Gentian as shown to
Emily Dickinson, DH Lawrence and Edward Bach,
with some introductory thoughts on flowers in poetry
Gentiana acaulis, a variety of Trumpet Gentian (Gentiana clusii) likely to have been flowering in the Alpine meadows around Rottach-am-Tegernsee during ‘the frosted September’ when DH Lawrence wrote ‘Bavarian Gentians’
William Shakespeare referred to roses at least
ninety times in his work, while John Keats used the image of a rose much more
(over sixty times
in far fewer lines). But in Shakespeare there is a feeling that the rose is
more of a symbol or generic term than an actually perceived and observed flower: ‘Hoary-headed
frosts / Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose’; ‘A rose /
By any other name would smell as sweet’; ‘When I have pluck’d
the rose, I cannot give it vital growth again’. In Keats’s poems
the rose is often more physical and immediate, but it still remains ‘the
idea of a rose’: ‘And like a rose in vermeil tint and shape, /
In fragrance soft, and coolness to the eye’. And the rose is more obviously
a symbol in such poems as TS Eliot’s Little Gidding (which ends
with the line ‘And the fire and the rose are one’) and William Blake’s The Sick Rose:
O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Even when a poet is deliberately rejecting the traditional
symbolism of the rose (beauty, love, perfection etc.) this flower still keeps
its special literary
status. William Carlos Williams, whose demonstration of ‘no ideas but
in things’ had great influence on the development of twentieth-century
American poetry, begins a poem published in 1923 with the words ‘The
rose is obsolete’. But as he develops this subtle and fragmented piece
(reflecting the Cubist experiments of the time), the experienced physicality
of the flower is given nothing less than a cosmic context.
William Carlos Williams, Spring and All 1923 (The Rose), from Collected Poems Volume One, Paladin, London, 1991
The rose is obsolete
but each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved
columns of air . . .
. . . But if it ends
the start is begun
so that to engage roses
becomes a geometry—
. . . The rose carried weight of love
but love is at an end — of roses
It is at the edge of the
petal that love waits
Crisp, worked to defeat
laboredness — fragile
plucked, moist, half-raised
cold, precise, touching
The place between the petal’s
edge and the
From the petal’s edge a line starts
that being of steel
infinitely fine, infinitely
the Milky Way
without contact — lifting
from it — neither hanging
nor pushing —
The fragility of the flower
Impatiens glandulifera, rather than Rose, was penetrating the space in which Edward Bach was walking when, in late September 1928, he was led to the Impatiens remedy — growing along the banks of the River Usk between Abergavenny and Crickhowell in South Wales. He intercepted its line of energy (‘From the petal’s edge a line starts’) because he was carrying
Barnard, Julian Bach Flower Remedies - Form and Function, Flower Remedy Programme, Hereford, 2002
‘in himself the vibratory pattern of the Impatiens mental state. There was a natural resonance between Bach, the man, and Impatiens, the plant. He recognised it.’
We can assume he was in a similarly receptive state when he identified the other remedies including Gentian, another September flower and the subject (eventually!) of this essay. It is interesting to see how poets have described the way in which plants ‘through the green fuse drive the flower’ (as Dylan Thomas put it) so as to communicate not only with pollinating insects but also with anyone wishing to share in, and benefit from, their freely offered ‘Sabbaths’. It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge who used the word ‘Sabbath’, originally meaning ‘day of rest’, to describe the restorative gifts of plants. Here are some excerpts from the unpublished manuscript where he wrote of these Sabbaths:
From an unpublished manuscript used by Kathleen Coburn in her Inquiring Spirit, A new presentation of Coleridge from his published and unpublished prose writings, Routledge, London, 1951
The Plant is the nuptial Garland of Earth and Air — their equation of Carbon, Oxygen and Hydrogen. Or as Carbon as the negative factor of Life is common to all the realms of organic Nature, we may better call the Vegetable Tribe the equation of Oxygen and Hydrogen — not the neutralization, which is water, and therefore the product of a quantitative combination: but the potenziation or endlessly varied proportions eliciting the inner spirit of the two Gases by communication of qualities.
. . . Accordingly, in the Flower, the Crown of mature vegetative life, we have the qualitative product of Oxygen=Light in the outness and splendour of Colors, the qualitative product of Hydrogen=Warmth in the inwardness and sweetness of Fragrance.
. . . The Plant rests in the products. Its branches, leaves, flowers, seeds, are so many successive Sabbaths.
Coleridge’s speculations, so interestingly employing terms like potenziation and qualitative-as-opposed-to-quantitative, were probably written around the last decade of the eighteenth century (or maybe later, during or after his time in Malta?). Another poet who explored the form and function of plants in exhilarating prose was Francis Ponge (1899-1988), best known for his remarkable meditations on such objects as doors, candles, oysters and bread. In Faune et flore (Fauna and Flora) first published in Le parti pris des choses (Siding with Things) in 1942, he might just as well have been describing a plant waiting to be discovered as a remedy by Dr Bach on the Icknield Way, the ancient footpath in the Chiltern Hills in south-east England.
‘Ils ne s’expriment que par leurs poses.’
Pas de gestes, ils multiplient seulement leurs bras, leurs mains, leurs doigts, — à la façon des bouddhas. C’est ainsi qu’oisifs, ils vont jusqu’au bout de leurs pensées. Ils ne sont qu’une volonté d’expression. Ils n’ont rien de caché pour eux-mêmes, ils ne peuvent garder aucune idée secrète, ils se déploient entièrement, honnêtement, sans restriction.
Oisifs, ils passent leur temps à compliquer leur propre forme, à parfaire dans le sens de la plus grande complication d’analyse leur propre corps. Où qu’ils naissent, si cachés qu’ils soient, ils ne s’occupent qu’à accomplir leur expression: ils se préparent, ils s’ornent, ils attendent qu’on vienne les lire.
The flowers whose gestures were waiting to be read by Dr Bach on the Icknield Way in 1931 were Gentian and Rock Rose. Having wandered along many different pathways in the course of this essay, I will concentrate on Gentian which is flowering now in early autumn, just as the Bach flower research programme website is being prepared for its launch. As well as being ‘read’ by Edward Bach for its healing and balancing properties, this flower was the subject of ‘readings’ by two very different poets whose lives overlapped for nearly one year: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and DH Lawrence (1885-1930). (Edward Bach was born four months after Emily Dickinson’s death and twelve months after Lawrence’s birth.) And I mean ‘readings’: these two poets were in a receptive state that allowed them to be ‘shown’ Gentian, and then to read or respond to Gentian, in a way that was fundamentally different from the predictable poetic treatments of the rose I discussed at the beginning.
The Gentian family (Gentianaceae) is large, including at least ten Centauries and over twenty Gentians. Dr Bach’s Gentian is the Gentiana amarella, also known as felwort and autumn gentian. Because Emily Dickinson was ‘shown’ the Gentian not far from her hometown of Amherst in Massachusetts, USA, and because DH Lawrence ‘read’ this flower while seriously ill with tuberculosis in Rottach-am-Tegernsee, high among the Bavarian Alps in southern Germany, these two poets did not respond to exactly the same flower as Edward Bach’s felwort. Emily Dickinson’s Gentian was the Fringed Gentian, the popular name for Gentiana crinita in North America and the name given to both Gentiana ciliata and Gentiana detonsa in Scandinavia and other parts of Northern Europe and Central Asia. And the Gentian that resonated with DH Lawrence was the Bavarian Gentian, Gentiana bavarica. The essential thing, surely, is that all these forms of Gentian share certain gestural characteristics that relate to the ‘Gentian type’: they are found in remote, hilly or mountainous regions where they grow with quiet determination, drawing nourishment through bitter-tasting roots to produce small flowers noted for their distinctive and individual blue, late in the year when the more ‘showy’ flowers have bloomed and blown.
Emily Dickinson never moved out of her parents’ house in Amherst, but as a poet she was an explorer of the highest altitudes and furthest reaches. She had discouragements and disappointments both in her relationships with men and regarding the reception of her poetry. After a few of her poems were ‘edited’ almost out of recognition, she gave up thoughts of publication during her lifetime. She spent most of her time in her room, as private as any hill-top or mountain meadow, writing astonishing poems (over 1,700 astonishing poems) that would only be recognised, or would only ‘flower’, after being discovered in her bureau after her death. She was devoted to plants, and was often known to take a flower from a vase and hold it in her hand while coming downstairs to receive a visitor. She wrote a number of poems featuring flowers, including violets, gorse, clematis and heather, but it is one of her four Gentian poems that seems most appropriate to reproduce here. And it is interesting to refer back to the discussion at the beginning of this essay, where the rose was seen to be too much of a symbol to be ‘real’ in a poem. In this poem we see the showy summer rose being followed by the small, strong Gentian which only succeeds when it understands that it is not a rose (‘The Frosts were her condition’). It is tempting to draw parallels with certain developments in poetry, where the traditional ‘rose’ conventions have been replaced by something keener (harsher, maybe) and less full-blown.
Poem number 442 in Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, Faber, London, 1970
God made a little Gentian —
It tried — to be a Rose —
And failed — and all the Summer laughed —
But just before the Snows
There rose a Purple Creature —
That ravished all the Hill —
And Summer hid her Forehead —
And Mockery — was still —
The Frosts were her condition —
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North — invoke it —
Creator — Shall I — bloom?
The resonances between this poem and Emily Dickinson’s life are so poignant and delicate that I will desist from any heavy-handed comment. Similarly I will not comment further on the relationship between her ‘gesture’ (discouragement, isolation and firmness of purpose are clearly evident) and the ‘gesture’ of Gentian as understood by Dr Bach. There was a sympathetic resonance that drew Emily Dickinson and Gentian together, and it is there for others to explore further.
Nor will I overwork the associations between DH Lawrence’s ‘state of being’ and the Bavarian Gentians that inspired one of his greatest poems. Just as Emily Dickinson’s Gentian poem flowered very late, in that it was found after her death, so too Lawrence’s poem was found among his papers and published posthumously — after ‘the Frosts’. Lawrence was literally isolated among mountains when he wrote Bavarian Gentians in September 1929, having moved from Italy to the Alpine village of Rottach-am-Tegernsee to stay with Max Mohr, a writer and doctor who would advise him, together with other doctors from Munich, on the best treatment for his advanced tuberculosis. Lawrence was preparing for his death (he was to die the following March in France) and was confronting his fear and depression by building his ‘ship of death’ with great courage and a clear understanding of his situation. He developed this image of ‘the ship of death’ in another remarkable poem to be published in Last Poems.
Here is section V of The Ship of Death:
Build then the ship of death, for you must take
the longest journey, no oblivion.
And die the death, the long and painful death
that lies between the old self and the new.
Already our bodies are fallen, bruised, badly bruised,
already our souls are oozing through the exit
of the cruel bruise.
Already the dark and endless ocean of the end
is washing in through the breaches of our wounds,
already the flood is upon us.
Oh build your ship of death, your little ark
and furnish it with food, with little cakes, and wine
for the dark flight down oblivion.
So Lawrence lay in bed in Max Mohr’s house on the edge of the Tegernsee lake, high in the Bavarian Alps, confronting the last great drama of his life. And what was he looking at? A bowl of autumn-flowering Gentians. His wife Frieda described the scene:
We left the heat of Florence for the Tegernsee to be near Max Mohr. . . . My sister Else came to see him, and Alfred Weber. When he was alone with Alfred Weber, he said to him: ‘Do you see those leaves falling from the apple tree? When the leaves want to fall you must let them fall.’ Max Mohr had brought some doctors from Munich, but medicine did not help however. . . . I remember some autumn nights when the end seemed to have come. I listened for his breath through the open door, all night long, an owl hooting ominously from the walnut tree outside. In the dim dawn an enormous bunch of gentians I had put on the floor by his bed seemed the only living thing in the room.
This was when Lawrence wrote the first drafts of ‘Bavarian Gentians’, in which he associates the flowering of the Gentians in autumn with the seasonal myth of Persephone’s annual return from the world of light and flowers (she had been originally abducted by Hades while gathering flowers) to the underworld and her husband Hades (or Pluto) the god of the dead — and she is guided in her descent by the blue light of the gentians acting like a torch. Lawrence then associates these flowers with his own imminent departure for which he is preparing, alone and with great clarity of purpose — taking a Gentian as his blue torch to guide him.
Originally published in Last Poems by DH Lawrence, Martin Secker, London, 1933. (‘. . . printed from two manuscripts found among Lawrence’s papers after his death'.)
Not every man has gentians in his house
in soft September, at slow, sad Michaelmas.
Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the day-time, torch-like with the smoking
blueness of Pluto’s gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep
of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto’s
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter’s pale
lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead me the way.
Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened
even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted
to the sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms of Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of
among the splendour of torches of darkness, shedding
darkness on the lost bride and her groom.