By D.H. Lawrence, 1921


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"Tortoises" is a poem by D.H. Lawrence that uses the metaphor of tortoises to explore the idea of endurance and the human struggle for survival. The poem describes the tortoises as ancient creatures that have survived for centuries, moving slowly and steadily through the world without haste or urgency. Lawrence contrasts the tortoises' patient and unhurried pace with the frantic and often futile efforts of human beings to achieve their goals, suggesting that the tortoises' approach to life might offer a lesson in endurance and perseverance. Ultimately, the poem presents the tortoises as symbols of resilience and strength, suggesting that we might learn from their example and find a way to endure and survive in a world that often seems chaotic and uncertain.

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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.