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David Herbert Lawrence - Tortoises

: David Herbert Lawrence "Tortoises".


You know what it is to be born alone,
Baby tortoise!
The first day to heave your feet little by little
from the shell,
Not yet awake,
And remain lapsed on earth,
Not quite alive.

A tiny, fragile, half-animate bean.

To open your tiny beak-mouth, that looks as if
it would never open,
Like some iron door;
To lift the upper hawk-beak from the lower base
And reach your skinny little neck
And take your first bite at some dim bit of
Alone, small insect,
Tiny bright-eye,
Slow one.

To take your first solitary bite
And move on your slow, solitary hunt.
Your bright, dark little eye,
Your eye of a dark disturbed night,
Under its slow lid, tiny baby tortoise,
So indomitable.

No one ever heard you complain.

You draw your head forward, slowly, from your
little wimple
And set forward, slow-dragging, on your four-
pinned toes,
Rowing slowly forward.
Whither away, small bird?

Rather like a baby working its limbs,
Except that you make slow, ageless progress
And a baby makes none.

The touch of sun excites you,
And the long ages, and the lingering chill
Make you pause to yawn,
Opening your impervious mouth,
Suddenly beak-shaped, and very wide, like some
suddenly gaping pincers;
Soft red tongue, and hard thin gums,
Then close the wedge of your little mountain
Your face, baby tortoise.

Do you wonder at the world, as slowly you turn
your head in its wimple
And look with laconic, black eyes?
Or is sleep coming over you again,
The non-life?

You are so hard to wake.

Are you able to wonder?

Or is it just your indomitable will and pride of
the first life
Looking round
And slowly pitching itself against the inertia
Which had seemed invincible?

The vast inanimate,
And the fine brilliance of your so tiny eye.


Nay, tiny shell-bird,
What a huge vast inanimate it is, that you must
row against,
What an incalculable inertia.


Little Ulysses, fore-runner,
No bigger than my thumb-nail,
Buon viaggio.

All animate creation on your shoulder,
Set forth, little Titan, under your battle-shield.

The ponderous, preponderate,
Inanimate universe;
And you are slowly moving, pioneer, you alone.

How vivid your travelling seems now, in the
troubled sunshine,
Stoic, Ulyssean atom;
Suddenly hasty, reckless, on high toes.

Voiceless little bird,
Resting your head half out of your wimple
In the slow dignity of your eternal pause.
Alone, with no sense of being alone,
And hence six times more solitary;
Fulfilled of the slow passion of pitching through
immemorial ages
Your little round house in the midst of chaos.

Over the garden earth,
Small bird,
Over the edge of all things.

With your tail tucked a little on one side
Like a gentleman in a long-skirted coat.

All life carried on your shoulder,
Invincible fore-runner.

The Cross, the Cross
Goes deeper in than we know,
Deeper into life;
Right into the marrow
And through the bone.



Along the back of the baby tortoise
The scales are locked in an arch like a bridge,
Scale-lapping, like a lobster's sections
Or a bee's.

Then crossways down his sides
Tiger-stripes and wasp-bands.
Five, and five again, and five again,
And round the edges twenty-five little ones,
The sections of the baby tortoise shell.

Four, and a keystone;
Four, and a keystone;
Four, and a keystone;
Then twenty-four, and a tiny little keystone.

It needed Pythagoras to see life placing her
counters on the living back
Of the baby tortoise;
Life establishing the first eternal mathematical
Not in stone, like the Judean Lord, or bronze, but
in life-clouded, life-rosy tortoise-shell.

The first little mathematical gentleman
Stepping, wee mite, in his loose trousers
Under all the eternal dome of mathematical law.

Fives, and tens,
Threes and fours and twelves,
All the volte face of decimals,
The whirligig of dozens and the pinnacle of seven,
Turn him on his back,
The kicking little beetle,
And there again, on his shell-tender, earth-touching
The long cleavage of division, upright of the
eternal cross.

And on either side count five,
On each side, two above, on each side, two below
The dark bar horizontal.

It goes right through him, the sprottling insect,
Through his cross-wise cloven psyche,
Through his five-fold complex-nature.

So turn him over on his toes again;
Four pin-point toes, and a problematical thumb-

Four rowing limbs, and one wedge-balancing-

Four and one makes five, which is the clue to all

The Lord wrote it all down on the little slate
Of the baby tortoise.

Outward and visible indication of the plan within,
The complex, manifold involvedness of an
individual creature
Blotted out
On this small bird, this rudiment,
This little dome, this pediment
Of all creation,
This slow one.



On he goes, the little one,
Bud of the universe,
Pediment of life.

Setting off somewhere, apparently.
Whither away, brisk egg?

His mother deposited him on the soil as if he were
no more than droppings,
And now he scuffles tinily past her as if she were
an old rusty tin.

A mere obstacle,
He veers round the slow great mound of her.

Tortoises always foresee obstacles.

It is no use my saying to him in an emotional
"This is your Mother, she laid you when you were
an egg."

He does not even trouble to answer: "Woman,
what have I to do with thee?"
He wearily looks the other way,
And she even more wearily looks another way
Each with the utmost apathy,

As for papa,
He snaps when I offer him his offspring,
Just as he snaps when I poke a bit of stick at him,
Because he is irascible this morning, an irascible
Being touched with love, and devoid of

Father and mother,
And three little brothers,
And all rambling aimless, like little perambulating
pebbles scattered in the garden,
Not knowing each other from bits of earth or old

Except that papa and mama are old acquaintances,
of course,
But family feeling there is none, not even the

Fatherless, motherless, brotherless, sisterless
Little tortoise.

Row on then, small pebble,
Over the clods of the autumn, wind-chilled
Young gayety.

Does he look for a companion?
No, no, don't think it.
He doesn't know he is alone;
Isolation is his birthright,
This atom.

To row forward, and reach himself tall on spiny
To travel, to burrow into a little loose earth,
afraid of the night,
To crop a little substance,
To move, and to be quite sure that he is moving:

To be a tortoise!
Think of it, in a garden of inert clods
A brisk, brindled little tortoise, all to himself--

In a garden of pebbles and insects
To roam, and feel the slow heart beat
Tortoise-wise, the first bell sounding
From the warm blood, in the dark-creation

Moving, and being himself,
Slow, and unquestioned,
And inordinately there, O stoic!
Wandering in the slow triumph of his own
Ringing the soundless bell of his presence in
And biting the frail grass arrogantly,
Decidedly arrogantly.



She is large and matronly
And rather dirty,
A little sardonic-looking, as if domesticity had
driven her to it.

Though what she does, except lay four eggs at
random in the garden once a year
And put up with her husband,
I don't know.

She likes to eat.

She hurries up, striding reared on long uncanny
When food is going.
Oh yes, she can make haste when she likes.

She snaps the soft bread from my hand in great
Opening her rather pretty wedge of an iron,
pristine face
Into an enormously wide-beaked mouth
Like sudden curved scissors,
And gulping at more than she can swallow, and
working her thick, soft tongue,
And having the bread hanging over her chin.

O Mistress, Mistress,
Reptile mistress,
Your eye is very dark, very bright,
And it never softens
Although you watch.

She knows,
She knows well enough to come for food,
Yet she sees me not;
Her bright eye sees, but not me, not anything,
Sightful, sightless, seeing and visionless,
Reptile mistress.

Taking bread in her curved, gaping, toothless
She has no qualm when she catches my finger in
her steel overlapping gums,
But she hangs on, and my shout and my shrinking
are nothing to her,
She does not even know she is nipping me with
her curved beak.
Snake-like she draws at my finger, while I drag
it in horror away.

Mistress, reptile mistress,
You are almost too large, I am almost frightened.
He is much smaller,
Dapper beside her,
And ridiculously small.

Her laconic eye has an earthy, materialistic look,
His, poor darling, is almost fiery.

His wimple, his blunt-prowed face,
His low forehead, his skinny neck, his long,
scaled, striving legs,
So striving, striving,
Are all more delicate than she,
And he has a cruel scar on his shell.

Poor darling, biting at her feet,
Running beside her like a dog, biting her earthy,
splay feet,
Nipping her ankles,
Which she drags apathetic away, though without
retreating into her shell.

Agelessly silent,
And with a grim, reptile determination,
Cold, voiceless age-after-age behind him,
serpents' long obstinacy
Of horizontal persistence.

Little old man
Scuffling beside her, bending down, catching his
Parting his steel-trap face, so suddenly, and
seizing her scaly ankle,
And hanging grimly on,
Letting go at last as she drags away,
And closing his steel-trap face.

His steel-trap, stoic, ageless, handsome face.
Alas, what a fool he looks in this scuffle.

And how he feels it!

The lonely rambler, the stoic, dignified stalker
through chaos,
The immune, the animate,
Enveloped in isolation,
Now look at him!

Alas, the spear is through the side of his isolation.
His adolescence saw him crucified into sex,
Doomed, in the long crucifixion of desire, to seek
his consummation beyond himself.
Divided into passionate duality,
He, so finished and immune, now broken into
desirous fragmentariness,
Doomed to make an intolerable fool of himself
In his effort toward completion again.

Poor little earthy house-inhabiting Osiris,
The mysterious bull tore him at adolescence into
And he must struggle after reconstruction,

And so behold him following the tail
Of that mud-hovel of his slowly-rambling spouse,
Like some unhappy bull at the tail of a cow,
But with more than bovine, grim, earth-dank
Suddenly seizing the ugly ankle as she stretches
out to walk,
Roaming over the sods,
Or, if it happen to show, at her pointed, heavy tail
Beneath the low-dropping back-board of her shell.

Their two shells like doomed boats bumping,
Hers huge, his small;
Their splay feet rambling and rowing like
And stumbling mixed up in one another,
In the race of love--
Two tortoises,
She huge, he small.

She seems earthily apathetic,
And he has a reptile's awful persistence.

I heard a woman pitying her, pitying the Mre
While I, I pity Monsieur.
"He pesters her and torments her," said the
How much more is _he_ pestered and tormented,
say I.

What can he do?
He is dumb, he is visionless,

His black, sad-lidded eye sees but beholds not
As her earthen mound moves on,
But he catches the folds of vulnerable, leathery
Nail-studded, that shake beneath her shell,
And drags at these with his beak,
Drags and drags and bites,
While she pulls herself free, and rows her dull
mound along.



Making his advances
He does not look at her, nor sniff at her,
No, not even sniff at her, his nose is blank.

Only he senses the vulnerable folds of skin
That work beneath her while she sprawls along
In her ungainly pace,
Her folds of skin that work and row
Beneath the earth-soiled hovel in which she

And so he strains beneath her housey walls
And catches her trouser-legs in his beak
Suddenly, or her skinny limb,
And strange and grimly drags at her
Like a dog,
Only agelessly silent, with a reptile's awful

Grim, gruesome gallantry, to which he is doomed.
Dragged out of an eternity of silent isolation
And doomed to partiality, partial being,
Ache, and want of being,
Self-exposure, hard humiliation, need to add
himself on to her.

Born to walk alone,
Now suddenly distracted into this mazy
This awkward, harrowing pursuit,
This grim necessity from within.

Does she know
As she moves eternally slowly away?
Or is he driven against her with a bang, like a bird
flying in the dark against a window,
All knowledgeless?

The awful concussion,
And the still more awful need to persist, to follow,
follow, continue,
Driven, after aeons of pristine, fore-god-like
singleness and oneness,
At the end of some mysterious, red-hot iron,
Driven away from himself into her tracks,
Forced to crash against her.

Stiff, gallant, irascible, crook-legged reptile,
Little gentleman,
Sorry plight,
We ought to look the other way.

Save that, having come with you so far,
We will go on to the end. J



I thought he was dumb,
I said he was dumb,
Yet I've heard him cry.

First faint scream,
Out of life's unfathomable dawn,
Far off, so far, like a madness, under the horizon's
dawning rim,
Far, far off, far scream.

Tortoise _in extremis_.

Why were we crucified into sex?

Why were we not left rounded off, and finished
in ourselves,
As we began,
As he certainly began, so perfectly alone?

A far, was-it-audible scream,
Or did it sound on the plasm direct?

Worse than the cry of the new-born,
A scream,
A yell,
A shout,
A pan,
A death-agony,
A birth-cry,
A submission,
All tiny, tiny, far away, reptile under the first

War-cry, triumph, acute-delight, death-scream
Why was the veil torn?

The silken shriek of the soul's torn membrane?
The male soul's membrane
Torn with a shriek half music, half horror.


Male tortoise, cleaving behind the hovel-wall of
that dense female,
Mounted and tense, spread-eagle, out-reaching
out of the shell
In tortoise-nakedness,
Long neck, and long vulnerable limbs extruded,
spread-eagle over her house-roof,
And the deep, secret, all-penetrating tail curved
beneath her walls,
Reaching and gripping tense, more reaching
anguish in uttermost tension
Till suddenly, in the spasm of coition, tupping
like a jerking leap, and oh!
Opening its clenched face from his outstretched
And giving that fragile yell, that scream,
From his pink, cleft, old-man's mouth,
Giving up the ghost,
Or screaming in Pentecost, receiving the ghost.

His scream, and his moment's subsidence,
The moment of eternal silence,
Yet unreleased, and after the moment, the
sudden, startling jerk of coition, and at once
The inexpressible faint yell--
And so on, till the last plasm of my body was
melted back
To the primeval rudiments of life, and the secret.

So he tups, and screams
Time after time that frail, torn scream
After each jerk, the longish interval,
The tortoise eternity,
Agelong, reptilian persistence,
Heart-throb, slow heart-throb, persistent for the
next spasm.

I remember, when I was a boy,
I heard the scream of a frog, which was caught
with his foot in the mouth of an up-starting
I remember when I first heard bull-frogs break
into sound in the spring;
I remember hearing a wild goose out of the throat
of night
Cry loudly, beyond the lake of waters;
I remember the first time, out of a bush in the
darkness, a nightingale's piercing cries and
gurgles startled the depths of my soul;
I remember the scream of a rabbit as I went
through a wood at midnight;
I remember the heifer in her heat, blorting and
blorting through the hours, persistent and
I remember my first terror hearing the howl of
weird, amorous cats;
I remember the scream of a terrified, injured
horse, the sheet-lightning
And running away from the sound of a woman in
labor, something like an owl whooing,
And listening inwardly to the first bleat of a
The first wail of an infant,
And my mother singing to herself,
And the first tenor singing of the passionate
throat of a young collier, who has long since
drunk himself to death,
The first elements of foreign speech
On wild dark lips.

And more than all these,
And less than all these,
This last,
Strange, faint coition yell
Of the male tortoise at extremity,
Tiny from under the very edge of the farthest
far-off horizon of life.

The cross,
The wheel on which our silence first is broken,
Sex, which breaks up our integrity, our single
inviolability, our deep silence
Tearing a cry from us.

Sex, which breaks us into voice, sets us calling
across the deeps, calling, calling for the
Singing, and calling, and singing again, being
answered, having found.

Torn, to become whole again, after long seeking
for what is lost,
The same cry from the tortoise as from Christ,
the Osiris-cry of abandonment,
That which is whole, torn asunder,
That which is in part, finding its whole again
throughout the universe.

David Herbert Lawrence Tortoises
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