'Threnos for T. E. Lawrence'

 

 

'THRENOS FOR T. E. LAWRENCE'

 

 

threnos front May 1954     
The European, May 1954  

The background

 

The essay

 

Magazine covers

 

 

Published in two parts in The European: No. 15, May 1954 and No. 16, June 1954

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The background:

 

Richard Aldington (1892–1962), a man of tempestuous and forthrightly honest nature, had become known at an early age when, just before the First World War, he was one of those involved in the Imagist movement together with Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis. Aldington served in the war, and was gassed and suffered from shell-shock.

 

Aldington and HW first made contact when Aldington wrote to HW praising The Wet Flanders Plain, published in 1929, followed soon after by his own acclaimed 'anti-war' novel Death of a Hero (1929). But the two men were really brought together by the young Australian poet Alister Kershaw, when in 1947 he travelled to Europe hoping to particularly meet three writers he particularly admired: the poet Roy Campbell, Richard Aldington (these two now living in France), and Henry Williamson, which he did in that order. Kershaw in effect became Aldington's amanuensis, and began to work hard on his behalf soon after their first meeting.

 

HW was then editing The Adelphi, and at Kershaw's suggestion he wrote asking Aldington for a contribution. Kershaw also urged a meeting between the two, and so HW spent his second honeymoon with new wife (Christine Duffield, whom he married on 13 April 1949) at Aldington's home Le Lavandou at Var on the south coast of France. The two men got on well and a firm friendship developed – although, by necessity, mainly by correspondence, as with the friendship between HW and T. E. Lawrence.

 

Aldington, who had several biographies published (his Duke of Wellington won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1946; another of D.H. Lawrence was considered controversial), was already contemplating a biography of T. E. Lawrence, seemingly prompted by Kershaw, who by then knew about HW's friendship and who himself was an avid admirer of the great Lawrence of Arabia.

 

Aldington very quickly found there was a big problem, as his letters to HW in due course show: at a very early stage he discovered there was a mystery surrounding TEL's parentage which he could not fathom. Today the story is well known, but at that time the evidence was very well hidden and no-one concerned was prepared to reveal the truth. (One can now see how and why Professor  A. W. Lawrence, TEL's brother, had been so circumspect in all his own dealings with TEL's affairs.)

 

A letter to HW, dated 4 January 1951, reveals Aldington's dilemma:

 

The TEL is the hardest book I have ever attempted, and I despair of success. Practically everything he professed at one time he denied at another; he gives contradictory accounts of the same event or motives; his friends contradict him and each other. There is some mystery about his family, a skeleton somewhere. I am trying to discover it. . . . The disentangling is heart-breaking. . . .

 

Aldington asked HW to try and check various facts, including TEL's entry in Who's Who, which showed that TEL himself was involved in a cover-up. Basically it emerged that TEL had been born out of wedlock. However, Aldington was also discovering what appeared to be a large number of other discrepancies in TEL's known life story. This eventually made him distrust everything to do with his subject. It is evident from his letters to HW that he was horrified by the mare's nest he was uncovering. He had set out to write the biography in good faith and now faced a serious dilemma. His own integrity would only allow him to tell the truth: but it was obvious too that this truth would be denied by those close to TEL (Aldington called them 'The Lawrence Bureau'). He was blocked at every move.

 

HW of course was becoming increasingly agitated by this state of affairs. He understood Aldington's problem to a large extent, but his real loyalty lay with TEL. As the deadline for publication of the book came closer he decided to pre-empt – or try to mitigate, at any rate – its effect by writing a long article, which was drawn mainly from his short book Genius of Friendship: T. E. Lawrence, published by Faber in 1941 and based on the letters exchanged between them. (In turn, this present web page is drawn chiefly from the page on Genius of Friendship.) The article was published in The European in two parts: Part I, May 1954 (No. 15); Part II, June 1954 (No. 16). The complete essay has been reprinted in Threnos for T. E. Lawrence and Other Writings, ed. John Gregory, HWS, 1994; e-book, 2014.

 

The European was perhaps a curious choice as an endeavour to mitigate the effects of the forthcoming biography, for it was a political and cultural magazine (published between 1953 and 1959) which never had a very large circulation. Its publisher was Euphorion Books, a company formed by Sir Oswald Mosley and his wife Diana (one of the Mitford sisters), and Diana was the magazine's editor from beginning to end. Its original political intention was to stress the importance that Britain should join the European Community, and although the majority of contributors were pro-Europe, the magazine, according to Diana Mosley, was an 'open forum' (Diana Mosley, A Life of Contrasts, Hamish Hamilton, 1977). Diana Mosley's biographer wrote that the magazine was devised for Oswald Mosley to reach a more intellectual and middle-class audience, but that 'Diana preferred to fill it with book reviews and notices of plays and films, even articles about food and cookery . . .' (Jan Dalley, Diana Mosley: A Life, Faber, 2000). 

 

Aldington's book was published first by Amiot-Dumont in Paris in 1954, and by Collins in the UK the following year (cover below). Its critical view of a popular hero created the anticipated storm, together with the equally expected backlash from the 'Lawrence Bureau'.

 

 

genius aldington

 

 

*************************

 

 

The essay:

 

This was published in The European in two parts: Part I, May 1954 (No. 15); Part II, June 1954 (No. 16).

 

As has been stated, 'Threnos' was based around Genius of Friendship, and HW's proof copy of that book has the first 3 pages (pp. 9–11) lightly crossed through with a note showing a new beginning at the top of page 12. This was his preparation for ‘Threnos’.

 

 

genius threnos1

 

 

Several further pages are also lightly crossed through, and there is a scattering of pencilled revisions in the margins. A final note shows these revisions to have been made in 1954: that is, for the ‘Threnos’ essay. (Further, HW pasted on to the blank end pages of this proof copy his 'Tribute to V. M. Yeates' from John O'London's Weekly, January 1935.)

 

HW opens the essay by quoting the 'THRENOS' from Shakespeare's poem ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’. (Discussion about this can be found in my Editorial, HWSJ 28, September 1993.) He then relates how he met Alister Kershaw and in due course Richard Aldington, and the latter's increasing perplexity as he prepared his biography of TEL. HW tries to be fair to Aldington while maintaining his position towards TEL.

 

 

genius threnos2

 

 

He then launches into the tale of how his father turned him out (an apocryphal story, this), his early life in Devon and the writing of Tarka the Otter. That leads him on to the ‘Tarka’ letter written by TEL. He gives his own analysis of TEL's behaviour: his reasoning why TEL perhaps did not tell the truth – that he himself told lies (or 'sudden spurts of invention) out of nervousness.

 

The text now becomes more or less the material from Genius of Friendship. Then, towards the end, HW returns to his purpose – the forthcoming Aldington biography. He reiterates that he has seen neither a proof copy nor a copy of the work.

 

But I do know some of the contradictions which have, apparently, been checked and cross checked by the biographer.

 

And then rather subtly gives the game away:

 

My very dear ‘T.E.’, . . . you who were and are . . . a veritable son of love . . .

 

Dear Lawrence of Arabia, ‘world's imp’ as the imaginative Arabs called you (and they knew!), did your imagination fizz over at times?

 

And so, in effect, HW is admitting here that TEL may have embroidered the truth, out of fear of discovery. HW ends:

 

Let the critic who has never slurred or twisted in his own life throw the first stone.

 

(Manuscripts and corrected typescript versions of both Genius of Friendship and ‘Threnos for T. E. Lawrence’ are part of the HW collection held at Exeter University.)

  

Aldington was upset by HW's attitude (understandably so: he was exhausted and exasperated beyond all measure by the fall-out engendered by his book), and the two men had a serious falling out over this matter. Nevertheless, he sent an inscribed copy of his book to HW, and after a while, to the credit mainly of Aldington, their friendship resumed where it had left off.

 

 

genius aldington2

 

 

For further background to this story see:

 

AW, 'The Genius of Friendship – Part I: T. E. Lawrence (HWSJ 27, March 1993)

AW, 'The Genius of Friendship – Part II: Richard Aldington (HWSJ 28, September 1993)

 

 

*************************

 

 

Magazine covers:

 

 

threnos cover May 1954

 

 

threnos cover June 1954

 

 

 

*************************

 

 

 

 

Back to 'A Life's Work'