Sunday, 8 March 2009

Etruscans a-plenty

It's nice when a poet manages to sneak up on you and remind you of something. I've always been fascinated by the Etruscans. There's something about a civilization with a lost language that excites me. It's so tantalizing. All that possible writing and poetry - Shakespeare himself might be dwarfed by Etruscan literature - and due to some cosmic mix up, we'll never know what mysteries their innumerable stone carvings contain. Riding the tube on my way to a job interview today, I was reminded of our mysterious friends by Mr. D H Lawrence - a writer who reminds me of a good many things on a consistent basis. In his poem "Cypresses", part of a larger cycle of poems about trees, he says everything I've ever wanted to say about Etruscans and more. Lawrence resisted redrafting his poetry. He preferred to let an emotion wash over him all in one go - and it results in some patchy work - but when his writing works, it soars. Here is the poem that I read on the tube. This poem transports you to a world then gently lets you know that world is lost. Like reading a travel guide for Atlantis.


Tuscan cypresses,
What is it?

Folded in like a dark thought
For which the language is lost,
Tuscan cypresses,
Is there a great secret?
Are our words no good?

The undeliverable secret,
Dead with a dead race and a dead speech, and yet
Darkly monumental in you,
Etruscan cypresses.

Ah, how I admire your fidelity,
Dark cypresses!

Is it the secret of the long-nose Etruscans?
The long-nosed, sensitive-footed, subtly-smiling Etruscans,
Who made so little noise outside the cypress groves?

Among the sinuous, flame-tall cypresses
That swayed their length of darkness all around
Etruscan-dusky, wavering men of old Etruria:
Naked except for fanciful long shoes,
Going with insidious half-smiling quietness
And some of Africa's impenetrable sang-froid
About a forgotten business.

What business, then?
Nay, tongues are dead, and words are hollow as hollow seed-pods,
Having shed their sound and finished all their echoing
Etruscan syllables,
That had the telling.

Yet more I see you darkly concentrate,
Tuscan cypresses,
On one old thought:
On one old slim imperishable thought, while you remain
Etruscan cypresses;
Dusky, slim marrow-thought of slender, flickering men of Etruria,
Whom Rome called vicious.

Vicious, dark cypresses:
Vicious, you supple, brooding, soft-swaying pillars of dark flame.
Monumental to a dead, dead race
Embowered in you!

Were they then vicious, the slender, tender-footed
Long-nosed men of Etruria?
Or was their way only evasive and different, dark, like cypress-trees in a wind?

They are dead with all their vices,
And all that is left
Is the shadowy monomania of some cypresses
And tombs.

The smile, the subtle Etruscan smile still lurking
Within the tombs,
Etruscan cypresses.
He laughs longest who laughs last;
Nay, Leonardo only bungled the pure Etruscan smile.

What would I not give
To bring back the rare and orchid-like
Evil-yclept Etruscan?

For as to the evil
We have only Roman word for it,
Which I, being a little wary of Roman virtue,
Don't hang much weight on.

For oh, I know, in the dust where we have buried
The silenced races and all their abominations,
We have buried so much of the delicate magic of life.

There in the deeps
That churn the frankincense and ooze the myrrh,
Cypress shadowy,
Such an aroma of lost human life!

They say the fit survive,
But I invoke the spirits of the lost.
Those that have not survived, the darkly lost,
To bring their meaning back into life again,
Which they have taken away
And wrapt inviolable in soft cypress-trees,
Etruscan cypresses.

Evil, what is evil?
There is only one evil, to deny life
As Rome denied Etruria
And mechanical America Montezuma still.

1 comment:

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