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Updated June 2012

T. E. Lawrence to Robert Graves


July 21, 1920

Dear R.G.

You have fairly got me now: I have the Gnat volume and have read it many times, and frankly I don't know about it. I like it so much: it is so masculine, so much deeper than the others write - and yet there seems a conflict in it, as though you were not sure yourself which sort they ought to be. That's where the rhymed ones score, for the music is an end in itself, and thought follows it. I am not in the least qualified to talk like this, but it won't do any harm, because you will take no notice (or at least no polite notice).

Incubus - splendid: isn't 'Smiles for freedom, blinks an eye' too earthly an exit from such a night? It seems to me to jerk us rather violently down from the general to the private. Also 'nothing wrong' grates on my degraded ear.

Return - not 'blank' thirst: surely. Thirst is an agony, tearing distracting pain that gapes a man's black mouth open, and makes him stagger drunkenly. You are all shredded out of your balance with horror. Also stone doesn't go ragged with heat, but with rain. Heat polishes, splits, blackens it, often warps it crooked. These are pettifogging points, which would only occur to one who had nearly died of thirst. Don't attend to them.

Drinking Song - That is yours. I don't get loud with other people, and loudness in them makes me shut up. No doubt it is a good poem: but I'd rather be a prig than be sociable.

The Gnat - Of course this is the crux of the whole matter, and I feel myself hopelessly unable to pick a hole in it. Only isn't it a sort of criticism to say that I feel there is a flaw somewhere? The stuff should, I think, be fused once more before you publish it. It seems to me again a conflict between the frankly dream-stuff and the realist school. There are legends - introduced scientifically as quotes from Josephus. A mystic beast - which bumps the furniture after flying out of his mouth. Of course its strangeness, and the little fear it puts in you when you read it, may come from this very mixture of world and other-world. I'm not a poet, or I'd know how you get effects. Let's get back to verbal details. I don't like 'Prepare: be ready'. They are very close together. The standard of style for minor voices should be high: surely. 1 don't like 'tyrants use': it's become a phrase now: not crisp enough: also the rhyme of 'fare' and 'hair' is rather wanton, I think. Your blank verse is strong, irregular and musical enough without endings of this sort. I don't also know if I like the isolated 'agony', though I haven't the least idea if any change could be made. It's the hardest word to put in the whole poem, I suspect, for it must be a climax of the previous very fast-moving, high coloured verse - and you have gone up so high in the picture of the beast straining itself to get out, that a climax has to be some climax. I pity you here. The end strikes me as the goods: though I'd like something less exact than the catalogue of the new shepherd and his dog: one line or three perhaps: it does seem to me you show a perverse pleasure in using the common adjective, where one a little less usual would maintain the illusion which to me is the power of the poem.

The Magical Picture is fancy, not vision of course, and like the drinking song is not my sort.

The Pier-Glass. This is metaphysic, and your music and happy words only look out of place, about this thought. (I mean 'magic' curtain, 'dismal' bellrope, 'sullen' pier-glass.) The last two sections do entirely without subjective furniture: couldn't you show the mood of the mind that came in on its problem-pilgrimage, less directly? A suggestion that it saw sullenness and dismality in the mouldering place, without point-blank catalogue of adjectives? I think the last two sections right up to level again, and the second, as I said, in a different key. But it's impertinence in me to discuss what only you can do.

Distant Smoke. I'll go through it to the bitter end, for perhaps you feel annoyed with a baby or something, and this will be a counter irritant. 'Yesterday' to 'Adam' is splendid: but I don't like 'Summoned . . . up': and 'Defining . . . journey' strikes me as your nearest approach to a bad line. Please remember 'A Mr. Wilkinson, a clergyman' produced in a moment of absorption by a great man. I don't like 'God's curse' and 'Father's blessing' side by side later on. However it's only an association. The wit of the thing is simply great: but 'pity' seems to me hardly the note to end on. After all these were primitive men, and pity is too soft a motive for the desert.

Look here: It's a shame to treat you this way, for my babblings are only the meannesses of a Philistine. I have enjoyed the booklet immensely. Must I send it back? Many thanks also for S.S. letter. He seems alive still, but only just. When he gets back he will go about like a sagging water-skin for weeks. Salute Nancy and the babes from me.

E.L.

Source: B:RG 26-8
Checked: jw/
Last revised: 8 February 2006

 

 



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