Updated June 2012
T. E. Lawrence to Edward Garnett
Yes, I saw that you were shaken: and ascribed part-cause of it to my writing. So, it was a half-compliment, but only half, for great tragedy plays a Καθαρσις and leaves its readers calm at the end. I looked on The Seven Pillars as, in essence, tragedy - a victory in which no man could take delight.
In revenge you shook me for the moment. Confession is in the air. Do you remember my telling you once that I collected a shelf of 'Titanic' books (those distinguished by greatness of spirit, 'sublimity' as Longinus would call it): and that they were The Karamazovs, Zarathustra, and Moby Dick. Well, my ambition was to make an English fourth. You will observe that modesty comes out more in the performance than in the aim!
I thought that the mind I had, (and I've matched it competitively often against other fellows, and have an opinion of it), if joined to a revival of the war-passion, would sweep over the ordinary rocks of technique. So I got into my garret, and in that month I told you of, excited myself with hunger and cold and sleeplessness more than did de Quincey with his opium. It gave me a foundation, and on that I worked for two years, biting the lines deeper. Nearly all the points you touched upon with praise were the things laboured over many times. I had hopes all the while that it was going to be a big thing, and wrote myself nearly blind in the effort. Then it was finished (pro tem) and I sent it to the printer, and when it came back in a fresh shape I saw that it was no good.
That of course was quite lately, and I enlisted in the R.A.F. to find a fresh plane of activity: for it is very difficult for me to do nothing, and I've tried soldiering, and science, and politics, and writing: and manual labour seemed the obvious next. Only as often as I've a bit forgotten the look of my book the idea comes back that perhaps I'm playing the Roman father trick, and it's not as bad as I think: and when you said practically that, for the moment I dreamed again of publishing a little, and so getting cash in hand. Of course it won't do, and I mustn't: but very many thanks for being willing to help.
Please don't read this as a cri de coeur. I'm perfectly cheerful. If I'd aimed low I could have hit my target as squarely as Max Beerbohm or Belloc hits it: but their works are only a horrid example, and I'm much happier to have gone high and flopped than not to have tried, or to have tried half-measures. It's only that my weathercock of a judgement, which would like, in secret, to believe The Seven Pillars good, blows round that way whenever it finds a fair wind from someone else. I go on exercising the poor bird wantonly, by thinking to send the copy to more people for comment. You happen to be the first person to have read it: but there is Kennington half-way through and chuckling over it, and another man, whose work I admire, has got it on loan by his own request. So I'll go on veering about the point of publication, as with you, so often as any of them praise it: but at the end I'll say, No, once more - and it's the right decision.
|Last revised:||5 February 2006|
T. E. Lawrence chronology
1888 16 August: born at Tremadoc, Wales
1896-1907: City of Oxford High School for Boys
1907-9: Jesus College, Oxford, B.A., 1st Class Hons, 1909
1910-14: Magdalen College, Oxford (Senior Demy), while working at the British Museum's excavations at Carchemish
1915-16: Military Intelligence Dept, Cairo
1916-18: Liaison Officer with the Arab Revolt
1919: Attended the Paris Peace Conference
1919-22: wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1921-2: Adviser on Arab Affairs to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office
1922 August: Enlisted in the Ranks of the RAF
1923 January: discharged from the RAF
1923 March: enlisted in the Tank Corps
1923: translated a French novel, The Forest Giant
1924-6: prepared the subscribers' abridgement of Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1927-8: stationed at Karachi, then Miranshah
1927 March: Revolt in the Desert, an abridgement of Seven Pillars, published
1928: completed The Mint, began translating Homer's Odyssey
1929-33: stationed at Plymouth
1931: started working on RAF boats
1932: his translation of the Odyssey published
1933-5: attached to MAEE, Felixstowe
1935 February: retired from the RAF
1935 19 May: died from injuries received in a motor-cycle crash on 13 May
1935 21 May: buried at Moreton, Dorset