Seven Pillars of Wisdom

From Academic Kids

      Some Englishmen, of whom Kitchener was chief, believed that a rebellion of Arabs against Turks would enable England, while fighting Germany, simultaneously to defeat Turkey.
      Their knowledge of the nature and power and country of the Arabic-speaking peoples made them think that the issue of such a rebellion would be happy: and indicated its character and method.
      So they allowed it to begin...
           Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Introduction
Missing image
Tooling on the cover of the first public printing, showing twin scimitars and the legend: "the sword also means clean-ness + death"

Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph is the autobiographical account of the experiences of T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") while serving as a liaison officer with rebel forces during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks of 1916 to 1918.



The title was drawn from the Book of Proverbs, 9:1 –

Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars. (King James Version)

Prior to World War I, Lawrence had begun work on a scholarly book about seven great cities of the Arab world, to be titled Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The outbreak of war saw it still uncompleted and Lawrence says he later destroyed the manuscript. Nevertheless, he decided to recycle the evocative title for the memoirs he penned in the aftermath of the war.

Whilst the title might seem better suited to the former book than the latter, a line from the dedicatory poem at the start of the book helps explain Lawrence's interpretation of the Biblical "seven pillars" and their relevance to the Arab Revolt:

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To gain you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
that your eyes might be shining for me
When I came.

A variant last line of that stanza – reading "When we came" – appears in some editions; however, the 1922 Oxford text (see below) has "When I came".

Manuscripts and editions

Lawrence kept extensive notes throughout the course of his involvement in the Revolt. He began work on a clean narrative in the first half of 1919 while in Paris for the peace conference and, later that summer, while back in Egypt. By Christmas 1919 he had a fair draft of most of the ten books that make up the Seven Pillars of Wisdom but, in an act of monumental absent-mindedness and misfortune, lost the manuscript (in its entirety, except for the introduction and last two books) when he misplaced his briefcase while changing trains at Reading station. National newspapers alerted the British public to the loss of the "hero's manuscript", but to no avail: the draft remained lost. Lawrence refers to this version as "Text I" and says that had it been published, it would have been some 250,000 words in length.

In early 1920, Lawrence set about the daunting task of rewriting as much as he could remember of the first version. Working from memory alone (he had destroyed his wartime notes upon completion of the corresponding parts of Text I), he was able to complete this "Text II", 400,000 words long, in three months. Lawrence described this version as "hopelessly bad" in literary terms, but historically it was "substantially complete and accurate".

With Text II in front of him, Lawrence began working on a polished version ("Text III") in London, Jeddah, and Amman during 1921. Upon completion of its 335,000 words in February 1922, Lawrence burned Text II. He then proceeded to have eight copies typeset and printed on the presses of the Oxford Times, and this private edition this became known as the "1922 Edition" or the "Oxford Text" of Seven Pillars. He made painstaking handwritten corrections to six of these copies and had them bound; in 2001, the last time one of these rough printings came on to the market, it fetched almost USD $1 million at auction. This time, instead of burning the manuscript, Lawrence presented it to the Bodleian Library.

By summer 1922, Lawrence was in a state of severe mental turmoil: the psychological after-effects of war were taking their toll, as were his exhaustion from the literary endeavours of the past three years, his disillusionment with the settlement given to his Arab comrades-in-arms, and the burdens of being in the public eye as a perceived "national hero". It was at this time that he re-enlisted in the armed forces under an assumed name (first the Royal Air Force, then the Royal Tank Corps), in an attempt to "lie fallow" and develop a new identity. Concerned over his mental state and eager for his story to be read by a wider public, his friends convinced him to produce an abridged version of Seven Pillars, to serve as both intellectual stimulation and a source of much-needed income. In his off-duty evenings, "Airman Ross" – or, later, "Private Shaw" – set to trimming the 1922 text down to 250,000 words for what would be a very limited, exceedingly lavish subscribers' edition.

The Subscribers' Edition – in a print-run of less than 200 copies, each with a unique, sumptuous, hand-crafted binding – saw the light of day in late 1926. Copies occasionally become available in the antiquarian trade and can easily command prices of up to USD $100,000. Unfortunately, each copy cost Lawrence three times the price the subscribers had paid. Intellectual stimulation it may have provided; the cure for his financial woes it was not.

The Subscribers' Edition was 25% shorter than the Oxford Text, but Lawrence did not abridge uniformly. The deletions from the early books are much less drastic than those of the later ones: for example, Book I lost 17% of its words and Book IV lost 21%, compared to 50% and 32% for Books VIII and IX. Critics differed in their appreciations of the two editions: Robert Graves and George Bernard Shaw preferred the 1922 text (although, from a legal standpoint, they appreciated the removal of certain passages that could have been considered libelous, or at least indiscreet), while E. M. Forster preferred the 1926 version.

Literary merits aside, however, producing the Subscribers' Edition had left Lawrence facing bankruptcy. He was forced to undertake an even more stringent pruning and produce a version for sale to the general public: this was the 1927 Revolt in the Desert, a work of some 130,000 words: "an abridgement of an abridgement," remarked George Bernard Shaw, not without disdain.

Readers would have had to remain satisfied with Revolt in the Desert, however, were it not for Lawrence's untimely death in May 1935. "No further issue of the Seven Pillars will be made in my lifetime," Lawrence had said upon release of the Subscribers' Edition in 1926. Within weeks of his death, the 1926 abridgment was published for general circulation.

The unabridged Oxford Text of 1922 was not released to the public until its UK copyright expired in 1997.

Editions in print

External links


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