Metaphor and Abstraction in D. H. Lawrence's Twilight in Italy

Paul Merrylees, English 171, Brown University, Autumn 2003

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D.H. Lawrence's Twilight in Italy is a travel narrative in which the traveler himself brings at least as much to the scene being described as does the scene itself. Lawrence's at turns rigorously philosophical and poetically metaphorical perspective processes each place and each person that he describes, bringing an additional element of foreignness to what are already, for most of his readers, foreign tableaus. To a very large extent, his own mind becomes the strange and unfamiliar country that is being traversed, and the details of his descriptions become, in a way, the travelers: they pass through the narrative and leave a great, spreading web of Lawrence's musings in their wake. In a latter passage in "The Spinner and the Monks", Lawrence begins with vivid description and then departs from that real picture that is being described to enter the realm of abstraction and philosophy:

It was so still, everything so perfectly suspended, that I felt them talking. They marched with the peculiar march of monks, a long, loping stride, their heads together, their skirts swaying slowly, two brown monks with hidden hands, sliding under the bony vines and beside the cabbages, their heads always together in hidden converse. It was as if I were attending with my dark soul to their inaudible undertone... And I noticed that up above the snow, frail in the bluish sky, a frail moon had put forth, like a thin, scalloped film of ice floated out on the slow current of the coming night. And a bell sounded. And still the monks were pacing backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, with a strange, neutral regularity.... Neither the flare of day nor the completeness of the night reached them, they paced the narrow path of the twilight, treading in them the neutrality of the law. Neither the blood nor the spirit spoke in them, only the law, the abstraction of the average. The infinite is positive and negative. But the average is only neutral. And the monks trod backwards and forward down the line of neutrality.

Beginning with images and metaphor -- loping strides, heads together, swaying skirts, bony vines, a frail moon, floating like icy on night, which is a river with currents -- Lawrence paints an extremely sensuous and visual scene before moving into the abstractions of the neutrality of the law, the blood, the spirit, the infinite, the positive and the negative.

How effective is this joining of modes? Does one or the other aspect of his essay suffer from the combination?

Is this "travel-writing", "sage-writing", philosophy, or poetic description? Do the categories matter? How should the reader approach this kind of text?

Which is more potent, Lawrence's imagery and evocation or his broad, philosophical analysis? Which is the center of the text, if there is one at all?

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Last modified 26 October 2003