Over and under

With my newly found interest in Lawrence, I had a quick look round the net, in various book blogs and the like, to get some idea of how he is generally regarded. On the whole, it was all predictably hostile, and even the few lone voices speaking out for him seemed apologetic. But leaving all that aside till later (when I have immersed myself sufficiently in his work to be able to comment with any credibility), one thing I couldn’t help noticing was the frequency with which the adjectives “over-wrought” and “over-written” were applied. And it got me thinking:

Is there some point beyond which a work can be considered “overwrought”? Is it “underwrought” if it falls short of that point? And, perhaps, “correctly wrought” if it is at that point, or thereabouts?

For that matter, who decides where this magical point is? Is there some sort of consensus on this? If so, why did no-one ask me to vote?

And it’s the same, I think, with any adjective beginning with “over-“ or “under-“. Utterly meaningless in the context of literary criticism.

So I made a note to myself never to use such terms myself. Although I am sure I have done so often enough in the past…


21 responses to this post.

  1. Who decides? The brave, independent, forceful critic, of course!

    The over- and under- can be relative to a standard set elsewhere (e.g., earlier in a review). No, there is no outside fixed point, no consensus.

    “Overwrought” has other ordinary ENglish uses, like as a substitute for “hysterical.” “Under-written” is bigger problem, since it does not mean anything else, and is so vague in itself.


    • The brave, independent, forceful critic … Ah, there’s the problem: I’m neither brave nor forceul, altough at least I think I can claim to be independent.

      As you say, such expressions are relative, and only really make sense relative to a commonly understood fixed point. In most cases I come across, no fixed point appears to have been set.

      As for hysteria, I find myself not averse to a bit of hysteria. I’d find Dostoyevsky pretty much unreadable if I were, and Mahler unlistenable!


  2. Posted by Erika W. on September 19, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    I have discovered–and this includes me–that teenagers respond very emotionally and positively to D.H. Lawrence’s writing but that with older age he becomes much less attractive and gripping. I stopped re-reading him when I discovered this but I do still enjoy his poetry.


    • Problem is – with me, it’s the other way round! As a young man, I was fairly sensible, and deplored vulgar exhibitions of extreme emotions. Such things, I felt, weren’t decorous. Now, in my late middle age, I’ve grown my hair long, sport a wild and shaggy beard, and find myself far more responsive than I used to be to extremes of passion. “Give me an old man’s frenzy!” Yeats wrote in one of his poems (I can’t qute remember which one now). Yes, I say to myself – me too!

      Isn’t it strange how we all change over the years, and in different ways!


      • “Give me an old man’s frenzy!” – wonderful! Complete with long hair and wild, shaggy beard, there’s something so Wordsworthian – or maybe something more akin to Coleridge’s creations – about that image!

        Good to read about your latest D.H. Lawrence journeying, Himadri. He was a writer full of fire, and there are times when he reached utter moments of genius – I get the feeling that he so often rode the tempests, and wanted to let the mess and rage and his core, gut feeling authenticate his art, rather than let anything out from his grasp – whilst at the same time knowing he couldn’t grasp what was essentially beyond holding.

        And yet he could also be so quiet, so still – so good at capturing deep feeling in a subtle, daily-living kind of way – as well as all that fire and rage. Funnily enough, his poem ‘Beautiful Old Age’ is full of such a touching wistfulness for a time of peace, contentment and quiet during the twilight years – a yearning that suggests that such peace, even though it may have been earned, eludes. That contentment rests on a fulfilment that is, for Lawrence, always held out of reach…

        There’s a recitation of ‘Beautiful Old Age’ on this YouTube link:

      • Posted by Chris Jennings on September 24, 2013 at 10:47 am

        “I hadn’t realised, though, that Eliot had later changed his mind about lawrence. I’ll look that up.”

        I can’t remember now where I came across that, but here’s an interesting little essay from 1976 which I found on the net – a well-written assessment of Eliot’s varying attitudes to Lawrence. Eliot may never have fully recanted all his views, but he certainly modified them over the years:


        I think you’re absolutely right about writers’ views of one another: everything feeds into their own work, including unjust dismissals, and they barely have time or interest in that carefully balanced, broader horizonal view of the more self-conscious lit crit approach. Even Eliot’s criticism, which is supposed to be so loftily concerned with the ‘common pursuit of true judgement’, sometimes simply reads like a sophisticated advert for his own poetry.

        I must admit I’m very tempted to join you and get stuck into reading Kangaroo, and Sea and Sardinia, neither of which I have read but have found myself picking off the shelf every so often, but I must try and stick to my own reading plans!

      • Thanks for that link, Chris. I’ll have a read of that later tonight.

        Many of Lawrence’s novels post-Women in Love aren’t easily available these days (The Lost Girl, Kangaroo, etc.) A good friend of mine who lives in Australia presented me with a copy of Kangaroo, so I’ll give that a go. But I do get the impression that Lawrence was a very inconsistent writer (even Leavis describes The Plumed Serpent as “a regrettable performance”), and that, frankly, he was not always very sane. But i won’t hold that against him. I love Yeats, for instance, and he was as mad as a hatter!


      • Posted by Chris Jennings on September 24, 2013 at 11:18 am

        Sorry, wrong reply button. I’ll get the hang of this eventually…

    • Thanks for that, bookishnature. I have Lawrence’s Complete Poems but I hadn’t read that one – sounds like one of his later poems. How typical that he speaks approvingly of wrinkles – he was always at odds with modern society, and would be even more so were he alive now.

      btw Himadri, I will be interested to see what you make of Lawrence when you read more of him now. He’s a writer I’ve read on and off for years, and always with a vivifying pleasure. I agree he can be repetitive (as someone said), and bullying and slapdash, but that’s very much part of the risk of his way of writing – a consciously different approach to art to the great stylists like Henry James, James Joyce, Nabokov – who all seemed to dislike him.

      Out of interest, Leavis saw TS Eliot, another great stylist, as Lawrence’s greatest enemy to full acceptance, but I’m sure I read somewhere that Eliot in his later years finally saw what Lawrence had been getting at. I’ve always imagined that this had something to do with Eliot’s late blessing of happiness with a woman, after a lifetime of misery – but I don’t really know. It’s a very un-Eliotic approach to lit crit, of course.


      • Hello Chris, I’m very interested too in how I’ll react to Lawrence this time round.I’m really looking forward to this!

        It’s perhaps not surprising that Eliot should have disliked Lawrence. To be honest, I’ve always found Eliot a bit of a cold fish. “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion”, he famouslysaid: one an hardly express someone who comes out with a line like that to admire an author who seemed burning with passion!

        I hadn’t realised, though, that Eliot had later changed his mind about lawrence. I’ll look that up.

        I suppose that major creative talents often can’tcadmire each other’s art because they’re so wrapped up in their own vision, they find it difficult to wrench themselves away from that to see someone else’s.Joyce and lawrence thought little of each other, and Virginia Woolf (whom frankly I don’t get at all) disliked both. So, arguably the three greatest modernist writers of the British Isles could se enothing of value in each other’s work! Eliot is American, of course (though adapted British), and it would be intriguing indeed if he had really come round to Lawrence by the end.

  3. “Over-written” is not necessarily a word I’d use about DH Lawrence. “Repetitive” perhaps. But then I suppose it depends how you define “over-written”.


    • Yes, that’s the problem, isn’t it – it depends on how you define it. So many of the terms we use in criticism require definition, or, at least, some clarification, but we rarely get it. Terms such as “sentimental”, “melodramatic”, “over-written”, “underwitten”, etc are regularlyused without any attempt to explain what is meant by these terms, and why they should be bad things.

      I don’t mean to point the finger: I am as guilty of this as anyone. But I increasingly read literary criticism and am left dissatisfied. And, trying to figure out what it is that leaves me so dissatisfied, I think this is the root cause: there is much use of terms without any attempt to explain in what sense the term is used. If a work is dismissed as being “over-wrought”, say, or “sentimental”, without any explanation of what is meant by these terms, then there is no way to argue against this. For what do you argue against?

      – It was over-wrought, sir!
      – It wasn’t over-wrought, sir!

      I have started to formulate a principle concerning this (the formulation is still in its early stages): just as Popper famously declared that something can only be considered science if it is “falsifiable” – i.e. if it is conceivable that evidence can be produced to show that it is false – so, in an analogous manner, we can only admit something to be legitimate literary criticism if one can conceivably formulate an argument against it. You think there’s any mileage in trying to develop this idea further?


    • Mileage – yes, it’s a good idea. My fulminations about “beauty” have a similar purpose.

      The real limit on the exercise, though, is that you have to allow the critic some shorthand. Some words are deliberately used to block directions of argument. So the writer could spend some time developing “overwrought” or “beautiful” but is not going to do that in this particular piece, so just take the vague word as a signpost indicating a line of argument to be pursued later, or by someone else.

      The last time I used the word “overwrought” was recent, to describe a specific couplet by Swinburne. The text was right there – any reader could make up his own mind. Of course, I did not mean “overwrought” as bad – that couple is awesome.

      That is another way to put some meaning in these words, to hook them back on to an actual work of art, for example to closely examine a piece of text. I.e., the least popular method among book bloggers.

      The other argument against developing your idea is that the deconstructionists have already shown that it is conceivable to formulate an argument against any text, certainly including the sentence “It was over-wrought, sir!” Do you want to mess with those guys?


  4. P.S. – I didn’t realise that the video would embed when I posted that YouTube link above! Hope you don’t mind – I tried to do it as a text link, but obviously failed!


    • Hello Melanie, sorry for the delayed reply, but I was away for a few days, with very limited access to wi-fi. I’m only now getting round to replying to the various comments!

      Thanks very much for that clip. I hadn’t known this poem – but then again, I barely know Lawrence as a poet at all – and it is remarkably touching, isn’t it? I’ve been listening recently to Schubert’s song sycle “Winterreise” (setting of poems by Wilhelm Muller), and there’s a line in one of these songs where the singer describes himself as “Ohne Ruh’ und suche Ruh'” – “without rest, but seeking rest”. Schubert’s setting of that line – as, indeed, his setting of all the other lines in this work – is unforgettable. And I was reminded of that line on listening to Lawrence’s poems.

      I think I’ll be finished “Les Miserables” some time in November, and I will embark then on a serious study of Lawrence – a writer who has really been till now on the fringes of my literary awareness.


  5. I could get over-wrought about over-wrought. That term more commonly applied to women when they get excited or agitated. It implies a reaction out of proportion to the event. Yet it may be entirely appropriate — just not for a woman, who is expected to be sad and submissive, not angry. So it is interesting that the term is applied to Lawrence. I do find some of his prose excessive, but he has a right to it if that is the way he feels.


    • Hello Nancy,

      The word “hysteria” has its etymological origins in the Greek for the womb, and Wikipedia informs me that “female hysteria was a once-common medical diagnosis, made exclusively in women”. But it sems to me bizarre that this shuld be restricted to women. I have heard the novels of Dostoyevsky, or the symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Mahler, described as “hysterical”. I don’t necessarily see it as a pejorative: hysteria is part of the human experience – or, at least, it can be – and there is no reason why it should not be depicted. neither is tere any reason why the writer (or the composer0 should not make an attempt to make the reader experience the extremes of emotion which may be described as “hysterical”.

      I get the impression that there is an aesthetic that regards firect expression of intense or extreme emotion as being, in some way, indecorous. To be honest, I used to feel that. I don’t these days. As for Lawrence, I am sure I’ll find much of his writing “excessive” – but that, once again, is one of the “over & under” words: excessive to what? “Who, after all, is teharbiter of what is “out of proportion to the event”? I think much depends upon the reader’s personal temperament. As for how I’ll react to his “excesses” – i suppose I can only give it a try and find out! After all, I managed Dostoyevsky – who, too, is “excessive” and “hysterical”!

      All the best,


      • I was trying to make a feminist point but may have been too indirect about it. You ask who is the arbiter. The male is the arbiter, setting out for the female the emotions she is entitled to feel and the actions she is allowed to take. That’s why _she_ is hysterical — the wandering womb is necessarily female.

        There may be some class bias at work here in judging Lawrence. Working class and non-Oxbridge-educated men can be subject to social limits, just as women are. That’s what keep the social order in order!

      • I agree that the application of terms such as “hysterical” or “overwrought” specifically to women is deeply misogynistic; but I don’t know I am convinced that the application of such terms within the context of literary criticism can also be ascribed to misogyny. For one thing, such terms are just as likely to be applied to male writers (Dostoyevsky, Poe, Strindberg, Lawrence) as to female. If we move the focus from literature to music, I have heard such terms used to dscribe the music of Tchaikovsky, or of Mahler. And people who use such terms are just as likely to be women as men.

        When I asked who decides on meanings of terms such as “over-wrought”, I was posing the question ironically: I do not believe anyone, male or female, has arbitrated, or can arbitrate, on such matters. There has been – and there may still be – literary criticism that is consciously or unconsciously misogynist. Recently, VS Naipaul came out with with extraordinarily stupid comments on the inferiority of women writers compared to men writers. But Naipaul is by no means representative of the literary world: he was widely criticised and ridiculed for his comments.

        Any man presuming to set out emotions they are entitled to feel, or actions they are entitled to take, would, in the modern world, be laughed outof court. Just as Naipaul was for his comments – Nobel Prize or no Nobel Prize.

  6. I trust you don’t think we are having an argument here. Each us agrees with most of what the other is saying. I observe that when terms which originated as pejorative descriptions of female behavior are applied to a man, they are considered to denigrate the man. This is the core of misogyny: women are inferior and therefore and those who are described as having female characteristics are also necessarily inferior. It is something to be aware of when using / abusing language.


    • Oh, we’re not arguing: we’re just having a healthy debate! 🙂

      But you’re right here: I’m afraid I did misunderstand you, and I do now take your point. If I understand you correctly now, these terms are denigratory purely because they had previously been applied only to women. I can’t argue with that.

      I was trying to consider more broadly the terms we often use in literary criticism, and how useful they are. As well as terms such as “hysterical” (which have misogynistic origins), there are other terms – “over-written”, “melodramatic”, “sentimental” – etc. which are pejoratives, but which are rarely if ever defined. I have not reached any conclusion on these issues: this is still work in progress!

      All the best,


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