“Think I shall like these tropics”: D. H. Lawrence and Edward, Prince of Wales, in Sri Lanka in 1922

Richard Lansdown

Abstract


Apart from translating some short stories by the Sicilian novelist Giovanni Verga, D. H. Lawrence produced only one literary work during or relating to his five weeks’ stay in the tropics — at Ceylon, modern-day Sri Lanka — between 13 March and 24 April, 1922. It is one of Lawrence’s inimitable but Whitmanesque poems about birds, beasts, and flowers, entitled ‘Elephant’, and whereas it is true that no English poet, not even Robert Burns or John Clare, wrote as well as he did on animals, “Elephant” is about a good deal more than pachyderms. Rather than subject it to any form of literary analysis, I shall instead try to sketch in some of the background to it, including Lawrence’s response to the tropics overall. Weirdly, furthermore, his stay in Sri Lanka coincided with a royal visit by the Prince of Wales, the future scapegrace Edward VIII, on whose account a major local religious festival, the Buddhist Perahera elephant procession (which inspired the poem) was shifted from its usual time of celebration. So Lawrence saw some colonialism, some monarchy, and some religion in one fell swoop: and “Elephant” is the outcome of that exposure. In particular, he zeroes in on that strange German motto of the Prince of Wales, the origins of which are lost in obscurity: “Ich dien,” “I serve” — which Lawrence ungrammatically reconfigures as “Dient ihr”: “have them serve.”

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.25120/etropic.15.1.2016.3300

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