Tortoises by D. H. Lawrence



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subjects: Poetry

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‘A Lesson on a Tortoise’ was written by D H Lawrence in 1908. It was the third of his sixty-seven short stories, all of which will be published individually in ebook format by the Blackthorn Press. The story is set in a local school and gives an insight into the poverty and spirit of working class children as well as a glimpse of Lawrence’s time as a teacher.

11 pages, with a reading time of ~0.25 hours (2,851 words), and first published in 1921. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, .

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 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.