The Rainbow

Upon graduating college at 22 with a degree in letters, I promptly went to work reading all of the other things that I had wanted to read, besides novels and poetry, in those four years: journalistic accounts of China (Peter Hessler and Seth Faison); histories of medieval and early modern medicine (Jacques le Goff, Caroline Walker Bynum); Buddhist texts (Charlotte Joko Beck, Thich Nhat Hanh); and long essayistic accounts of American food (Michael Pollan, Gary Paul Nabhan). I have felt a real desire for non-fiction in these years after college -- longing, perhaps, for writing that I can sink my teeth into, for words that have a correspondence in the world beyond.

But now, as I pass my days examining scientific articles, and spend my words on edits, and charts, and summaries, I wish for something less impartial or objective: I want interpretation. I want the subjective, the voice of one.

I am listening to a Librivox recording of D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow; it accompanied me in my travels during the last few days, as I traversed New England by bus and automobile and, this afternoon, returned home to New York.

There must be so many examples, in literature, of the structure of human relationships: the words that make us whole, or the bonds that press too tightly, or forthright passion and regard for the other. Before psychotherapy, humans found ways to heal one another; they saw what was "good" in their communion and labeled it as such. In the early years of the last century a few writers, like Lawrence (and Proust and H. James and Joyce as well), sketched out these intimate moments, before psychological notions like Winnicott's "good enough mother" or Bowlby's "attachment theory" laid them bare, operationalized and stiff.

There is a passage in The Rainbow, in the early chapters of the book, that is so beautiful and true to life in its portrayal of a stepfather gaining the trust of his stepdaughter, that I must include it here. How much Lawrence understood of what goes on between two people! --and of childhood, and absurd jealousies, and the smallest of gestures that prove love! The social sciences are not nearly so eloquent in their depictions of family relationships; I wish that passages like the following might stand alongside flow-charts and diagrams, as earlier, but no less valid, efforts to explain human anguish and redemption.

The protagonist of the segment in question is Tom Brangwen, a yeoman farmer in 19th-century Nottinghamshire. In this passage his wife, of Polish origin, is in labor with their first child, attended by a midwife in the upstairs of their home. Her daughter from her previous marriage, Anna Lensky, is a skittish, fretful child who is beside herself with grief over her temporary separation from her mother.


He set the child on his knee, and sat again in his chair beside the fire, the wet, sobbing, inarticulate noise going on near his ear, the child sitting stiff, not yielding to him or anything, not aware. A new degree of anger came over him. What did it all matter? What did it matter if the mother talked Polish and cried in labour, if this child were stiff with resistance, and crying? Why take it to heart? Let the mother cry in labour, let the child cry in resistance, since they would do so. Why should he fight against it, why resist? Let it be, if it were so. Let them be as they were, if they insisted.

And in a daze he sat, offering no fight. The child cried on, the minutes ticked away, a sort of torpor was on him.

It was some little time before he came to, and turned to attend to the child. He was shocked by her little wet, blinded face. A bit dazed, he pushed back the wet hair. Like a living statue of grief, her blind face cried on.

"Nay," he said, "not as bad as that. It's not as bad as that, Anna, my child. Come, what are you crying for so much? Come, stop now, it'll make you sick. I wipe you dry, don't wet your face any more. Don't cry any more wet tears, don't. It's better not to. Don't cry--it's not so bad as all that. Hush now, hush--let it be enough."

His voice was queer and distant and calm. He looked at the child. She was beside herself now. He wanted her to stop, he wanted it all to stop, to become natural.

"Come," he said, rising to turn away, "we'll go an' supper-up the beast."

He took a big shawl, folded her round, and went out into the kitchen for a lantern.

"You're never taking the child out, of a night like this," said Tilly [the servant].

"Ay, it'll quieten her," he answered.

It was raining. the child was suddenly still, shocked, finding the rain on its face, the darkness.

"We'll just give the cows their something-to-eat, afore they go to bed," Brangwen was saying to her, holding her close and sure.

There was a trickling of water into the butt, a burst of rain-drops sputtering on to her shawl, and the light of the lantern swinging, flashing on a wet pavement and the base of a wet wall. Otherwise it was black darkness: one breathed darkness.

He opened the door, upper and lower, and they entered into the high, dry barn, that smelled warm even if it were not warm. He hung the lantern on the nail and shut the door. They were in another world now. The light shed softly on the timbered barn, on the whitewashed walls, and the great heap of hay; instruments cast their shadows largely, a ladder rose to the dark arch of a loft. Outside there was the driving rain, inside, the softly-illuminated stillness and calmness of the barn.

Holding the child on one arm, he set about preparing the food for the cows, filling a pan with chopped hay and brewer's grains and a little meal. The child, all wonder, watched what he did. A new being was created in her for the new conditions. Sometimes, a little spasm, eddying from the bygone storm of sobbing, shook her small body. Her eyes were wide and wondering, pathetic. She was silent, quite still.

In a sort of dream, his heart sunk to the bottom, leaving the surface of him still, quite still, he rose with the panful of food, carefully balancing the child on one arm, the pan in the other hand. The silky fringe of the shawl swayed softly, grains and hay trickled to the floor; he went along a dimly-lit passage behind the mangers, where the horns of the cows pricked out of the obscurity. The child shrank, he balanced stiffly, rested the pan on the manger wall, and tipped out the food, half to this cow, half to the next. There was a noise of chains running, as the cows lifted or dropped their heads sharply, then a contented, soothing sound, a long snuffing as the beasts ate in silence.

The journey had to be performed several times. There was the rhythmic sound of the shovel in the barn, then the man returned walking stiffly between the two weights, the face of the child peering out from the shawl. Then the next time, as he stooped, she freed her arm and put it round his neck, clinging soft and warm, making all easier.

The beasts fed, he dropped the pan and sat down on a box, to arrange the child.

"Will the cows go to sleep now?" she said, catching her breath as she spoke.


"Will they eat all their stuff up first?"

"Yes. Hark at them."

And the two sat still listening to the snuffing and breathing of cows feeding in the sheds communicating with this small barn. The lantern shed a soft, steady light from one wall. All outside was still in the rain. He looked down at the silky folds of the paisley shawl. It reminded him of his mother. She used to go to church in it. He was back again in the old irresponsibility and security, a boy at home.

The two sat very quiet. His mind, in a sort of trance, seemed to become more and more vague. He held the child close to him. A quivering little shudder, re-echoing from her sobbing, went down her limbs. He held her closer. Gradually she relaxed, the eyelids began to sink over her dark, watchful eyes. As she sank to sleep, his mind became blank.

When he came to, as if from sleep, he seemed to be sitting in a timeless stillness. What was he listening for? He seemed to be listening for some sound a long way off, from beyond life. He remembered his wife. He must go back to her. The child was asleep, the eyelids not quite shut, showing a slight film of black pupil between. Why did she not shut her eyes? Her mouth was also a little open.

He rose quickly and went back to the house.

"Is she asleep?" whispered Tilly.

He nodded. The servant-woman came to look at the child who slept in the shawl, with cheeks flushed hot and red, and a whiteness, a wanness round the eyes.

"God-a-mercy!" whispered Tilly, shaking her head.

He pushed off his boots and went upstairs with the child. He became aware of the anxiety grasped tight at his heart, because of his wife. But he remained still. The house was silent save for the wind outside, and the noisy trickling and splattering of water in the water-butts. The was a slit of light under his wife's door.

He put the child into bed wrapped as she was in the shawl, for the sheets would be cold. Then he was afraid that she might not be able to move her arms, so he loosened her. The black eyes opened, rested on him vacantly, sank shut again. He covered her up. The last little quiver from the sobbing shook her breathing.

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