T. E. Lawrence to Edward Garnett
This letter is about Tarka, which I have been reading lately. I take it that Williamson is in something of the position I was in. He's written one book, and wants to write more. He's tried his uttermost to write this one better than his power allowed him. He's probably rather in the dumps about it now. I got to that point after Uxbridge: and then I turned back to the printed version of the Seven Pillars and read it all, and judged it entirely worthless. But I learnt a very great deal in those years I tried to write. And if he will take my remarks as coming from a self-confessed failure:- a man who never will be able to write, despite all his equipment and knowledge, just because he lacks the seed of creation - he may find something of interest in his own performance's impact on me.
I should say first that Tarka was in itself an achievement, though not (thank goodness) a final one. There are good reasons in Tarka for expecting his next book to be better. Whereas anyone can see in the Seven Pillars 320,000 good reasons why my next book would be worse!
It is written too hard. There are no flat places where a man can stand still a moment. All ups and downs, engine full on or brakes hard on. He has been afraid of what he did easily, and too modest in his judgement of his own power. For normal readers, a very little of his hardest work will go a long way. He should write one easy paragraph in five, three normal ones: and only key us up to his full strain for the little remainder. Tarka is tiring to read. It is too close knit: you can't skip a sentence without loss. It is monotonous for the eye to jog at one pace. Skipping is a merit, because it rests the brain. Let him sometimes have mercy on the short-breathed.
It is too staccato. Agreed that is his mode: but no long piece of music was ever written in one mode, like a song. His style should flow, sometimes, in legato passages: passages in which the sound of the vowels means more, in the way of sense, than the clicking of the consonants. Tarka is essentially consonantal... and I've stumbled over trying to read it aloud to myself, as I'd stumble over Peter Piper's pheasant picked a peck of pickled peppers. His tautness of line induces monotony: so does his dryness and exactitude of phrase. More carelessness, for God's sake. He is big enough to unbutton his waistcoat in public. If he does not, readers will never get at ease with him. Some of his pages are more like gravel than like water or rock. Also his paragraphs are cut out of the piece; they should begin and end irrevocably: be little creations.
Nor do I call it a merit to restore so many dying words to life. We are too rich, in the English language. Half the trade and technical words might die, and good riddance. His local terms are half a jargon. Admitted they are pedigree words, some of them. But why 'tissed', for instance, repeated 1,000 times? I liked it the first time, and progressively disliked it as it went on. There's more power making the well-known word do. You'll quote me Doughty against that: but I call D's greatness in spite of his style, of his vocabulary of Arabic (in Arabia Deserta), of his Syntax of Icelandic–German. Camel is a better word (because more worn) than thelul. This inlay of strange words into a ground-work of daily English is a mistake. The effect is fussy, not primitive, more peasant-art than peasant. It is for hierophants like Williamson to make a virtue, not a regret, of their education.
Words like Dimmity, skillet, cranching, peggle, vuz-peg, quap, fitch, vair, evelight, uvver, hover, pill, day-hide, up-trends, channer, glidder, mazzard, yanning:- all these are words of local value only: and while one or two of them might add colour, twenty only bring darkness. It's a good writer who can add three words to English. Of course W. would say he was reviving, or bringing out, some of these: but, as I say, we have too many now: a weasel hardly earns a better name than that!
P. 3. I was sorry, as I got to the end of the second sentence, not yet to have met a verb standing upright. It was a pity to begin with a feminine paragraph:- and bad taste to follow a weak beginning with the superbly-drawn picture of the falling oak:- one of the book's high-lights. Para 1 should be postponed, or strengthened.
Para 3 (on page 4) illustrates well my complaint about the staccato style. 21 lines, eleven full stops: only one semi-colon, ten commas. He should use fewer commas (i.e. more sentences which grow without stops to adult size) and not be afraid of subjunctives and relatives. Agreed they are overdone in social prose: but Theodore Powys and Williamson under-do them. The old technique of writing is not yet decayed: we don't yet need a new style. English prose approaches its golden age, when somebody will display all its richness. Ulysses is a text-book and catalogue of all the modes. Paragraphs should be books in microcosm: have a start, a climax, couplings fore and aft, a finish.
P. 4. I don't like likening mist to anything so particularly small as the down on an owl's feathers. To feather-down - yes: but the particularity felt small to my taste, and made my mouth smile - bad taste, therefore, of mine or his.
P. 6. 'The mist moved down with the river; her heart slowed; she forgot quickly.' That seems to me admirable prose. P. 8. 'Whither he had straightly flown.' I wonder in what sense straightly is used? Old or new?
P. 11. 'The moon paled of its gleam.' This is literary: precious.
P. 14. The growth of Tarka: more supple and fluent prose: and the kingfisher, next page, just the reverse: strained ideas, and rhythm.
P. 22. I like 'star-shivery', though it is rather conscious. There are very many hyphenated words in this book. I tried to use not more than one per paragraph, as a matter of manners. Prose is bad when people stop to look at it.
P. 24. 'Nothing feared the old lady': this sentence wants recasting. It is broken-backed. There is both a who and a which in it. I made myself a rule not to use two relatives in a sentence: though one may use a relative 'who', and a relative 'that' and get away with it, undetected. It's the being detected that's criminal, always.
P. 26–27. The night-jar and owl: a well-told, drawn out effort. So many of his incidents are all over in a sentence: or are gradually introduced, and lead nowhere. It's a little cinematographic: whereas I think painting is harder and better: to concentrate significance on a few semi-static entities, and make them equal the crowd. Joyce walks down Sackville Street and catalogues 356 articles as he walks. Forster could give the same completeness with five things, carefully placed and built together with the necessary association-ideas. Modes, these two: of course.
P. 35. The clamour of the kill, and the mother's feeling are excellent.
P. 37. 38. 39. is an elaborate landscape – but it isn't made use of: painted for sheer pleasure in paint: which is virtuosity, not book-making. I have a yearning for simplicity, except where elaboration is reluctantly - and finally - necessary.
P. 42. 43. The fox I find clear, and interesting: a character who enriches the book: not an excrescence.
P. 44. The hedge-hog's death I'd call virtuosity, again. The otters had gone: why deepen the jungle behind their backs? We all know that nature is bloody and ravenous.
P. 45, 46. 'golden' pollen, 'green' heads... 'brown' in autumn. I do not like catalogues of colours. Hint at them by parallel, not by direct classification. 'Fountains of pollen spilled like sunlight on the juicy heads, which would soon pass, with autumn, into the colours of decay.' That's awful: but W. could have done it well, knowing the plants. Just the bald statement is too easy: it's like a pencil sketch, with colour-notes written along the margins. Marland Jimmy is a character. He and Nog are my two joys in the book: for I don't like Tarka or Deadlock: and the she-otters are confusing and undistinguished.
P. 48. Before the shadow of a grass-stalk:... bravo! There's the seeing eye!
P. 51. 'Like a mussel-shell on a seashore.' Only one a I think is prudent.
P. 53–55. The trap scene is well done. But why (p. 55) 'the otter she left it'... a misprint, or more literary-particularity? If the latter, it's a crime to get self-conscious in the heat of action. When there is leisure, you may preen yourself: but never when you're moving.
P. 60. 'mewing with their pads on the dead bird.' 'The moon hung like a gold fishbone in the dusk.' This seems to me improbable. Fish-bones don't often hang, and are only gold if in a finnan haddock, smoked.
P. 62. I like this picture of the moon like a luminous grub in a cocoon.
P. 64. 'A wheel of sticks, riveted by bubbles':- too elaborate. Pictures should be common enough for the reader to think of their parallel not of them.
P. 67–68–69. Very good: a charm of pleasure after too much animal.
P. 70. The first paragraph is music: and the second good. But bump goes the warm blood next page, when the otter takes the stage again. Perhaps W. tired of his first-line animals, sometimes.
P. 76. The sea, and Bideford are beautifully introduced, and painted in: there is real skill in the changing scene.
P. 78–79. The swallows again bring back the deeper note. Do you notice how W. puts his highest lights on the birds?
P. 79. Shouldn't more weight have been laid on the growth of Tarka, as an animal? We get hundreds of the greedy little beast's meals, and not one decent phrase or thought out of his head. He's about as intelligent as a mincing machine.
P. 84. The mill is a pleasant variety. I'd have emphasised it.
P. 85. God, I suppose, is love: but, no one would have thought it.
P. 89. The lighthouse is two pictures telescoped: the bright eye - in the dark: and the bleached bone - in sunlight. Either is good: both together are bad. The last sentence of this para. again introduces colour-words, from a catalogue. Colour - like the 'bleached bone' very fine example - should be left for the reader's quickened imagination to fill in. I'm not sure that the best writer isn't he who gets most work out of his reader.
P. 91–93. The sea-fight is good, but a little too Jack-London-Hugo, with its violence. An animal too many, I fancy, for easy digestion. But fighting makes me sick. I'm quaker-natured.
P. 96 seq. The raven is magnificent. One can see him. I suppose birds in the air are nearer us than animals in the water: or is it that an airman finds something cleansing and holy in the power of flight?
P. 100–102. The main episode is amazing. I fancy it's too strange to be untrue: but it makes a gargoyle of strangeness in a book which contains, otherwise, hardly a high-light. Tarka is like two or three motives, twined together.
P. 103. 'Poured like liquid glass' - lovely phrase: though I'd have avoided 'icy' as next-door neighbour. The spines of the grass scratching at the air v.g: but what a come-down to the air's clutch, in the last line!
P. 104. The prose in this mounts full and significant, into positive splendour. Page 105 is all a crescendo: and the central paragraph of p. 106 seems to me the climax of the book - almost fit, for its wonder, to be put next to Traherne's 'orient wheat', as one of the finest passages of English prose. Sense, sound, colour, all quite beyond criticism: beyond ordinary admiration too. It makes me very shy of writing critically of any of the book. Only I feel that W. should have wrought himself up to this point more than once: could have:
P. 110. Marland Jimmy again warms up the otter world. Good old beast.
P. 121–123. These do not seem to me as good as some of the rest. A surfeit probably. The book repeats itself, sometimes, not in word or deed, but in spirit and result.
P. 125. The 'I' seems causeless. Is it the remains of an earlier draft, or the irruption of a later mood?
P. 129. 'Bog and hummocks'; 'dimmed and occluded': 'drifts and hollows': why all this marrying? Occluded should not be in progression with dimmed, either. Dimmed into occlusion? Occluded into dimness? Better left out. Peat that was heather: a bit too tightly pressed, that cheese. Often he packs too much into his sentences. Tarka takes days to read: whereas books shouldn't be so long and slow: readers can only give books their spare hours: and how are we to keep a mood for the spare hours of every day for a week, to do W. justice? He should ask less of his public, in time: but more in degree.
P. 131. 'A fine sibilance in the wry wind music': Oh very good. 'Wry' is genius, just there. The gladness of the otter, too, is very welcome, at last.
P. 133. Good page, till the preciousness of the grey and silent 'song-light' trips you up on your face in the bog. Nor do I like the 'immense dandelion'. I laugh of course, but twistedly. It's like the sea, which in Aeschylus had an ανηριθμον γελασμα: and in M. Arnold unplumbed, salt, estranging: and in Milton performed pure ablution: and in the Sitwells yaps like a Pekinese: and to James Joyce is scrotum-tightening. Each artist finds the self-portrait in it.
P. 134. 'The moor-folk call this morning glory the Ammil.' And the French, with like crudity call a dandelion a pissant-lit [sic]. Damn the moor-folk.
P. 136–137. I like your stoats. They did to Tarka what he'd earned - or some of it. I didn't think I'd ever like stoats, either.
P. 139. The cocoa-tin is a beautiful thing, just enough told and no more. Excellent.
P. 142. The picture of the viper-shaped river is good, but a little too rare for my fancy. My eyes like to see quickly, not to half-shut themselves and erect a likeness from some very deep stomach of imagination.
P. 144–145. Tarka the man of blood again. I'm all on the dogs' side now: and shall vote for the extermination of otters.
P. 146. The cat is good: though I'd have liked her better less maimed.
P. 147. 'A hot broken glitter' (good) 'like a flight of silver' (bad; all metallic life) 'birds played lightly on the [green] flags... one brilliant beak of light pecked at his eye till he awoke [yawning, to turn on his back].' The underdotted part too much prolongs the metaphor. I have tried to smooth the march of the sentence after 'awoke'. His grain is too harsh, and his tempo monotonous with its metronomic regularity. More variety of syntax, please, and more agility of verbs. Up the subjunctive mood.
P. 148. A good short shower, well done, but drowned in too much that is less significant. This book is rich enough for ten, like wedding cake, in which plums crowd out the honest flour to the degree of uneatability, and dim the acerbity of the peel.
P. 149. Apparently he does not like a closed car, even on a showery day. What plenty of dry clothes he must have, at home! Or does he not keep a car? Engine smoke is rather a lovely pale blue, if the driver knows his job.
P. 151. 'The murky water twired by the knee joints of his thin green legs.' Oh, very good, again: twired was probably half a day's work, and worth it.
P. 152–153. I suppose the dog-catalogue is good. There is a rare variety of description: I am not fond of hounds, though, and do not warm to their noise or sight: and I felt the particularity too deliberate, as of someone who had read the Iliad.
P. 155. Tarka's escape reads to me a bit tall: but I suppose W. has otter-hunted, and I haven't - and won't.
P. 161. 'Points of shining rested on the black bubbles riding on the crests of hollows.' Not a good sentence. The two 'ings' are one too many: not more than one 'ing' per 5 or 6 lines, as a rule, unless they are tied 'ings', like 'leaping and twisting': here one is substantial, and one verbal. 'On the . . . on the' - this is also crude: and crests of hollows is too stiff. Three 'silvers' in the next three lines.
P. 163. 'Assayed the air.' v.g. but rather wasted. It should have been tied to the scent of White-tip, so that the reader felt it coming, and caught it.
P. 165. 'With pricked ears and a tail-tip gone.' tut tut. 'Linked into chains and chased': two 'cha' together. Tut Tut. Only repeat a word-sound if it is reminiscent of the act-sound you are trying to describe.
P. 166. 'The ringing rasp of [circular saws] was loud [in the sunlight].' Circular saws rang raspingly.... I don't know. I'd have put it other.
P. 169. 'Just deep enough to cover an old boot.' That seems to me very skilful. The owls supply very necessary humour. I wish there had been more to smile at, all through the book.
P. 173. This isn't the first or second time that the curlews have provided admirable passages and pictures in the welter of blood.
P. 174–176. The ravens again are good. All the birds seem to me higher creations than the otters.
P. 180. 'The noise [of the approaching hunt] hurt the fine drums of his ears.' At last I feel with Tarka.
P. 181 seq. The movement of the hunt, with the tangled weaving of Tarka's trail, is very good.
P. 187. The whirlpool is very good.
P. 188. I don't like the needless entry of the fisherman. W. dis- tracts us, often, by too much. A few pages back he drew a lovely picture, in a line, of the golden-stream-shadow of Tarka's swimming-wave. Lovely: but there was a hunt on.
P. 189, 190. Good: but surely a bit tall?
P. 192. The stag-hunt is an excrescence. We don't want so much matter.
P. 195 seq. The wandering of Tarka after White-tip is well- drawn, shapely, and (though richer and closer-woven than most writing) not discursive for W.
P. 203. 'Gemmeous dragonet'... and he liked the horror so much that he repeats it, 2 pages later, when I was decently over the shock!
P. 204. 'It saw T. and out of its beak, hooped as its wings in downward gliding, fell a croak, which slurred upwards to a whistle, and broke in a sweet trill as it flew away.' Not a digestible sentence. He should have chewed it again, for our sakes. Good old Nog returns to save the situation. Continuity is a blessing in so gravelly a book. Pictures hail down at us from every page.
P. 205. Good, where the otters meet, with the differing voices
P. 207. The cottage-lights, 'like wind-blown embers' is so good that I'd have struck out Antares 'like an ember' on p. 22.
P. 208. The cubs eating fascinated me, as a study in syllable- music. Very acutely 's'd and 'e'd.
P. 212. The flowers and birds again relieve me of more fish- suppers. I don't like fish, and never did, either fried or boiled: while as for raw!
P. 214. Nog's children make another smile: whereas the cubs are just bloody. Is it my fancy, or are otters hateful?
P. 219. I do not like the sentiment of the three last lines: it too broadly prefigures a tragic next chapter.
P. 220–223. The gathering of the hunt - good. I smell some irony behind it - perhaps wrongly. Good stuff, though. The hunt I won't attempt to pronounce upon. It must have been very hard to do, for we had had previous hunts (too much, perhaps?) which had stolen much of what should have been its thunder. It is drawn out very long, but the prose has more excitement in it, so that the eye can run down a paragraph without microscopically examining each word. That's a kindness W. does us, at last. Good metaphor, careful picturing, are blemishes in active parts, where no adjectives are needed at all. I call the last three or four paragraphs very fine stuff, and the end of the book almost too skilful. A piece so cunning, so composed, so artful, requires to be read in court dress, rather as Machiavelli used to write! Symbolic, parabolic, realistic:- but not real. Yet so spiced and tormented a generation as ours can hardly find a simplicity which does not ring false: so perhaps it is better to admit our complexity, and develop it to the nth.
I'm rather appalled to have written so much, and to have arrogantly suggested change. Yet to put it bluntly saves space. I have felt something lacking in the spots upon which my reading has checked to a standstill. If I were a writer, I could, presumably, have said what was the matter - and that would have hurt W.'s feelings. Whereas by just putting up a notice 'Danger, road up', I've attracted his attention, without trying to particularise trenches, or holes, or new metal, or deflections, or side-roads.
He will realise, if you send him this letter, that I'm not a verbal artist: but a fellow who thought for a long time about writing, and then found (not too late) that he couldn't do it. Yet sometimes I fancy that it isn't the success who teaches best, but the half-failure. So perhaps he will not be peevish. I shouldn't have written so much about the book if it was not, in my judgement, particularly worth writing about. If I might hazard a general opinion it is that the otter-subject did him much harm. All his good stuff clusters in the side-lines of the book. He could write, I think, nobly about open air, and wind, and sunlight, and night and men and birds.
If W. is tetchy and satisfied, don't send him this. He'll be insulted at the criticisms of a nobody he's never heard of. But my ambition to write would sooner have come to its head (and incidentally cut its throat in despair) if someone had taken my stuff line by line and ragged it. You did, practically, in your long notes on that draft of my encumbrance: but I met you five years after the crisis was over, when I was already embarking on a new line, which has, thanks be to God, decently contented me. Lucky to have spare strings for my bow!
T. E. Shaw.
Very many thanks for sending it to me. It has kept me sizzling with joy for three weeks. The best thing I've met for ever so long. Fresh, hopeful, fecund, and so, so, careful. It is heartening to see a writer caring much for his words, and chasing and chiselling them with such firmness. I hope he likes it well enough to persevere, for I shall look forward to reading him again:- apart from Tarka, which I'll read many times yet.
I should have said you something for yourself in all this: but I belong to the fellowship of the Dry Road, and we hatch nothing but sand-eggs:- sand-pipers, sand-storms, sand-spits and sand flies. I have not done you one more line of that clean copy of notes: and the possibility of having to finish off a dead man's work looms in front as a threat to its present taking-in-hand. Alas: peccavi: and I propose to go on with the bad work. There is a little pleasure in sinning steadily.
The other day I met, by chance, your book on Hogarth.... The painter Hogarth, not my D.G.H. O, I wish he had not died. Hardy's going was grievous, but at least he had finished, and was just waiting in his house, to go: and I am glad that his mind had not lost any of its keenness. But D.G.H. left in the very midst of all our need of him: and as he never failed us, while he lived, so his death will have vexed him, if he knows or knew of it: so explicable a man.
|Last revised:||5 July 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