T. E. Lawrence

Common soldiers had come between him and death,
But never before in this manner:
The cold gun hiccupping uselessly at his temple,
The cartridges silent in Bruce’s hand.

Did tenderness swoop between them, for a moment
Poised, deadlier than a bullet?
Thick as air before the thunderclap,
The peril of love must have been immanent,
Their faces naked as if sketched by lightning.

For a split infinity the thunder paused: then straiter
Than tears trapped in the throat, there passed between them
No massive and joyous meeting, but a quiet pledge
Never again to transgress thus:
The finger eased from the trigger, the hammer sliding back.

I wrote that — you will have to tell me if it works or not — in the early Eighties when I was accumulating a collection of books by and about T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, the archaeologically inclined Oxonian and British Intelligence operative who let himself be dragged kicking and screaming into fame for his Middle Eastern exploits during the First World War. It’s in a section of my manuscript poetry headed “A Calendar Of Saints.”

Lawrence has been idolized, debunked, fictionalized, cinematized and commemorated. As time went on wide-eyed speculations surfaced about his masochism, as if it were something he invented on his own and a quick tour through London phone boxes (are any still there? My memories date from 1998) doesn’t confirm an appetite for discipline and “swishing” as The English Vice. The snickers usually start when someone raises the subject of John “Jock” Bruce, a Scottish enlisted man whom Lawrence paid to birch him and then write accounts of the punishment. The elaborate fiction Lawrence concocted around those beatings — an older relative who wanted Lawrence to pay the penalty for some vague transgression against the family — suggests there was no openly erotic transaction involved; Lord knows that in Britain of that day or this a man like Lawrence could have found a matter-of-fact rent boy to flog him for a few quid.

The arresting thing, to me, is that what’s known about his courtship of pain yields little flavor of lewd, overripe Swinburnian buttock epicurism. Something else was going on and we will never know quite what. Freudians have had their day musing about shame over Lawrence’s probable illegitimacy and his runty stature (five-two, owing to broken bones in childhood). If you read enough of the explaining and debunking and even of the Boy’s Own Paper hero-worship, you get an urge to open all the windows and hope for a stiff gale: “To have news value is to have a tin can tied to one’s tail,” he commented once.

He had something to prove about endurance, did Lawrence. I doubt he ever made much confession of the spirit to anyone, but despite the loving detail he lavished on an almost surreal account of wartime rape in his memoirs — some say he made it up — reducing his appetite for pain to a kind of elaborate wank is the recreation of small minds. He tested limits: how far he could ride a camel, how long he could function ill or wounded, how many laps he could swim in freezing Scottish waters. David Lean’s film captures a bit of the feel:

Something had a gun to his head, and late in the day, Jock Bruce described a period when Lawrence seemed literally despairing and suicidal, to the point Bruce removed the cartridges from his sidearm a short time before Lawrence actually picked it up and put it to his head — a bit, I suspect, like the Hindu saint Ramakrishna, who despaired so completely of attaining the divine vision that he was in the act of turning a sword on himself when enlightenment finally smacked him.

No enlightenment was recorded on this occasion, nor anything more personal. There was a bond between the two, but I imagine Bruce less as a paid lover than as an aide-de-camp in a quest to break out of some prison of human limits; I suspect that for Lawrence ordinary physical sex was just another prison, too “mediocre, accidental, mortal,” as were the relationships and families it created. (“It is monstrous to ask us to love our parents,” he wrote once in a letter, I think to Charlotte Shaw: “we owe them too much.”)

Lawrence apologized for distressing Bruce and told him he wouldn’t try that again.

He died, instead, riding a Brough Superior motorcycle named, as all of his motorcycles were named, Boanerges or “Son of Thunder.” It was stuck in a low gear when he wiped out (or was forced off the road, if you like conspiracy theories) but he preferred to ride on the open road at terrifying speeds, occasionally racing an airplane for diversion.

Another bend: and I have the honour of one of England’ straightest and fastest roads. The burble of my exhaust unwound like a long cord behind me. Soon my speed snapped it, and I heard only the cry of the wind which my battering head split and fended aside. The cry rose with my speed to a shriek: while the air’s coldness streamed like two jets of iced water into my dissolving eyes. I screwed them to slits, and focused my sight two hundred yards ahead of me on the empty mosaic of the tar’s gravelled undulations.

Like arrows the tiny flies pricked my cheeks: and sometimes a heavier body, some house-fly or beetle, would crash into face or lips like a spent bullet. A glance at the speedometer: seventy-eight. Boanerges is warming up. I pull the throttle right open, on the top of the slope, and we swoop flying across the dip, and up-down up-down the switchback beyond: the weighty machine launching itself like a projectile with a whirr of wheels into the air at the take-off of each rise, to land lurchingly with such a snatch of the driving chain as jerks my spine like a rictus.

The Mint (completed about 1926)

Sensual, and arguably erotic, but in a way that transcends sex as most people understand it. This is John Donne asking God to batter his heart, or Saint Teresa waiting for the angel to transfix her vitals. Not to mention that the bastard could write, and that while fighting a war, advising on matters of state (and probably doing undercover work), serving in the RAF and wrestling with his soul. He was dead at forty-six, in part because whatever risks he took mattered less to him than what he accomplished, or experienced, as a result: “The trick is not to mind that it hurts.”

He is one of my saints, part ascetic, part ecstatic. Someday I may come a fraction as close to leaving behind the timidity and reluctance of the body. T. S. Eliot can have his dialogue in Heaven with Coriolanus and Philip Sidney; I want to have my first dinner at Lawrence’s end of the table.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

John Mack, A Prince Of Our Disorder

H. Montgomery Hyde, Solitary in the Ranks

20 thoughts on “T. E. Lawrence

  1. Fantastic. Would like to link to from my own poorly traveled blog, given permission.

    He fascinates me but I know little beyond the O’Toole movie. I’m briefly given to fascinations that way.

    More than one friend has recommended I read The Seven Pillars …. I’m sure the outcome of that recommendation so far can be guessed at.

    All that aside, your description of his exploration of limits puts a lot more flesh on the man. The scene you share is the scene I thought of before I had scrolled down far enough to see it.

  2. The Mint is one of my favourite books. And I have never forgiven an ex of mine for pinching it.

    A fascinating man, I’d join you for dinner at his end of the table. Can we invite Thomas Cromwell, too?

    • If you look at the online link there is a delicious choice between the “clean” version of The Mint and the one with the “barrack room language” left in. Ah, sensibilities.

      I suspect that at Lawrence’s end of the table the fare would be plain bread and water, but anyone willing to enjoy the conversation on that provender would be welcome. I admit to knowing little about Cromwell. Weak on England between the Plantagenets and the Victorians.

  3. Agreed, a fascinating, unlikely, remarkable character. Ever read any of Dorothy Dunnett’s books featuring Francis Crawford of Lymond? I’m 100% sure that the character is based on T.E. Lawrence.

    • No I haven’t! Note to self.

      Lawrence has made several fictionalized appearances — G.B. Shaw stuck him in a play but I never could get through some rambling about maroons to get a feel for the character, and John Buchan came close to the “Boy’s Own Paper” version in “Greenmantle” but I forgave him since he was Buchan.

    • Really? I read that series 8 or so years ago and want to reread them, with Dunnett’s companion book along side to help with some translations. Great stories. Having learned a little more about Lawrence I’ll have to think about that.

      I just finished light novel, historically based, main character is old maid who goes on trip to Egypt and gets involved with Lawrence, Churchill and Gertrude Bell. The excerpts about the meetings and characters are pretty true to history. Engaging read, Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

      • Walker, I couldn’t prove that … and yet, the small, slight, golden-haired, fine-featured, sexually ambiguous, constantly misunderstood, insanely resilient, envelope-pushing Lymond … has a hell of a lot in common w/Lawrence, IMO … right down to his understanding of the Muslim/Arabic mind and warfare techniques (in a different century, of course).

  4. Yes, your poem works very well.

    I don’t know that much about Lawrence …… obviously a complex man who was afraid of boredom perhaps …. I suspect this is the rather mundane motivation for a lot of ‘exciting’ people ………

    • I’ve always gathered that it was more than a fear of boredom because he so ardently wanted to achieve things that were beyond most people’s most extreme ambitions. Fear of boredom leads people to do random, destructive or wasteful things, but doesn’t seem quite enough motive for such purposeful undertakings. I suspect joining up in the RAF as a common recruit occasioned a lot of boredom, actually…

  5. My dad always revered T. E. Lawrence, and we were taken to see the O’Toole movie the year it came out — I was nine at the time. I’m not sure that that move was appropriate viewing for us kids, my brother was 7 and my little sister 5 and they saw it too, but it certainly was impressive. When I saw it again a few decades later I was astonished at how completely I had remembered it.

    Your poem works well indeed. I like the line nursemyra likes too, but it is even more powerful coupled with the next one. You seem to have a great understanding of the bonds that grow between men at war; how interesting that you express that tenderness can be deadlier than a bullet.

    Very good essay, sledpress. I have never read the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, even though I have meant to. I believe I shall remedy that oversight in the immediate future. Thanks for the shove.

  6. “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” is one of those books that has always been on my list of want to read that for whatever reason just never makes it to the list of have read. Your post is the nudge I need. Thank you.

  7. I read “SEVEN PILLARS” at least every other year, since I was in my teens. I love the literary part of it and it seems that each time I read it I find some phrase or some thought that I do not remember reading before.
    I’ve worn out 3 or 4 copies, had a couple pinched. I don’t suppose there is any other book I have more respect for. . . again, I fine piece of literature…. I can’t imagine how T E L suffered over it, thinking over and over of how it just “wasn’t worth reading” and that he was as inclined to burn it rather than have it published….. It was about 10 years in production, from what I remember reading.
    His letters to his many admirers give wonderful insight into his mind…. a VERY complex man.

    • Thank you for visiting!

      Phrases painted themselves onto the walls of my mind: the “cute camels” squatting by the airstrip, or the “fookin water boogers” that a Scots radioman predicted would be no help. Indelible.

      I have a Lawrence strip on my bookshelf just a little over a foot long.

  8. Lawrence turned into a very complicated man after the war. No doubt he suffered from PTSD, and his later correspondence made it clear that something evil indeed happened in Deraa. He never could bring himself to describe it plainly, and rewrote that chapter numerous times. I’ve been immersed in T.E. Lawrence for a year and a half now, and have collected stacks of books by and about him thanks to online used book sources. For those who want more, I highly recommend the Oxford edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which is about a quarter again longer than the published edition. The Castle Hill Press paperback version is beautifully done with an excellent index, well worth the cost.

    • Okay, now I have to buy a book. Again. 🙂

      I’ve got the classic Doubleday edition of Seven Pillars, illustrated with artists’ various representations of Lawrence, Feisal et al. There are a couple more titles in my Amazon wishlist, recent ones that I’m almost afraid to get lest I plunge off into minor obsession again. Though maybe that would be a good thing.

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