I’ve been reading T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and at times his prose is breathtaking. Here’s what he says about his journey down the Red Sea by boat from Suez to Jidda:
By day we lay in shadow; and for great part of the glorious nights we would tramp up and down the wet decks under the stars in the steaming breath of the southern wind. But when at last we anchored in the outer harbor, off the white town hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage which swept and rolled over the wide lagoon, then the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless. (p. 49)
I feel like I’m there, standing on the ship’s deck beneath a noonday sun so bright that all color seems muted, trying to hold firm against the assault of that intense heat.
Lawrence describes dozens of different types of sand and stone throughout the book, the way they lie together in valleys or tower over the landscape in layered escarpments. I can see them in my mind’s eye, and I find myself longing to see them with the eyes of my face as well, to feel them beneath my camel’s feet and hear the sounds they make when traversed by wind and body.
The swept ground was so flat and clean, the pebbles so variegated, their colors so joyously blended that they gave a sense of design to the landscape; and this feeling was strengthened by the straight lines and sharpness of the hills. They rose on each hand regularly, precipices a thousand feet in height of granite-brown and dark porphyry-coloured rock, with pink stains; and by a strange fortune these glowing hills rested on hundred-foot bases of the cross-grained stone, whose unusual colour suggested a thin growth of moss. (p. 72)
His language often evokes images of water, reflecting both the incongruent influence of water on the terrain and the necessary preoccupation with water that underlies the thoughts and actions of desert dwellers.
The hills got lower, with the sand banked up against them in greater drifts, till even the crests were sand-spattered, and at last drowned beyond sight. So as the sun became high and painfully fierce, we led out upon a waste of dunes, rolling southward for miles down hill to the misty sea, where it lay grey-blue in the false distance of the heat. (p. 93)
Such descriptions remind me of the incredible cinematography in Lawrence of Arabia (one of my favorite films of all time), and I realize that the movie’s vast panoramas and sweeping score attempt to express the ineffable qualities of Lawrence’s evocative words. This is what he writes about the great interior expanse of the Arabian peninsula:
We, ourselves, felt tiny in it, and our urgent progress across its immensity was a stillness or immobility of futile effort. (p. 238)
(All quotations from the 1997 Wordsworth Edition.)