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Making It New

The Short Sharp Life of T.E. Hulme

by Robert Ferguson
London: Allen Lane, 314 pp., £20.00

Wilfred Owen

by Dominic Hibberd
Ivan R. Dee, 424 pp., $30.00


One of the mysteries of the Modernist movement in literature, especially during its experimental heyday in the first decades of the last century, is how few Englishmen were involved. Nearly all the dominant figures writing in English were either American or Irish—Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Joyce, Stevens, Marianne Moore—and even a generation later, a master technician like Auden at his innovative, nervy peak was never Modernist and experimental in a way that came naturally to Beckett. The line of English verse in the twentieth century runs directly from the Victorians, via Hardy and Housman, to Larkin and Hughes, almost as if Modernism had never happened.

With hindsight, it seems obvious that American poets needed to experiment in order to break free. When Ezra Pound talked about making it new he meant, among other things, creating a poetic language that could adapt itself to American vernacular rhythms, a language not bound by Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter and unconstrained by a tradition that stretched back to Chaucer. The tradition Pound laid claim to began with Dante and the troubadours, bypassed Chaucer, and included Fenellosa’s ideograms, as though writing with an American accent meant being free to pick and choose from world literature.

Pound, of course, loved to parade his learning, especially in Edwardian London where he was greeted, at first, as a hick from Idaho. (Robert Graves accused him of getting his ideograms from the sides of tea chests.) But showmanship aside, Pound’s brand of eclectic cosmopolitanism was a great source of creative energy. His early poems were conventionally lush—two of them were later included in the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, where they seem not at all out of place—he became a Modernist by modeling himself on Gautier and Laforgue, and translating the Latin of Propertius. Similarly, Eliot made his home in England but found his style, he said, across the Channel: “The kind of poetry that I needed, to teach me the use of my own voice, did not exist in English at all; it was only to be found in French.” Having discovered his own voice, Eliot then went on to apply what he had learned to English literature, which he reinterpreted from a Continental perspective, notably in his brilliant and influential essay on “The Metaphysical Poets,” in which he praised Donne and his followers for qualities he admired in Laforgue and Corbière.

What the French had to offer, in practical terms, was vers libre. Technically, vers libre was an escape from the tyranny of traditional forms—from the classical French alexandrine and the English iambic pentameter. But free verse in the technical sense mattered less than freedom itself. Like all new movements in the arts, Modernism was driven by the urge to pull down the old order and start afresh, and in the first decade of the twentieth century the old order meant late, decadent Romanticism. There was no better antidote to the hypnotic chanting of poets like Swinburne than the casual and ironic vers libre of the new French poets.

When Pound arrived in London, in 1909, aged twenty-four and eager to spread the word, one Englishman with cosmopolitan tastes was already preaching death to Romanticism and defending abstract art, though he was a poet only briefly and in passing. The Complete Poetical Works of T.E. Hulme, published by Pound in 1912 as an appendix to his own collection, Ripostes, consisted of five short poems, and by the time it appeared Hulme had more or less given up writing poetry. Apart from that brief guest appearance, all Hulme published during what Robert Ferguson, in his excellent biography, rightly calls his “short sharp life” was a handful of essays, mostly written for A.R. Orage’s magazine The New Age, and two translations, one of a book by Henri Bergson, the other by George Sorel, both with his critical introductions. In 1924, seven years after Hulme was killed in action in France, Eliot encouraged the poet Herbert Read to edit a collection of his work, Speculations.1 It amounted to 271 pages, including the index.

Hulme’s influence, however, was out of all proportion to his output. According to Ferguson, he was “one of the half-dozen midwives of the Modernist aesthetic in poetry,” and Eliot called him “the forerunner of a new attitude of mind, which should be called the twentieth-century mind.” Hulme was a mathematician turned philosopher, always belligerently his own man, an abstract thinker who loved concrete details and precision, who evolved a subtle intellectual basis for nonrepresentational art and thought his way through to the spare, unadorned verse style that later became Imagism, and his famous essay “Romanticism and Classicism” became one of the key texts of Modernism. Half a century after Hulme’s death, Saul Bellow’s Herzog was still arguing in favor of his definition of Romanticism as “spilt religion”:

There is something to be said for his view. He wanted things to be clear, dry, spare, pure, cool, and hard. With this I think we can all sympathize. I too am repelled by the “dampness,” as he called it, and the swarming of Romantic feelings.

No one gets to influence the intellectual life of a whole century simply by being clever or iconoclastic or original or even right. Hulme, who rejected any emphasis on personality as a Romantic symptom, was himself a man of extraordinary presence and nobody who tangled with him remained neutral. He was the son of a prosperous Staffordshire businessman who disapproved of him, a powerful young man, self-confident and lazy, with a passion for women and what Ferguson calls “gladiatorial” arguments. According to Wyndham Lewis, who once finished hanging upside-down from the railings of Soho Square after a run-in with him, Hulme was

a very large and imposing man, well over six foot, broad-shouldered and with legs like a racing cyclist. He had an extremely fine head, which it was his habit to hold on one side, as if listening (a bird-like attitude) really rather reminiscent of an antique bust.

Lewis also said, “He was a very rude and truculent man. He needed to be”—presumably because Hulme, like Lewis, was an avant-garde artist condemned to work in a cultural world which dismissed Eliot’s “Prufrock” as “absolutely insane.” Both men were troublemakers, but for Hulme provocation was a way of life.

At school he had founded a debating society, and he went on founding clubs where he could argue for most of his life. At Cambridge, where he read mathematics, he started the Discord Club, a collection of rowdies who lived up to the club’s name by behaving dreadfully, shouting down actors in the Cambridge New Theatre and generally creating mayhem. Hulme, as founder-president, set the standards and was duly sent down after five terms for riotous behavior. Eight years later, his college allowed him back—this time to read philosophy—but he lasted only a few months before he was chased out for seducing the teenaged daughter of one of his professors.

Hulme was a teetotaler, so drink was never his excuse. He behaved badly on principle because he was permanently in revolt against convention. It was a revolt that manifested itself in many ways, from his compulsive philandering to the radical and original thinking that went into his aesthetics. This is what Ferguson has to say about it:

[One] day…Hulme was apprehended by a policeman while urinating in broad daylight in Soho Square. “You can’t do that here,” he was told. Still buttoning his trousers, Hulme turned to him and replied, “Do you realize that you’re addressing a member of the middle class?” The policeman then apologized and walked on. Connoisseurs of the episode assume that Hulme was caught short after a night’s drinking, but [Ashley] Dukes states expressly that the incident took place “in broad daylight.” Hulme, moreover, remained unshakably teetotal. If a rational explanation is possible a clue might be that note in “Cinders” [a journal of thoughts and aphorisms published in Speculations] in which he referred to the “resolution to shake off social convention and do it,” a compulsion he apparently experienced so strongly at times that he called it “the knife order.” It may be that Hulme was performing his devotions to the god of the knife order that day in Soho Square, and that he urinated where and when he did precisely because there was a policeman standing nearby.

There is another pertinent statement about the “knife order” in “Cinders”: “Passion is action, and without action but a child’s anger.” Hulme, who was passionate and not at all childish, devoted a great deal of energy to provoking intellectual action and making people think. “He led people up the garden path, made them agree to things, and then left them in the cart,” said J.C. Squire, one of the ringmasters of literary London. “He used to twinkle at me across their heads. I couldn’t help smiling but I did think ‘what a bad man you are.’” Jacob Epstein, the American sculptor whose work Hulme promoted and on which he based his theories of abstract art, put it more kindly: Hulme “had a quality…of great urbanity, and his broad-mindedness, I maintain, only ceased when he met humbug and pretentiousness.”

Hulme devoted himself to battling against what he called “the state of slush in which we have the misfortune to live,” and he did so with supreme confidence, indifferent to what people thought of him, flaunting his burly, unpoetic presence and provincial accent, as if they too were part of the argument. Here he is addressing the Poetry Society in London:

A reviewer writing in the Saturday Review last week spoke of poetry as the means by which the soul soared into higher regions, and as a means of expression by which it became merged into a higher kind of reality. Well, that is the kind of statement that I utterly detest. I want to speak of verse in a plain way as I would of pigs: that is the only honest way. The President told us last week that poetry was akin to religion. It is nothing of the sort. It is a means of expression just as prose is and if you can’t justify it from that point of view it’s not worth preserving.

Hulme was a subtle and sophisticated thinker and his style of argument was not usually as belligerently forthright as this. But it was always intensely personal, and that, I think, is the secret of his influence. In a BBC interview in 1959, Pound remarked:

I came on six lines of Hulme’s the other day—no importance unless you think that it is important that a guy who left only a few pages of poetry should have a style so unmistakable that you come on it and you know that it’s Hulme’s.

Hulme’s prose is even more unmistakable than his verse. According to Kate Lechmere, one of his two great loves, he had a “certain stand-easy laziness-insolence about him,” and you can hear it in the prose, especially in his brilliant essay “Romanticism and Classicism”:

  1. 1

    There were later collections of his scattered work, but they did not appear until long after his reputation was established: Further Speculations, edited by Samuel Hynes (University of Minnesota Press, 1955); and The Collected Writings of T.E. Hulme, edited by Karen Csengeri (Clarendon Press, 1994).

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