"Cerveteri": a time travel narrative

Xiyun Yang, English 171, Brown University, Autumn 2003

In the opening chapter of his Etruscan Places, "Cerveteri," Lawrence mentally recreates the nature of the Etruscan people and culture as he wanders its emptied tombs. Lawrence begins the chapter in a light-hearted tone, but settles into a steady reverence once he is inside the cave. The chapter lacks the weighty philosophical ponderings imbued within chapters of Twilight in Italy; the lighter tone parallels the "Etruscan quality: ease, naturalness, and an abundance of life, no need to force the mind or the soul in any direction." "Cerveteri" seems to be a travel narrative of a different kind: in addition to being a traveler commenting on the idiosyncrasies of a foreign place, Lawrence mentally transports himself to a reconstructed Cerveteri, "five or six hundred years before Christ was born" and filters it through his modern perspective. The tomb acts as the bridge between the past and the present. Although both fragments of time may exist simultaneously, there are some elements, such as language, that do not coalesce and stand glaringly as a reminder of the passage of time. "Mi Larthia, Almost the first written Etruscan words we know. And what do they mean, anyhow?" Carrying the theme from Twilight in Italy, Lawrence idealizes the organic, earthy warmth of the Etruscans and contrasts it sharply against the mechanical, systematic coldness of the rest of the world: the Prussians, the Romans, and the English. Beyond the tomb,Lawrencesees the entire town as the descendents of the Etruscan, still emanating the Etruscan liveliness thousands of years later. The following paragraph describes a shepherd Lawrence encounters in a tavern, as if transplanted from another time period, the time of the Etruscans.

Into the cavern swaggers a spurred shepherd wearing goat skin trousers with the long, rusty brown goat's hair hanging shaggy from his legs. He grins and drinks wine, and immediately one sees again the shaggy-legged faun. His face is a faun face, not deadened by morals. He grins quietly, and talks very subduedly, shyly, to the fellow who draws the wine from the barrels. It is obvious fauns are shy, very shy, especially of moderns like ourselves. He glances at us from a corner of his eye, ducks, wipes his mouth on the back of his hand, and is gone, clambering with his hairy legs on to his lean pony, swirling, and rattling away with a neat little clatter of hoofs, under again out of the city precincts, far more shy and evanescent than any Christian virgin. You cannot hard-boil him . . . They can't survive, the faun-faced men, with their pure outlines and their strange non-moral calm. Only the deflowered faces survive.

In this paragraph, Lawrence alternates between short simple sentences, used when Lawrence is describing the shepherd, and long, multi-clausal sentences, used to delineate the actions of the shepherd. The actions of the shepherd are strung together in one sentence, suggesting fluidity and grace. How does this description of the shepherd fit into Lawrence's overall commentary on the Etruscans?

In this paragraph, he likens the shepherd to a faun, praises his non-morality, but claims that he is "far more shy and evanescent than any Christian virgin." Later on in the chapter, Lawrence also describes the tombs that have not been ravaged for their goods as virgin, in the midst of the sensual imagery of the "unrifled ark, ripe with the phallic knowledge." How does Lawrence define the Christian term of virginity, and how does this fit into his themes?

Later, Lawrence paints the Etruscans as necessary casualties of progress. "The new world wanted to rid itself of these fatal, dominant symbols of the old world, the old physical world. The Etruscan consciousness was rooted quite blithely in these symbols, the phallus and the arx. So the whole consciousness, the whole Etruscan pulse and rhythm, must be wiped out." How does Lawrence view progress and if the demise of the Etruscans was the necessary process of progress, is he justified in idealizing the Etruscans with such intensity?

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Last modified 28 October 2003