Bavarian Gentians by D. H. Lawrence

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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”...

(The entire section is 598 words.)