Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401
This short poem in free verse opens with a two-line stanza that implies the speaker has some bavarian gentians (bright blue flowers) growing in his house in September. The poem then turns into an invocation, or prayer written in the imperative mood, in which the speaker calls to the flowers to act as torches to lead him into the dark underworld of Pluto and Persephone’s marriage. “Bavarian Gentians” thus becomes an imaginative journey motivated by the contrast between the somber and unexceptional scene evoked in the opening lines and the vividly described phantasmal underworld of Roman mythology.
The poet’s allusions to Pluto, Dis, Demeter, and Persephone invoke a particular Roman myth that explains seasonal change. Pluto, the ruler of the underworld, abducts Persephone, the daughter of the goddess of grain and fertility, Demeter. Though Pluto makes Persephone his underworld queen, Demeter exacts a compromise: Persephone can return each April to her mother for six months, after which (in September) she must return to her husband and the underworld. During the time Persephone is away from her mother, Demeter mourns her absence and the ground becomes barren; with Persephone’s return in spring, the earth becomes fertile anew.
Thus, the poem’s September setting is significant. The speaker longs to follow Persephone back into Pluto’s kingdom at the very time when the earth is dormant and barren: “even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted September.” The twist D. H. Lawrence gives the myth is his surprising association of vitality with the underworld abode of Pluto. Against the sterility of autumn and winter is posed the dark energy of the mystical underworld.
Into this underworld, the speaker of the poem imaginatively leads us. Images of darkness and blueness abound as we seem to descend deeper. The third and final stanza again cites the gentian flower as a guiding light: “let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower.” The descent continues past a Persephone that exists only as “a voiceenfolded in the deeper dark/ of the arms Plutonic.” The final image of the poem shows the gentian torch paradoxically “shedding darkness on the lost bride and her groom.” The speaker seems to desire to enter this forbidden kingdom, and Lawrence seems to celebrate the Plutonic underworld in the poem. Why this underworld deserves celebration and draws the speaker to it becomes a central interpretive question.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402
Lawrence’s mythological allusions structure “Bavarian Gentians,” and the reader senses quickly that some knowledge of the myth invoked is necessary for an understanding of the poem. The imagery, however, as reinforced through word repetition, is the poem’s most startling technical characteristic. Lawrence repeats references to darkness and blueness throughout the poem. Forms of the word “dark” appear seventeen times in this nineteen-line poem. It seems as if Lawrence is straining the resources of the language to suggest an ultimate darkness, a darkness beyond the power of visual imagery. He refers to “the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness”; the world is a blind one, a “sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark.” The references to the color blue come from the gentians’ natural color, but the use of blue darkness rather than black allows Lawrence to charge the description with vitality. This underworld is not a realm of lifelessness, nor is its darkness antithetical to light in the sense of knowledge or awareness. Thus the “torch-like” flowers offer a “blaze of darkness.” The oxymoron of “torches of darkness, shedding darkness” is crucial to the poem: The darkness attains some of the metaphorical properties of light. The darkness can illuminate, in contrast to “Demeter’s pale lamps.” All the intense, even hyperbolic imagery of darkness contrasts with the staid quality of the opening lines: “in soft September, at slow, sad Michaelmas.”
The use of assonance and alliteration is as blatant and forceful as the use of imagery, as the line above suggests. The d and k sounds of the oft-repeated “dark” initiate a good deal of alliteration. In one three-line sequence, Lawrence uses “day,” “daze,” “Dis” (another term for Pluto or his underworld), and “darkness.” The oo assonance of the “blueness of Pluto’s gloom” is similarly prominent, and a link to the words that end the last two lines: “gloom” and “groom” (in this otherwise unrhyming poem). The word repetition, blatant imagery of darkness and light, and prominent assonance and alliteration all create a poem with a potent emotional and poetic charge. Lawrence is not striving for a natural, speechlike level of diction, though his word choice is also not elevated in the sense of traditional poetic diction. The reader enters a world of poetry and myth, but by descent, not ascent, and the language reflects this new poetic territory of a celebrated netherworld.
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