Ecstatic Twilight and the Night-Day Polarity in D. H. Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy (1916)

28 February 2022

Dominic Berry, University of Sheffield

D. H. Lawrence’s early collection of travel essays Twilight in Italy (1916) is a wide-ranging text in its scope of subjects; however, this article will focus primarily on the collection’s sustained investigation of the concepts of opposition or polarity. Specifically, it will explore the significance of the night-day polarity over the many others which Lawrence evokes in the collection.

Many scholars of Lawrence have considered the significance of opposition within the author’s work. Often, this opposition is categorised as dualism, but this article will follow Michael Bell’s lead by using the term polarity to explore the opposition of night and day in Twilight in Italy. Bell clarifies the importance of this distinction by explaining that, ‘polarity is a dynamic principle and counter to dualism. It is an energising structure, not a choice’.[1] As this article will go on to show, it is through the dynamic nature of the principle of polarity, as opposed to duality, that we can properly appreciate the significance of the night and day opposition in Lawrence’s thinking.

In ‘The Lemon Gardens’ essay, Lawrence attempts to give a general outline of his evolving sense of a polarised world. He sketches an overview of European history divided into northern and southern character types and provides many symbols for the opposing poles, or ‘Infinites’ as he calls them here, between which he believed life moved. He also significantly emphasises the living, rhythmic movement of polarised experience, saying:

The consummation of Man is twofold, in the Self and in Selflessness. By great retrogression back to the source of darkness in me, the Self, deep in the senses, I arrive at the Original Creative Infinite. By projection forth from myself, by the elimination of my absolute sensual Self, I arrive at the Ultimate Infinite […] They are two Infinites, twofold approach to God. And man must know both.[2]

In this passage, Lawrence clarifies some important aspects of his polarised worldview. The two poles or ‘Infinites’ are distinct and opposed: neither appears favoured so long as the individual continues to move “naturally” between the two and immerses themself absolutely in each pole by turn. Additionally, this passage also displays how Lawrence’s interest in polarity influenced the style and form of Twilight in Italy. As Carmen Mușat notes regarding the work as a whole, the language of the essays is ‘dominated by stylistic repetition and rhythm’ which perfectly exemplifies the pulsing logic of polarity.[3]

To fully understand why the night-day polarity is of such importance compared with the many others Lawrence evokes in Twilight in Italy, we must turn to his later essay Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922). Here, Lawrence develops the polar thinking of Twilight in Italy and goes on to explain his notion of the ‘dynamic-consciousness’.[4] In opposition to the then-new field of psychoanalysis, Lawrence contends that our consciousness is spread throughout our entire body, proposing that our awareness is shaped by the magnetising forces of two opposed poles situated within the body: the upper (associated with abstraction and spiritual impulses) and the lower (fleshly, self-centred, and sensory). Subsequently, these internal poles of consciousness connect with the corresponding external poles of the Sun and Moon or day and night. It is from this development – the connecting of the body and consciousness to a material polarised system external to it – that the night-day polarity becomes one of the most significant within Lawrence’s system of thought. From this point on, the poles that our being or consciousness are composed of are not simply symbolised by the Sun and Moon but are meant to be in vital contact with them. This idiosyncratic belief in a “circadian” consciousness which is shaped by the rhythms of night and day, that our character or self is literally composed of day-selves and night-selves, was maintained by Lawrence right through to his last essay Apocalypse (1931).[5]

As explained above concerning the use of the term polarity, it is the movement – rhythmic and oscillating – between the poles within the self and the world, which gives the system its dynamic force and meaning. Throughout Twilight in Italy, Lawrence repeatedly emphasises the importance of this rhythmic movement between two poles in achieving and maintaining a positive relation between the opposites within the self and the world. In ‘The Lemon Gardens’ essay, for example, using theological metaphors to describe his polarised worldview, Lawrence figures this relating movement as ‘the Holy Ghost of the Christian Trinity […] which relates the dual infinites into One Whole, which relates and keeps distinct the dual natures of God’.[6] While Lawrence would continue to use Christian theological language to describe his developing polarised worldview, some of its defining characteristics were, as Paul Eggert has argued, substantially influenced by earlier sources such as Empedocles and Heraclitus and their ideas concerning opposition, flux, and strife, which Lawrence had come across in John Burnet’s Early Greek Philosophy (1908).[7]

Against this ‘Holy Ghost’ movement, which relates but keeps intact the opposite poles, Lawrence pits ‘confusing [of] the two’ poles, in which people collapse the distinct nature of each pole by what he might describe as wilfully believing that both opposites are either the same or can be balanced and neutralised.[8] In Lawrence’s view, this confusion or perversion of the “natural” oscillating order of the polarised universe was an inherent characteristic of the modernity from which he had recently fled and which he depicts at points throughout these essays as a tenebrous twilight ready to fall over his romanticised image of Italy.

Despite this gloomy image of modern twilight, Lawrence doesn’t present an entirely pessimistic view about the fate of the modern world. Turning again to the image of twilight, in the essay ‘The Spinner and the Monks’, Lawrence dramatises the conflict between the negating, modern confusion of being with what we might call the oscillating, or circadian, mode of becoming. He contrasts modernity’s grim twilight with the prospect of an ecstatic twilight. Observing the monks, Lawrence tells us that:

Neither the flare of day nor the completeness of night reached them, they paced the narrow path of the twilight, treading in the neutrality of the law. Neither the blood nor the spirit spoke in them, only the law, the abstraction of the average.


Meanwhile, on the length of mountain-ridge, the snow grew rosy-incandescent, like heaven breaking into blossom. […] In the rosy snow that shone in heaven over a darkened earth was the ecstasy of consummation. Night and day are one, light and dark are one, both the same in the origin and in the issue, both the same in the moment of ecstasy, light fused in darkness and darkness fused in light, as in the rosy snow above the twilight.

But in the monks, it was not ecstasy, in them it was neutrality[9]

The crowning moment of oscillation, from one Infinite to another, and the resulting relation of the intact opposites of our being that such a movement generates, is caught in the image of ecstatic rosy incandescence. Here, through this stark contrast of twilights, Lawrence attempts to illustrate what has been lost through our modern neutrality while also hopefully suggesting how we might regain a “natural” way of living within the rhythms of a circadian universe.

Image credit: ‘Photograph of D. H. Lawrence’ by Ottoline Morrell, 1915. Public domain.


[1] Michael Bell, D. H. Lawrence: language and being (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp.74-75.

[2] D. H. Lawrence, Twilight in Italy and Other Essays, ed. by Paul Eggert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp.125-126.

[3] Carmen Mușat, ‘Landscape and Identity: D. H. Lawrence’s Imperial Journey to Multiple Realities’ in Lake Garda: Gateway to D.H. Lawrence’s Voyage to the Sun, ed. by Nick Carmella (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), p.237.

[4] D. H. Lawrence, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious, ed. by Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[5] D. H. Lawrence, Apocalypse (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981), p.29.

[6] D. H. Lawrence, Twilight in Italy and Other Essays, p.126.

[7] Paul Eggert, ‘Lawrence, Twilight in Italy and the Limits of the Foreign: A Print Culture Approach’ in Lake Garda: Gateway to D.H. Lawrence’s Voyage to the Sun, ed. by Nick Carmella (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), p.50.

And, Paul Eggert, ‘Introduction’ in Twilight in Italy and Other Essays, ed. by Paul Eggert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp.liv-lv.

[8] Ibid, p.126.

[9] Ibid, p.112.

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