Turning the decorative and incidental into something all-consuming, the flowers the give this poem its name symbolise the passionate, uncontrollable essence of the human as Lawrence sees it. The darkness so prominent in the poem is at once the id, sex, death and madness – held together by their shared connection with the Classical myth of Persephone and Dis. It is an ethereal concoction of unstable forces which oppose the light – representative of hope, truth and goodness – offering an alluring, primeval guidance. Lawrence’s use of allusion seems to encourage a universal application of the poem’s ideas, with the flowers as a symbol for the human condition. Yet there is a deliberate, though problematic effort to eschew this generalization and present them as a personal symbol, a confession of the speaker’s own dark passions. This despite the consuming darkness in the imagery of the poem, that removes all distinctions and makes any notion of individuality impossible.A mood of aching loss and lethargy is captured in the opening half-rhymed couplet of the poem. The sensual evocation of autumn in these lines is helped by the sibilance and the caesura after ‘September’. It gives the speaker a pensive, measured tone – his overwhelming tiredness a mirror for and a result of the season of decay and death. To present flowers blossoming in this funereal atmosphere is to suggest something unnatural, unwholesome about them. It is the first of a series of inversions in a poem which can be seen as a photograph in negative, where ‘blue is darkened on blueness’ and one can picture ‘blue-smoking darkness’. Besides evoking the intense colour of the flower, these descriptions contribute to a sense of blurred boundaries which is problematic for the poem’s attempt to stake out a persona’s individuality. The lethargic voice so clearly established in the opening couplet is lost in the intense blue-darkness of the following stanzas.
Allusion to the Classical myth of Dis and Persephone intertwines themes of death, male sexual dominance and perversity, making the flower’s symbolic darkness pertinent to all of them. Persephone’s annual descent to the underworld and renascent in spring is central to ancient fertility myths. Here it connects the coming autumn of ‘frosted September’ with the foundation of the human psyche based on sexuality, as conceived by Freud, via the story – in which Persephone is the captive winter bride of Dis – that provides a clear metaphor for male dominance. In its use of the myth, the poem gestures towards the universal – applying itself to the human condition in the same way that Classical myth does. Yet it is also shown to be deeply personal – confessing anxiety about a relationship that is felt to be guided, not by the positive symbolic qualities of light, but by the primal instincts of darkness’ ‘torch-flower’.
The voice that opens the poem insists that ‘Not every man has gentians in his house’: this is a deliberately personal expression of the speaker’s own nature. Yet by the end of the poem the ‘bride and her groom’ are ‘lost’. Individuality seems impossible in this ‘darkness invisible’ – a reference to Milton’s formless Chaos. The line ‘darkness was awake upon the darseems to subvert the first few lines of Genesis, where matter awaits the creative hand of a divine, ordering intelligence – an intelligence that is here absent. The specific, tangible ‘house’ of the first line is replaced by a ‘sightless realm’ – perhaps an allusion to Eliot’s ‘Kingdoms’ in The Hollow Men. – a poem which does deliberately present itself as universally significant. We might read the poem as saying that although the experience of discovering one’s own nature is a personal one, the reality encountered is that individuality means nothing in the formless chaos of the id. More likely, however, is an interpretation that sees the speaker attempt to retain two mutually impossible ideas – that of his own uniqueness and that of his primal inhumanity.
This is a poem that reflects upon sexuality and the fear of death, suggesting through the metaphor of the Gentians that the things a person might consider ornamental or incidental in their lives are in truth the force behind everything that person thinks and does. The poem encounters in itself the terrible consequences of this realisation, as it attempts to stake out the confession as a personal one, only to find that the essence of this dark expression of human motivation is in its formless, undefinable inhumanity.