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TE Lawrence, Robert Graves, and Fulfillment by Self-Destruction

“To progress again, man must remake himself. And he cannot remake himself without suffering. For he is both the marble and the sculptor. In order to uncover his true visage, he must shatter his own substance with heavy blows of his hammer.” – Alexis Carrel1

In the years after World War I, TE Lawrence, who served in the Middle East, and Robert Graves, who served in France, would both come home from the war to live very different lives. Lawrence continuing his career in government and military service, while Graves turned inwards, fighting psychological demons that followed him home from the frontlines, eventually overcoming them to become a celebrated writer. Despite the different paths each took after the war, their writings and interactions show that Lawrence and Graves met and became close friends, clearly seeing in the other a mirror of themselves, and ultimately being united in a shared desire for a form of rebirth, and to start their lives anew.

The relationship and interactions between Graves and Lawrence existed on multiple levels, encompassing deep conversation one minute, and youthful acts the next. The author Malcolm Brown wrote that, “Graves would recall serious talk with [Lawrence] but also undergraduate-like pranks.”2 While working one day in Bodleian Library at Oxford, Graves looked out the window toward the top of a building at All Souls College to see a small Hejaz flag flying, reminding him “that his eccentric friend had been a notable roof-walker when at Jesus College before the war.”3 Few other men would have made that connection between Lawrence and the flag, or if they had, would have known about his pre-War extracurriculars.

Lawrence did his part to build and strengthen this relationship, writing frequently to Graves throughout the post-War years, and being open and honest about his activities and what was driving him. He wrote to Graves in November 1922 about his decision to drop out of public view:4

“A necessary step, forced on me by an inclination towards ground-level: by a despairing hope that I’d find myself on common ground with men: by a little wish to become more human than I had become in Barton Street: by an itch to make myself ordinary in a mob of likes; also I’m broke. […] I wanted to join up, that’s all: and I’m still glad, sometimes, that I did. It’s going to be a brain-sleep, and I’ll come out of it less odd than I went in: or at least less odd in other men’s eyes.”

Graves was doing something similar. After wresting with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, he made a break with his past, leaving friends and family behind and moving to a remote part of Europe, seeking “the possibility of resurrection and the refashioning of identity.”5 As Paul O’Prey argues, “Graves’s attempted break with his past was a form of suicide that Lawrence would have understood.”6 Indeed, this desire to be reborn as someone else serves as the subject of The Clipped Stater, one of Graves’ celebrated pieces of poetry, and a clear attempt to tell Lawrence’s story after he changed names and joined the Royal Air Force. In it, Graves writes of Alexander the Great (Lawrence) transitioning from being a well-known royal to being an unknown peasant, clearly pointing to both Lawrence’s change of name (first to John Hume Ross, then T.E. Shaw) and of station (enlisting in the Royal Air Force and Royal Tank Corps). It likely was also partially autobiographical, reflecting Graves’ own desire for a fresh start in life. As one of the more famous lines from the poem states, “I must fulfill my self by self-destruction:”7

‘Then finity is true godhead’s final test,
Nor does it dim the glory of free being.
I must fulfill myself by self-destruction.’
The curious phrase renews his conquering zest.

He assumes man’s flesh. Djinn catch him up and fly
To a land of yellow folk beyond his knowledge,
And that he does not know them, he takes gladly
For surest proof he has put his godhead by.

Later, Graves writes a passage highlighting Lawrence’s self-demotion from an officer in the army to an enlisted aircraftsman in the RAF:8

But Alexander the man, whom yellow folk
Find roving naked, armed with a naked cutlass,
Has death, which is the stranger’s fate, excused him.
Joyfully he submits to the alien yoke.

He is enrolled now in the frontier-guard
With gaol-birds and the press gang’s easy captures;
Where captains who have felt the Crown’s displeasure,
But have thought suicide too direct and hard,

Tellingly, The Clipped Stater was dedicated not to Lawrence directly, but to Shaw. Graves was certainly not alone in dedicating works to Lawrence. E.M. Forster (The Eternal Moment, 1928), F.L Lucas (Cecile, 1930), Frederick Manning (Apologia Dei, 1930), John Buchan (Julius Caesar, 1932), B.H. Liddel Hart (The Ghost of Napoleon, 1933), and Henry Williamson (Salar the Salmon, 1935) all did so, too. But no writer dedicated quite so much to Lawrence, nor did so to his pseudonyms, nor seemed to have such a strong connection with him, as Graves, who dedicated four works – The Pier Glass (1921), On English Poetry (1922), The Clipped Stater (1925), and My Head! My Head! (1925) – all to Lawrence.9 All this in addition to writing the well-received biography, Lawrence and the Arabs (1927).

Despite Lawrence and Graves taking vastly different paths in life after leaving military service, their writings and conversations show that they became and remained close friends, confidants, and muses for each other. Ultimately, they were two men who were both wrestling with issues the other intimately knew and understood – a bond that lasted regardless of where they lived, what they did, and who they told others they were.

1 Alexis Carrel, Man, The Unknown (New York, N.Y.: Harper & Brothers, 1935), 8.
2 Malcolm Brown, T.E. Lawrence (New York, N.Y.: NYU Press, 2003), 111.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid 116-117.
5 Paul O’Prey, “Captain Graves’s Postwar Strategies,” in New Perspectives on Robert Graves, ed. Patrick J. Quinn (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1999), 42.
6 Ibid.
7 Robert Graves, Poems (1914-26) (Doubleday, Doran, 1929), 126.
8 Ibid.
9 Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography of T.E. Lawrence (New York: Atheneum, 1990). 1144.

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