I was surprised by The Man Who Died by D H Lawrence, published in 1929, less than a year before Lawrence’s death and originally called The Escaped Cock. It is the last story in my copy of D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and other novels. Wikipedia recounts that Lawrence himself summarized The Escaped Cock in a letter to Brewster (a friend):
“I wrote a story of the Resurrection, where Jesus gets up and feels very sick bout everything, and can't stand the old crowd any more - so cuts out - and as he heals up, be begins to find what an astonishing place the phenomenal world is, far more marvellous than any salvation or heaven - and thanks his stars he needn't have a mission any more.”
It starts with an account of a cock, held captive by a string tied to its leg, breaking free from the cord with a wild strange squawk. At the same time a man, who is not named, awoke from a long sleep, numb and cold. The cock is a symbolic representation of the man who died. His agonising return to life and his remembrance of what happened to him filled him with nausea and pain. Bandages fell off as he moved and seeing his hurt feet he moved painfully out of the carved hole in the rock in which he was entombed and “filled with the sickness of disillusion” he walked away passing the sleeping soldiers, away from the town. “He was alone; and having died, was even beyond loneliness.”
In the garden where he had been betrayed and buried he met Madeleine and forbidding her to touch him because he was not yet healed and in touch with men he told her not to be afraid because “I am alive. They took me down too soon, so I came back to life”, implying to me that he had not actually died. But, there is ambiguity here as at another time he said: “I have not risen from the dead in order to seek death again.” Whatever the truth is, his mission has changed and he cannot return to his friends, “Now I belong to no one and have no connection, and mission or gospel is gone from me."
He must learn to be alone. The story has clear references to Biblical characters and events but it departs from the Christian version as the man travelled on and found rest in a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess, Isis. There he fell in love with the temple’s priestess, whose mother, a widow, owned the shrine. He showed the priestess, who believes him to be Osiris, the wounds in his hands, feet and side. She anointed them with oil and he felt he was made whole again. They made love and she conceived. He knew then that the time had come for him to leave: “In the name of property, the widow and her slaves would seek to be revenged on him for the bread he had eaten, and the living touch he had established, the woman he had delighted in." He went on, alone with his destiny, and laughed to himself: “I have sowed the seed of my life and my resurrection, and put my touch for ever upon the choice woman of this day … Tomorrow is another day.”
I was surprised because despite its title I didn’t expect it to be about the death and resurrection of Christ. My reaction on realising that it is was mixed and I have wondered whether or not to write about it. I thought it was well written and that the concept was an interesting version of the resurrection. It is just that, a story and it gave me food for thought. There are two more stories in the book - St Mawr, which I have never read before and The Virgin and the Gypsy, which I read a few years ago, but is very vague in my memory. I'm looking forward to reading these and wonder if Lawrence has yet another surprise in store for me.