D H Lawrence in Kandy 1922

Jane Russell

D H Lawrence came to Ceylon with his wife Frieda in late February 1922. Lawrence once referred to the later years of his life, spent wandering from place to place across the world in search of relief from illness, as his “savage pilgrimage”.  Interestingly, the Lawrences arrived just a couple of years after Hilda Westbrook (soon to be Kularatne) first passed through the Colombo Harbour steamboat passenger terminal.

DH Lawrence in England 9 November 1915

Lawrence stayed barely two months, spending most of it in Kandy, but he was an acute observer of his own xenophobic reactions to the country and its people. As a travel writer of genius, the fact that his experience of the island contrasts so dramatically with Hilda’s deserves exploration.

On leaving Naples, after spending several years travelling in Italy, via Capri and a long stay in Taormina in Sicily, Lawrence wrote to Lady Cynthia Asquith on 22nd February 1922:

“We are going to Ceylon to refind the Paradise it once was. What do you bet that we find it? I’ve got a friend who’s taking Buddhism terribly seriously (not Theosophy), studying in the Temple of the Tooth. Perhaps I shall too study in that same molar monastery, but no matter how wisely I ultimately become, I shan’t be a Buddhist”.

The friend was Tom Brewster who was in Ceylon with wife, Aicha and their young daughter. Brewster, a rich American whom the Lawrences had met in Capri, was studying Pali in Kandy with monks of the Malwatte chapter. He had been attracted to Buddhism through an interest in theosophy.

Lawrence would have had some prior knowledge of Ceylon as he had met, and probably read the novels of, Leonard Woolf. During World War One, Lawrence and his German wife Frieda openly espoused pacifist views. As such, they had been invited to Garsington, the home of Ottoline Morrell, whom Lawrence characterised as Hermione in “Women in Love”. Garsington was a wartime centre for upper-class pacifists like Siegfried Sassoon, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and other members of the Bloomsbury Group, including the Woolfs.

dhlDH Lawrence with Frieda

However, unlike their well-connected pacifist acquaintances, D.H. and Frieda were persecuted for their pacifism. In Frieda’s case, because she was a cousin of Baron von Richthofen, the famous German air ace known as the “Red Baron”, the War Office suspected them of being spies and hounded them accordingly. On one occasion, they were expelled from Zennor Cove in West Cornwall, which Lawrence loved and where he wrote “Women in Love”, as local police thought they were hanging out their washing as a secret code to German submarines in the English Channel!

Lawrences ‘s arrival at Ardanaree Bungalow,[1] high above Kandy lake, did not bring the solace he was hoping for: “Frieda like me is a bit dazed with this world of palm trees and dark swarming people”. He hated the heat which oppressed him and found he could not stomach any tropical fruit except pineapple.

By early March he was already disillusioned with Ceylon and found he was both attracted and repelled by the “good-looking, more-or-less naked dark bluey-brown natives. I feel I don’t belong.”

In another letter to an Australian he had met on the boat, he wrote, “One realises how barbaric the substratum of Buddhism is. I shrewdly suspect that the high-flownness of Buddhism altogether exists mostly on paper and that its denial of the soul makes it always rather barren, even if philosophically more ‘perfect’,” and he went on to complain about the “hideous little Buddha temples – like decked up pigsties”.

In April, after a bout of rain which brought some physical relief, he was slightly more reconciled to the environment: “It is beautiful in a lush, tangled, towseld, lousy sort of way. The natives are quite good-looking, dark-skinned and erect. But…there is something smooth and boneless and a smell of cocoanut oil and sickly fruits that I can’t bear”.[2] When invited to Australia to stay with acquaintances with an apple orchard, he wrote “I have a great fancy to see apple trees in blossom and to be really ‘white’. I feel absolutely dead off Buddhism – either Nibbana or Nirvana, Kania or Karma. They can have Buddha.”

Come mid-April, Lawrence was writing to Robert Mountsier, an American publisher: “No the East doesn’t get me at all. Its boneless suavity and the thick choky feel of tropical forest and the metallic sense of palms and the horrid noise of the birds and creatures, who hammer and clang and rattle and cackle and explode all the livelong day, and run little machines all the livelong night and the scents that make me feel sick, the perpetual nauseous overtone of cocoanut (sic) fibre and oil, the sort of tropical sweetness which to me suggests an undertone of blood, hot blood and thin sweat; the undertaste of blood and sweat in the nauseous tropical fruits, the nasty faces and yellow robes of the Buddhist monks, the little vulgar dens of the temples – all this makes up Ceylon to me and all this I cannot bear…”

Lawrence also took on the general complaint of colonial rulers that it was all the fault of the natives that they (the imperialists) felt so uncomfortable in this alien environment: “I find all dark people have a fixed desire to jeer at us. They jeer behind your back[3].They say it is the natives that drain the life out of one…That is the lure of the east; this peculiar stagnant apathy where one doesn’t bother about a thing but drifts on from minute to minute…I detest Buddha; affects me like a mud pool that has no bottom to it – these little rat-hole Buddhist temples turn my stomach”

On returning to Colombo to wait for the boat to Australia, D.H. and Frieda stayed briefly with Justice Ennis who sat on the Ceylon Supreme Court bench.[4] Lawrence appears to have had a political conversation with his host for he wrote a few days after leaving port:

All this ‘nationalism’ and ‘self-government’ and ‘liberty’ are all tripe.           They’ve (Ceylonese and Indians) no more notion of liberty than a jackal           has…the dark races don’t have any sense of liberty, in our meaning of the     word.  They live and move and have their being according to the           inspiration of power – always power, whether private or public, just or  unjust.”

After he landed in Australia, Lawrence seemed to have a change of heart towards his experience. He wrote “Ceylon has a melancholy kind of magic…” and he admitted that although “I hated my time in Ceylon, yet now it is a very precious memory, invaluable. Neither time nor eternity will take away what I have of it.”[5]

Lawrence with his non-conformist, puritanical ‘tin-chapel atheism’[6]], and proto-fascist, racist views seems to have been aghast at the exoticism he encountered in Ceylon. Almost everything appalled him; the vegetation, fauna, climate, people and food: in particular, he was physically nauseated by the smells of the island and could hardly get away fast enough.

Of course, it should be remembered that by 1922, Lawrence was already suffering symptoms of the TB that would kill him in 1930. Some of his irritability with the climate, flora, fauna and people of Ceylon may have been a result of disease.

His complete rejection – almost pathological hatred – of Buddhism appears to have infected his host who gave up his attempt to learn Pali and Buddhist philosophy from the Malwatte monks. Brewster packed up his household and returned to Capri within a few weeks of the Lawrences’ departure for Australia.

In Lawrence’s Kandy poems, there is an ambivalence in his reaction to the near-nakedness of the Ceylon working man. Lawrence has been described as ‘conflicted’ over his attraction, (latent homoeroticism?), towards men.[2] The proximity of “naked dark men” (‘Elephant’), a phrase which re-occurs in his letters as well as the poem, seems to have seriously upset Lawrence’s sexual equilibrium. It may account for some of the vitriol in his language. Unalloyed colour prejudice also played a part.

D.H._Lawrence,_29_November_1915-wikiDH Lawrence in England 9 November 1915

Lawrence’s reaction to Ceylon, although extreme, was not that unusual among western/white visitors. Here was the imperial mindset of generalised ignorance and racism at work. Anyone who trawls You Tube looking for newsreels about Ceylon from the 1920s and 30s will find several British, European and American short films/documentaries which refer to the “effeminacy” of Ceylonese men, the difficulty of telling the sexes apart, the “apathy” of the “natives”, their technological backwardness, their “childlike simplicity” etc etc. Only “Song of Ceylon”, made in 1934 by Basil Wright, seems to have made a fair stab at portraying the island in its own image rather than a colonial worldview.

Lawrence’s time in Ceylon, though brief, resulted in two remarkable poems appended below.  “An Elephant is Slow to Mate” is considered one of his finest poems from the Beasts, Birds and Flowers Series, on a par with “A Snake Came to my Water Trough”, written earlier in Sicily.

He also wrote a long, straggly prose-poem called “Elephant”, a rumination not just on the animal, but also on the visit of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII who was to abdicate 15 years later. It refers to an event which happened a few days after the Lawrences reached Kandy – the special night Perahera held to celebrate the Prince’s visit which Lawrence attended with the Brewsters. This poem commented on the neurasthenic appearance of the Prince and his diffidence in the face of the throng before him whom Lawrence felt wanted him to appear as a God of Royalty, demanding service from his subjects, rather than as Prince of Wales whose motto was “Ich Dien” – “I serve”.

The Elephant is Slow to Mate

          The elephant, the huge old beast,

          is slow to mate;

          he finds a female, they show no haste

          they wait


          for the sympathy in their vast shy hearts

          slowly, slowly to rouse

          as they loiter along the river-beds

          and drink and browse

          and dash in panic through the brake

          of forest with the herd,

          and sleep in massive silence, and wake

          together, without a word

          So slowly the great hot elephant hearts

          grow full of desire,

          and the great beasts mate in secret at last,

          hiding their fire.


          Oldest they are and the wisest of beasts

          so they know at last

          how to wait for the loneliest of feasts

          for the full repast


          They do not snatch, they do not tear;

          their massive blood

          moves as the moon-tides, near, more near

          till they touch in flood



You go down shade to the river, where naked men sit on
flat brown rocks, to watch the ferry, in the sun;
And you cross the ferry with the naked people, go up the
tropical lane
Through the palm-trees and past hollow paddy-fields where
naked men are threshing rice
And the monolithic water-buffaloes, like old, muddy stones
with hair on them, are being idle;
And through the shadow of bread-fruit trees, with their dark
green, glossy, fanged leaves
Very handsome, and some pure yellow fanged leaves;
Out into the open, where the path runs on the top of a dyke
between paddy-fields:
And there, of course, you meet a huge and mud-grey
elephant advancing his frontal bone, his trunk curled
round a log of wood:
So you step down the bank, to make way.

Shuffle, shuffle, and his little wicked eye has seen you as he
advances above you,
The slow beast curiously spreading his round feet for the dust.
And the slim naked man slips down, and the beast deposits

the lump of wood, carefully.
The keeper hooks the vast knee, the creature salaams.
‘White man, you are saluted.
Pay a few cents’.


But the best is the Perahera, at midnight, under the tropical stars,
With a pale little wisp of a Prince of Wales, diffident, up in
a small pagoda on the temple side
And white people in evening dress buzzing and crowding the
stand upon the grass below and opposite:
And at last the Perahera procession, flambeaux aloft in the
tropical night, of blazing cocoa-nut,
Naked dark men beneath,
And the huge frontal of three great elephants stepping forth
to the tom-tom’s beat, in the torch-light,
Slowly sailing in gorgeous apparel through the flame-light,
in front of a towering, grimacing white image of wood.

The elephant bells striking slow, tong-tong, tong-tong,
To music and queer chanting
Enormous shadow-processions filing on in the flare of fire
In the fume of cocoa-nut oil, in the sweating tropical night,
In the noise of the tom-toms and singers;
Elephants after elephants curl their trunks, vast shadows,
and some cry out
As they approach and salaam, under the dripping fire of the torches
That pale fragment of a Prince up there, whose motto is
– “Ich dien” -.

Pale, dispirited Prince, with his chin on his hands, his nerves
tired out,
Watching and hardly seeing the trunk-curl approach and
clumsy, knee-lifting salaam
Of the hugest, oldest of beasts in the night and the fire-flare

He is royalty, pale and dejected fragment up aloft.
And down below huge homage of shadowy beasts; bare-foot

and trunk-lipped in the night.

Chieftains, three of them abreast, on foot
Strut like peg-tops, wound around with hundreds of yards
of fine linen.
They glimmer with tissue of gold, and golden threads on a
jacket of velvet,
And their faces are dark, and fat, and important.

They are royalty, dark-faced royalty, showing the conscious
whites of their eyes
And stepping in homage, stubborn, to that nervous pale lad
up there.

More elephants, tong, tong-tong, loom up,
Huge, more tassels swinging, more dripping fire of new
cocoa-nut cressets
High, high flambeaux, smoking of the east;
And scarlet hot embers of torches knocked out of the sockets
among bare feet of elephants and men on the path in the dark.
And devil dancers luminous with sweat, dancing on to the
shudder of drums.
Tom-toms, weird music of the devil, voices of men from the
jungle singing;
Endless, under the Prince.

Towards the tail of the everlasting procession
In the long hot night, mere dancers from insignificant
And smaller, more frightened elephants.

Men-peasants from jungle villages dancing and running with
sweat and laughing,
Naked dark men with ornaments on, on their naked arms
and their naked breasts, the grooved loins
Gleaming like metal with running sweat as they suddenly
turn, feet apart,
And dance, and dance, forever dance, with breath half
sobbing in dark, sweat-shining breasts,
And lustrous great tropical eyes unveiled now, gleaming a
kind of laugh,
A naked, gleaming dark laugh, like a secret out in the dark,
And flare of a tropical energy, tireless, afire in the dark, slim
limbs and breasts,
Perpetual, fire-laughing motion, among the slow shuffle
Of elephants.
The hot dark blood of itself a-laughing, wet, half-devilish,
men all motion
Approaching under that small pavilion, and tropical eyes
dilated look up
Inevitably look up
To the Prince
To that tired remnant of royalty up there
Whose motto is  -“Ich dien”-.

As if the homage of the kindled blood of the east
Went up in wavelets to him, from the breasts and eyes of
jungle torch-men,
And he couldn’t take it.

What would they do, those jungle men running with sweat,
with the strange dark laugh in their eyes, glancing up,
And the sparse-haired elephants slowly following,
If they knew that his motto was – “Ich dien” -?
And that he meant it.

They begin to understand
The rickshaw boys begin to understand
And then the devil comes into their faces,
But a different sort, a cold, rebellious, jeering devil.

In elephants and the east are two devils, in all men maybe.
The mystery of the dark mountain of blood, reeking in
homage, in lust, in rage,
And passive with everlasting patience,
Then the little, cunning pig-devil of the elephant’s lurking
eyes, the unbeliever.

We dodged, when the Perahera was finished, under the
hanging, hairy pigs’ tails
And the flat, flaccid mountains of the elephants’ standing
Vast-blooded beasts,
Myself so little dodging rather scared against the eternal
wrinkled pillars of their legs, as they were being dismantled;
Then I knew they were dejected, having come to hear the
Royal summons: – ‘Dien! Ihr!
Serve, vast mountainous blood, in submission and splendour, serve
royalty ‘- .
Instead of which, the silent, fatal emission from that pale,
shattered boy up there:
– “Ich dien”-.

That’s why the night fell in frustration.
That’s why, as the elephants ponderously, with unseeming
swiftness, galloped uphill in the night, going back to
the jungle villages,
As the elephant bells sounded tong-tong-tong, bell of the
temple of blood in the night, swift-striking,
And the crowd like a field of rice in the dark gave way like
liquid to the dark
Looming gallop of the beasts,
It was as if the great bare bulks of elephants in the obscure
light went over the hill-brow swiftly, with their tails
between their legs, in haste to get away,
Their bells sounding frustrate and sinister.

And all the dark-faced, cotton-wrapped people, more
numerous and whispering than grains of rice in a rice-
field at night,
All the dark-faced, cotton-wrapped people, a countless host
on the shores of the lake, like thick wild rice by the
water’s edge,
Waiting for the fireworks of the after-show,
As the rockets went up, and the glare passed over countless
faces, dark as black rice growing,
Showing a glint of teeth, and glancing tropical eyes aroused
in the night,         Top of Form

There was the faintest twist of mockery in every face, across
the hiss of wonders as the rocket burst
High, high up, in flakes, shimmering flakes of blue fire,
above the palm-trees of the islet in the lake,
O faces upturned to the glare, O tropical wonder, wonder,
a miracle in heaven!
And the shadow of a jeer, of underneath disappointment, as
the rocket-coruscation died, and shadow was the same as before.

They were foiled, the myriad whispering dark-faced cotton-
wrapped people.
They had come to see royalty,
To bow before royalty, in the land of elephants, bow deep,
bow deep.
Bow deep, for it’s good as a draught of cool water to bow
very, very low to the royal.

And all there was to bow to, a weary, diffident boy whose
motto is -“Ich dien”-.
‘ I serve! I serve –

Drudge to the public’.

I wish they had given the three feathers to me;
That I had been he in the pavilion, as in a pepper-box aloft
and alone
To stand and hold feathers, three feathers above the world,
And say to them: -‘Dien! Ihr! Dient!
Omnes, vos omnes, servite.
Serve me, I am meet to be served.
Being royal of the gods’-


And to the elephants:
– ‘First great beasts of the earth
A prince has come back to you,
Crook the knee and be glad’ -.

****  *****

Jane Russell, …. Ihela Kadigamowa, Wayambe ………29/01/2018


[1] This bungalow became the Principal’s house for Dharmaraja College for a while in the 1930’s before being incorporated into the College proper. Hilda Westbrook and her husband P.de S. Kularatne lived in it for a few years with their three children, Ananda, Parakrama and Maya when they were Principals of Mahamaya and Dharmaraja respectively.

[2] Letter of April 5th – the sickly fruits may have included durian and jak, which have powerful, overwhelming scents and may be nauseating to those of a neurasthenic disposition.

[3] It did not once occur to Lawrence that a subject people had no alternative but to jeer behind your back – to jeer into the face of the white ruler would have led to who knows what unfortunate consequences.

[4] Justice Ennis had been a judge in Africa prior to coming to Sri Lanka. He sat on the bench of the Supreme Court from 1912 – 1925, along with the famed Ceylonese jurist John Adrian St. Valentine Jayawardene

[5] See Collected letters of DH Lawrence Feb – May 1922

[6] A phrase of  Melvyn Bragg

[7]  See Walter Kendrick “A Thing About Men, and A Thing About Women”: NY Times review, 27/11/1994 of  book, ‘D H Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage’ by Brenda Maddox;  NY Simon & Schuster 1994




Filed under British colonialism, Buddhism, centre-periphery relations, cultural transmission, education, heritage, landscape wondrous, life stories, literary achievements, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, travelogue, unusual people, world affairs

3 responses to “D H Lawrence in Kandy 1922

  1. Correction: Brewster’s first name was Earl and he wrote a Life of the Buddha in 1926, so he was less under Lawrence’s influence than I have suggested

  2. sbarrkum

    Easy for Sigfried to be a pacifist when his grandfather made money from opium.

    The Sassoons were Iraqi Jews from India. Although David Sassoon did not speak English, he became a naturalized British citizen in 1853. He kept the dress and manners of the Baghdadi Jews, but allowed his sons to adopt English manners. His son, Abdullah changed his name to Albert, moved to England became a Baronet and married into the Rothschild family. All the Sassoons of Europe are said to be descendants of David Sassoon.

    The Tatas, Sassoons and deLano (FDR’s maternal grandfather) all made money by selling opium to the Chinese.

    During the meeting a group of Hong Kong-based merchants, among whom were included Shellim Ezekiel Shellim, “of the firm of David Sassoon, Sons &
    Co,” and Ruttonjee Dadabhoy Tata, “of the firm Tata & Co.,” presented a
    petition “for and on behalf of the Opium Importers and wholesale Opium
    Merchants of the said Colony.”


    One daughter of the family, Rachel Sassoon Beer, joined her husband in running a number of British newspapers, including The Sunday Times (1893–1904) and The Observer, which she also edited.

  3. Gamini de Alwis

    A very nice article.

    From a man who wrote on homosexuality without judgement and with sensitivity as in women in love and the novel the rainbow, a saga of many generations of people in a village, there is the relationship between a teacher and a student both females, I am surprised at his superficial, unfair and harsh treatment of the “natives” and Buddhism. It shows even the most sensitive people can be conditioned by the upbringing of their times.

    He is always remembered for Lady Chaterley’s lover mostly by those who have not read him or read him for curiosity. His other novels, short stories and poems explore human condition with remarkable insight. I still remember the feel of his poem about the snake, although I read it just once.

    It left me disappointed in the man but only for a short while until I recalled his considered contributions. If we look at people by their individual blemishes we will become very lonely persons.

    Thanks you Jane.

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