Bavarian Gentians By D.H. Lawrence
The poem ‘Bavarian Gentians’ is included in the collection Last Poems and More Pansies. For Lawrence, the phenomenal world of flora and fauna held a mystical aura, often teaching human beings the higher moral values of life. The subject, be it a bird, beast, plant or a flower, stands as a symbol of various facets of human nature. ‘Bavarian Gentians’ is a poem of death and eternal life. Lawrence uses the symbol of Bavarian Gentians and the classical mythology of Pluto and Persephone to convey the duality of life and death.
Bavarian Gentian: is a blue tubular flower. It is a typical, personal Lawrencian symbol.
Bavarian gentians are a rarity. These dark blue flowers are outdoor plants often found in rocky terrain. By taking something decorative and incidental as a flower and turning it into a strong personal symbol which encompasses Lawrencian duality, is a remarkable poetic feat and a triumph of genius. Lawrence is famous for presenting different sides of a single image – he yokes contraries together as metaphysical poets do. Here the Bavarian Gentians symbolize Pluto’s gloom of death and darkness and yet they are torches that shed bright blue light of life as a torch, showing the way to death.
Michaelmas: [pron. /mikhlms/] is a Christian feast that celebrates the Archangel Michael, and is held on September 29th. It is associated with the coming of autumn.
Pluto: The Roman God of the underworld. In Greek Mythology he is called Hades which is also a name for the underworld.
Hades was Zeus’ brother. He abducted and forcibly wedded his niece Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the Goddess of Harvest and Grain. Demeter was devastated and searched for her daughter high and low. But when Demeter finally succeeded in finding Persephone, it was found that she had eaten some pomegranate seeds, the food of the deceased. Hence she was forced to return to the underworld for one-third of every year. It is believed that Demeter mourns her separation from her daughter during this time which is considered the reason for autumn and winter on earth. So, in the poem, September, which is the advent of autumnal season, is the time of the descent of Persephone into hell, into the arms of waiting for death. (Persephone is Proserpina in Roman and Demeter is Ceres; while Pluto is Hades in Greek – it is not clear why Lawrence has mixed up the Roman and Greek Mythological names.)
Ribbed: with something resembling a rib supporting or strengthening apart; ridged. In this case, the petals are ridged.
Demeter: Also called Ceres. Goddess of harvest and grain. Fertility Goddess.
Dis: Another name for Hades.
Persephone: Also called Kore, daughter of Demeter; Proserpina in Roman mythology, abducted by Pluto or Hades.
‘Bavarian Gentians’ is a deep and dense poem invoking darkness of death, loaded with personal symbolism and interwoven with mythological allusions. Lawrence makes use of an extraordinary symbol – that of Bavarian Gentians; one which embodies and reinforces Lawrencian duality of death and life, darkness and light.
The poem begins with a casual yet unusual two-line statement by the poet who comments upon the rarity of the flower. It is not found in every house at Michaelmas during ‘soft September’. Michaelmas which falls on the 29th of that month heralds the coming of the autumnal season.
The poet defines Michaelmas as slow and sad, underscoring the relentless advent of chilly frost of September as determined as death making steady progress on him. His use of “frosted September” later in the poem testifies to the chill. The adjectives “soft”, “slow” and “sad” that the poet uses in the line, beautifully and poignantly convey the feeling of the silent, inexorable and dismal creeping of death. Gentians are big and dark. Their blue darkness is brilliant like torchlight, evoking the blueness of Pluto’s darkness. Contrarily, their intense blue darkens the daytime during which they flower.
Lawrence uses an oxymoron ‘blaze of darkness’ to convey this contradictory nature. His sharp powers of observation capture every single feature of the flower, from its ribbed, tubular torch-like shape, to its blue petals flattened to a point, making it blaze forth like a torch, spreading blue darkness, invoking the trance of Pluto’s underworld. He calls them black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue, which contrary to Demeter’s pale lamps of the day, give off only darkness. It is then that the poet openly states about the journey he himself is about to undertake into Pluto’s dark realms. All these minutely detailed descriptions from the beginning were leading to this imperative “Lead me then, lead me the way” making clear the function of the Bavarian Gentians for him. The task of the gentian is to show him the way, blazing forth like a torch, lighting his descent to the halls of Dis.
The poet clearly equates the gentian with a torch. He wants to be guided by this blue forked torch down the dark stairs, getting darker still as he descends. Just as Persephone goes to visit her bridegroom in the Hades at the advent of autumn, after spending her time on the earth during spring and summer seasons, he is ready to make his fated journey during the “first-frosted September”, which is a phrase that Lawrence uses in another version of the poem. He wants to go into those dismal and sightless realms where darkness is awake upon the dark. Like Persephone, the lost bride, who is nothing but a voice in the darkness, is enveloped and pierced with the passion of dense gloom by Pluto, Lord of the underworld and the king of darkness, lying awake and waiting to enfold her in his strong arms and celebrate their nuptials in the chamber lit with torches of darkness, the poet too envisages being enveloped in the eternal arms of darkness.
Death turns celebratory. While life on the earth is painful, eternal repose in the enveloping darkness of death is like being in the hands of one’s lover. Lawrence’s identity fuses with that of Persephone who celebrates her nuptials with her eternal lover. Lawrence seems to say that we are all brides to death, virgins to be pierced with the passion of dense gloom, to be enveloped in “the arms Plutonic”. Using the symbolism of the phantasmal underworld of classic mythology, Lawrence invokes the transcendental nature of death.
The blue gentian is the body of man, light with living flame. It is with the help of this flame that one can seek eternal repose in the arms of death. And the reason why everyone has not“gentians in his house in soft September” is that not everyone knows how to be truly alive in the flesh. Written in free verse, the continuous enjambement or run-on lines spilling from one to another, to the end of each stanza, invokes the feel of a meandering and spiralling movement of a descent downwards, keeping in tune with the motif of a journey. As Milton describes it in Paradise Lost, Bavarian Gentians makes“darkness visible”. Lawrence has been able to capture the intensity and density of palpable darkness through the reiteration of words “blue” and “blueness” and“dark” and “darkness” throughout the poem. The use of soft sibilants and liquid sounds creates a feel of being lovingly cocooned in the “embalmed darkness”.
Heavily alliterative and reiterative, the poem is able to conjure up a trance-like mood, slowly and hypnotically gravitating towards the vortex of death. The pathos of the final line inherent in the expression “the lost bride” is reverted by the reference of her conjoining with her groom. Though Persephone is lost to the earth, as man is at death, she reaches the safe haven of the arms of her Plutonic lover, suggesting that ‘heaven’ lies in the warm embrace of death for man too, thus emphasizing the transcendental nature of death.
Self – Check Questions
1) What is the significance of the statement that “not every man has gentians in his house”?
Answer: It means that not everyone knows how to be truly alive in the flesh.
2) Why does the poet refer to “slow, sad Michaelmas”?
Answer: Michaelmas refers to the advent of the autumnal season and symbolically points out to the commencement of man’s slow journey towards death.
3) Why does the poet compare Bavarian gentians to a torch?
Answer: Because of their shape of the flower and its petals and also its colour. The dark blue blaze of the flattened petals, converging to a point like a flame of the torch, the tubular shape of the flower, reminiscent of a torch, and the dark blue colour of the flowers make this imagery apt.
4) What does the poet wish to do with the gentian?
Answer: He wishes to use the flower as a torch to guide him and lead him down to the netherworld of darkness, to show him the way taken by Persephone to reach her dismal lover.
5) Describe the nuptial imagery in the poem.
Answer: Persephone descends to the sightless world of the dark into the enveloping arms of her lover who is waiting for her in the chambers lit with the splendour of torches of darkness to celebrate the nuptials and be pierced with the passion of dense gloom.
6) What are the stylistic beauties of the poem?
Answer: Enjambement, use of sibilants and liquid sounds, alliteration and reiteration etc. (refer to the last paragraph of the analysis)
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