Guide to DH Lawrence's Piano

Piano

Introduction

Childhood can be a traumatic time of struggle and emotional turmoil. Believing he had escaped those difficult days, the speaker in D.H. Lawrence’s “Piano” begins to “weep like a child for the past” and for those brief moments of comfort he shared with his mother.

In the opening lines of the poem, the speaker is struck by the woman’s singing. Her voice evokes a flood of remembrance” of when he was a “child sitting under the piano” beside his mother’s “poised feet”. In the last quatrain, he is no longer interested in the “singer” because he is completely enraptured by this memory of childhood.

Piano

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings

And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.
In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong

To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.
So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour

With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

Perspective

Lawrence sets the scene with the simple parenthetical phrase “in the dusk”. The day has reached the gloomy darkness of twilight, which usually connotes the greater passing of time in our lives. The pathetic fallacy of “dusk” might also suggest the speaker feels old and weary. His age is reinforced by the image of him travelling down the “vista” of long and narrow “years” in his mind to the “old Sunday evenings”. Since the memory is “cosy”, the adjective “old” used to describe the “Sunday evenings” suggests that warmth and comfort is now missing in the speaker’s life.

Therefore, the poem is probably written from the perspective of the troubled adult who “weeps to belong” again to that “cosy” moment of his childhood.

Childhood

The speaker is reluctant to contemplate his past, but the “insidious mastery of song” cruelly “betrays” him “back” to those Sunday evenings. Both of these quotations suggest even the oldest of our memories are uncontrollable and treacherous because they have the cunning and power to ambush our thoughts when we least expect.

The cruelty of memories can be seen in the way his mind seems to “spite” him. The past is not only inescapable; it can hold a grudge against our present.

Lawrence faced many difficulties in childhood. For example, he despised his heavy-drinking father who wanted him to work in the local Nottinghamshire coalmines:

“If I think of my childhood it is always as if there was a sort of inner darkness, like the gloss of coal in which we moved and had our being.”

Lawrence’s Mother

This particular memory seems idyllic and safe because of the description of the “parlour” as “cosy”. The “parlour” was the room set aside for entertaining guests and the adjective “cosy” tells the reader the atmosphere was warm and friendly.

This definition of “cosy” contrasts with the “winter outside” and conveys to the reader that he was sheltered from usual cold darkness of his life during these “old Sunday evenings”. Sunday, of course, is the day of rest and the stress and struggles of the working week are forgotten.

The word “cosy” also hints at a conspiratorial relationship with his mother. Her “small, poised feet” and her “smiles” suggest confidence. Perhaps that is what he admired most.

Just before his mother died, Lawrence wrote a letter to a friend:

“There has been this kind of bond between me and my mother… We knew each other by instinct… We have been like one, so sensitive to each other that we never needed words.”

His “childish days” are now attractive and exciting – even glamorous.

Structure

The image of the piano connects the speaker’s present to the past. His mother plays “hymns” and the pianist in the final stanza is also playing with “appassionato”.

The speaker remembers the vivid vibrations of the piano’s springs and the “boom” they created. The consonance in “tingling strings” mimics their rhythm effectively. That /ŋ/ sound is repeated in the words such as “singing”, “taking”, “pressing”, “sings”, and again in “evenings” and “tinkling piano”. This repetition and long line length underscores the melodic rhythm of the poem.

The rhyme scheme follows the aabb pattern. These rhyming couplets are typical of “hymns” and help create the poem’s musicality.

Manhood

The music began “softly” in the opening line but, in the third stanza, it “burst into clamour”. The change is evident in the sudden violence of the verb “burst” describing her loud “clamour”, which also suggests other members of the audience are now accompanying the singer. However, that crescendo is in “vain” and cannot disturb the speaker from his reminiscence.

Those “old Sunday evenings” make him “weep”.

The speaker used to distance himself from his “childish days” and wanted to forget his past. Note how he displaces himself at the start of the memory by vaguely referring to “a child”. The indefinite article is also used in “a mother”. However, he now scorns his “manhood” and weeps inconsolably like “a child for the past”.

Lawrence was often ill and frail when he was a child. Perhaps he hoped to be more masculine and happier in adulthood, but now he wishes to return to those “cosy” times.

Comprehension Questions

  1. Is there any significance in setting the poem at “dusk”?
  2. In your own words, describe the Lawrence’s memory of those “old Sunday evenings”.
  3. Suggest why the poet included the detail about the mother smiling while she plays the piano and sings.
  4. Explain why the poet created the contrast between the “cosy parlour” and the “winter outside”.
  5. Explore how Lawrence exploits the sounds of words to convey the wonderful music of the piano.
  6. What do the phrases “in spite of myself” and “betrays me back” suggest about the speaker’s feelings towards the past?
  7. Explain why the speaker begins to “weep like a child for the past” at the end of the poem.

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