not really about a poem. But like you said, the line is pure poetry.

    Madcap Machinist says

    I'm beginning to appreciate how grammar operates within poetry and this sentence could have been in any of Lawrence's poems. I was a little surprised to read that it was from a novel.

    Now I'm feeling sorry for myself for missing his work--I haven't been interested enough from the summaries I read of his books--so today I went to Border's and bought Women in Love (as well as Jack Kerouac's On The Road).

    Leon Wing says

    Wait a month or more, Borders might have new editions of The Rainbow and two others. If you want to read Lawrence as ebooks, I have almost all of them. Btw, have you also read Conrad? He could do grammatical sleight of hand very well. Check out his Secret Agent.

    Madcap Machinist says

    Conrad is very interesting, though when I read him I wasn't paying attention to his grammar. Read Secret Agent a few years ago... now that I'm reminded of it I think I want to read it again... never got around to reading Heart of Darkness on my TBR list though. :-\

    Wong Yoke Hin Nicholas says

    yep i agree with MM that you should post this one on PP. =D

    Kenny Mah says

    Hey Leon!

    Great meeting you last nite! Glad to know you are still actively posting/blogging, just not on a regular schedule. No worries, will check back here more often then. ;)

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