During moments in Lawrence of Arabia, or in whole passages in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, you might notice T. E. Lawrence’s love for the poetic, both in the actual form and in his prose. He was, as it turns out, a serious reader and critic of poetry: he toted The Oxford Book of English Verse with him in Arabia, and collected his Minorities during and after the war. In his own words, he defined Minorities as “Good Poems by Small Poets and Small Poems by Good Poets.” The first U.S. edition was not published until 1971.
The poems (many of which are from the Oxford Book) are fairly what you’d expect from the complex mind of T. E. Lawrence. Some are classics by his predecessors, such as Poe and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and others are poems by his contemporaries who surpassed his honest criticisms. I was surprised at the variety, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. If you take into account his mental state after the war, mixed with his survivor’s fighting spirit and his longing for peace, the range of the collection makes more sense: beauty and bleakness, profanity and reverence, depression and hope. Some of the first poems are particularly ugly and sacrilegious, coming near the end of the Arab Revolt and his depression over its result. As the book goes on, however, the poems become less dark and more reverent, suggesting that time, if not the ultimate Healer, was instrumental in the healing process.
That said, the editor warns us not to take the book as autobiographical. Though Lawrence copied some poems in entirety, still it was sometimes only a line or two of a poem which struck home with him. I was very impressed with the editor and introduction; it’s very rare that an editor doesn’t make mountains out of mole hills, and J. M. Wilson succeeds in coming across as interested, but not overblown.
I marked nine poems that really stood out to me. Maybe the most memorable one was “The Owl” by Edward Thomas, written in 1917.
Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.
Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry
Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.
And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.
(Source: The Poetry Foundation)
I give this 3.5 out of 5 stars, recommended for anyone wanting to learn about Lawrence or the zeitgeist of his time. They say these days you can learn a lot about someone by the music they listen to; think of Minorities as Lawrence’s playlist.