Friday, July 02, 2010

A Poetic Break 1

Flitting to and fro on the net these holiday times my eyes landed on the following article from 2007 which refers to Italy (one of my favourite places in the world) and to an author I much admire, D. H. Lawrence. The article may be found at this link here: Tide of Cement - Sunday Times.  Like many English authors he, too, fell under the spell of "il bel paese."  Such spell-binding was of the nature of what we Gaels call "geasa" or bonds one can only break under the fear of death. This article broaches the topic of progress versus vandalism.  Now this is also a topic more anguished over in Ireland I feel, but I could be wrong in that contention.  Anyway the article is all about progress and about the price we pay for such progress - the loss of past glory, of splendid views, of old ways, of old landmarks, maybe even ancient graves etc.

I've got to admit that I have mixed feelings about this debate, and find it hard to come down solidly on either side of the argument.  The poor, or the peasants (in the pure meaning of that term as country people not in its pejorative sense as country bumkins or "culchees" as we call them here in  Ireland) as they are referred to in the above linked article are mainly concerned with progressing their lot from a subsistence survival on the land, or even a comfortable existence from such fertile soil to one of more success in life and who can grumble with them.  If they pour cement on what to the "better-off" and often outside commentator deems to be pure heritage they are accused of being vandals prey to the consumerist ideology. If they pour concrete on what the outsider commentator or more learned insider consider to be pure and simple country beauty that is thus rendered into something horrid and ugly they are accused of being people with little or no values other than the lure if filthy lucre.

I find it hard to blame the man or woman, and there are many of them, who earn their living by the sweat of their brow as I, too, come from a peasant background in the true meaning of that term.  It is hard to survive on fresh air, or even on the beauty of the countryside.  In the end of the day that will not put bread or milk or cheese or wine on the table.  It is hard also to deny the rights of the poorer amongst us to a better lot in life. 

Now, I am fully aware of the opposite point of view in this debate.  That is why I am loathe to come down too firmly on one side or other of this debate.  I have written much in this blog over the years about the myth of indefinite progress, or indeed that so called progress is per se a goal to be sought in the first place at all.  Such blind belief in progress for progress sake has led the human family into the worst of wars and the worse of heinous crimes against its own very members.  Myths are very good in their own way, but not if followed blindly.  That is why there is a whole body of myths which give balance to one another, and in so doing present us with a more balanced ancient psychology than would appear in any one myth taken on its own.  Truths must balance each other out - not one blown out of all proportion at the expense of another truth here or there.

Anyway, the whole question of progress versus vandalism, or of progress versus protection of old values or even the green values of Mother Earth, Gaia herself, is a thorny debate not easily adjudicated upon.  However, like all good debates, it is one we must continue with in conscience so as to work out a balanced view which will be for the better good of the majority of us living on this beautiful, if at times sad, little planet, that blue dot with self-conscious and self-aware beings seeminly cruising alone through vast and infinite space.  This debate is a serious one when the very survival of our planet indeed may be at stake if either the myth of interminable progress proceeds along the course it is going in certain quarters, or if sheer greed of tsunami proportions among certain nations or sections of certain nations hurtle us to our destruction as a species.

Apologies for such a tortuous introduction to a beautiful poem I found on Italy by D.H. Lawrence.  This poem, to my mind at least, plumbs some of the depths of the questions raised in the above prolegomenon.  The poem is called Cypresses (Fiesole). It’s also easy to see, given the sheer earthiness of this ancient race, why D.H.Lawrence was so taken by the Etruscans, though the highly emotional judgements that he makes in his very readable book “Etruscan Places” are much at variance with what we now know of the historical reality.  The following blog The Etruscan Experience by Neil Moore gives an interesting and erudite, though always immediately understandable, insight into the ancient Etruscans: The Etruscan Experience.    Anyway, the cypresses are a beautiful tree, dearly beloved by Vincent van Gogh himself.  Here is the poem.  It contains many, many memorable and beautiful lines:

Cypresses (Fiesole)

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?


And, how I admire your fedelity,
Dark cypresses!


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 imperturbable sang-froid
About a forgotten business.

What businmess, 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 slim imperishable thought, while you remain,
Etruscan cypresses;
Dusky, slim-marrow thought of slender, flickering men of Etruria,
Whom Rome called vicious.


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.

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 wrapped 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.
This poem is, as you can see, rather long, and it really got the better of me while typing it - that's why I left out some lines.  It's just that I have not got the time or the energy to put them in though I hope I have put in the more important ones.  I love this poem for the strength of its feelings, for its passion for a forgotten race, for its inevitability of language, for its deep insight into the nature of mortality, for its questioning sense, for its questioning the accepted views of the ancient Romans. for its wishing to speak for silenced tongues, for the vanquished and the lost, which our whole dream world prepares us for, the inevitable kingdom of silent dreamless death.  Is that it?  Is that what it is all about?  Surely there is no more.? But the fact that we have lived and loved and dreamed and suffered and thought great and little, and sad and happy thoughts is enough.  As Shakespeare says, "The rest is silence."

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