Bavarian Gentians

by D. H. Lawrence

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Themes and Meanings

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The poem presents several paradoxes: The darkness is illuminating; the dead underworld possesses vitality; the reluctant journey of Persephone becomes the desired journey of the speaker. These paradoxes are familiar ones for Lawrence, who saw contemporary European society as overly cerebral and stripped of life-giving, primitive physicality. Throughout his poetry and fiction, Lawrence espouses the virtues of blood and earth: The spiritual is rooted in the bodily and the natural, not in the intellectual (at least not in contemporary society, which has corrupted the intellectual). “Bavarian Gentians” is wholly consistent with and expressive of this vision.

The opening lines identify the time of year not only as September but also as Michaelmas, the Christian celebration of the Archangel Michael held on September 29. Significantly, this Christian reference falls in the lines set above ground in the barren world of deserted Demeter. Against this lone Christian allusion, Lawrence places a plethora of pagan images, which he associates with life and sexuality. This contrast identifies the central tension of the poem: between those respectable European and Christian forces of the staid aboveground world and the seething vitality Lawrence locates within the earth and through pagan mythology.

Poet and speaker value the existence of passion in Pluto’s kingdom, signified by Pluto’s original desire for Persephone and its continued enactment. Enfolded Persephone is “pierced with the passion,” and the subterranean world is a place of consummated desire. The sexually charged language of the poem suggests repressed or forbidden pleasures located in the underworld kingdom. Even the “ribbed and torch-like” flowers have phallic connotations (as they clearly do in an earlier version of the poem, in which Lawrence calls them “ribbed hellish flowers erect”).

The descent into underground darkness has a psychological quality, as well. The speaker’s longing to explore the darkness that lies beneath the somber autumn may well signify a journey into the repressed subconscious. The desires and longings that cannot stand the light of day are here illuminated by the gentians’ dark blueness. Lawrence himself resisted Freudian terms, but his project was clearly one of recovery of the repressed. Like Freud, he saw basic human drives and passions distorted by the demands of social propriety. The descent into the underworld as a descent into the subconscious is a distinctively modern theme, and “Bavarian Gentians” is a powerful example of it.

The poem remains ambiguous about what the speaker actually gains from the underworld journey. Indeed, he is a sort of wedding guest at the Plutonic nuptial rites, and he remains an outsider. It is worth remembering that the poem is cast as an invocation: “lead the way,” he cries; “let me guide myself.” The poem presents the imaginative longing for an entrance into the underworld, an account of rather than the experience itself; however, the very action of the poet’s imagination in giving life to the desired experience becomes a kind of experience or journey. That poetry and mythology might point the direction for revivifying humanity is typically Lawrentian. So is the ambiguity, for Lawrence’s vision of a world free of the repressions of sterile modernity was never conceived as a wholly literary project. It must, Lawrence believed, be lived.

The poem was written in Lawrence’s last year, and, as an imaginative exploration of the afterlife, it could well be read as a study of the poet’s own encounter with mortality. Indeed, that theme appears explicitly in other poems written by Lawrence in this period. In “Bavarian Gentians,” the celebratory tone and the impassioned vision of underworld vitality suggest an imaginative coming-to-terms with death.

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