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”:

The great aim is accurate, precise and definite description. The first thing is to recognise how extraordinarily difficult this is. It is no mere matter of carefulness; you have to use language, and language is by its very nature a communal thing; that is, it expresses never the exact thing but a compromise—that which is common to you, me and everybody. But each man sees a little differently, and to get out clearly and exactly what he does see, he must have a terrific struggle with language, whether it be with words or the technique of other arts. Language has its own special nature, its own conventions and communal ideas. It is only by a concentrated effort of the mind that you can hold it fixed to your own purpose. I always think that the fundamental process at the back of all the arts might be represented by the following metaphor. You know what I call architect’s curves—flat pieces of wood with all different kinds of curvature. By a suitable selection from these you can draw approximately any curve you like. The artist I take to be the man who simply can’t bear the idea of that “approximately.” He will get the exact curve of what he sees whether it be an object or an idea in the mind. I shall here have to change my metaphor a little to get the process in his mind. Suppose that instead of your curved pieces of wood you have a springy piece of steel of the same types of curvature as the wood. Now the state of tension or concentration of mind, if he is doing anything really good in this struggle against the ingrained habit of the technique, may be represented by a man employing all his fingers to bend the steel out of its own curve and into the exact curve which you want. Something different to what it would assume naturally.

There are then two things to distinguish, first the particular faculty of mind to see things as they really are, and apart from the conventional ways in which you have been trained to see them. This is itself rare enough in all consciousness. Second, the concentrated state of mind, the grip over oneself which is necessary in the actual expression of what one sees. To prevent one falling into the conventional curves of ingrained technique, to hold on through infinite detail and trouble to the exact curve you want. Wherever you get this sincerity, you get the fundamental quality of good art without dragging in infinite or serious.

Apart from Coleridge’s description of Shakespeare at work in Biographia Literaria, Hulme’s, I think, is the subtlest and most inward account of the creative process ever written. And the secret is the tone of voice. Hulme writes like a man wholly at ease with himself, thinking on his feet casually, conversationally, and trying to impress no one, intent only in saying what he has to say as precisely and clearly as he can—just like the artist he describes. His cool, demystifying approach embodies the spirit of Modernism to which Eliot and Pound aspired, and his informality, so uncharacteristic of that stuffy period, makes him seem as contemporary now as he must have seemed when Eliot read him in the Twenties and Bellow in the Fifties.

Hulme treated the warfare in Flanders with as little fuss as he did when he wrote his prose. In his letters home he admits merely to being “exasperated” or “annoyed” by the inconvenience of being shot at. He wrote just one war poem, but, because it fulfills his “great aim” of “accurate, precise and definite description,” it captures, like few others, the grim resignation of daily life on the Western Front:

Over the flat slopes of St. Eloi
A wide wall of sandbags.
In the silence desultory men
Pottering over small fires, cleaning their mess-tins:
To and fro, from the lines,
Men walk as on Piccadilly,
Making paths in the dark,
Through scattered dead horses,
Over a dead Belgian’s belly.
The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets.
Behind the line, cannon, lying back miles.
Before the line, chaos:
My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.
Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.

The poem survives because Hulme recited it to Pound while convalescing from a bullet wound in 1915, and Pound transcribed it. The poet himself couldn’t be bothered to write it down. On September 28, 1917, four days after his thirty-fourth birthday, he was blown apart by an enemy shell, apparently too absorbed in thought to hear it coming.


Hulme died a few months after Wilfred Owen began to write the poems for which he is now remembered. It is as well they never met because Owen was in every way Hulme’s opposite—a mother’s boy, short, slight, frail, shy, and sharply aware of his lower-middle-class background. His father was a railway official; his devouring mother, as in D.H. Lawrence’s ballad, “was a superior soul,/a superior soul was she, /cut out to play a superior role/in the god-damn bourgeoisie.” Without the means to do so, she consoled herself with evangelical piety, hypochondria, and a suffocating, self-serving devotion to her three children.

Wilfred was her oldest and her darling, the one she pinned her thwarted ambitions on, and he only got out from under her spell in the last year of his life, which was also the time he was writing his finest poems. Even then, the letters he had written her continuously did not cease. According to Dominic Hibberd’s magisterial biography, “Over five hundred and fifty of Wilfred’s known letters are addressed to Susan [his mother], some of them marked private; one is addressed to her and Tom [his father] together, and only four to Tom alone.” Susan’s younger son, Harold, resented her, her grandchildren and nieces thought she was hypocritical and affected, but for Wilfred, Hibberd says, she was “an ideal listener…his audience throughout his life…[and] in some of his adult letters he writes to her almost as a lover.”

Throughout his teens he labored to please her, working as a pupil-teacher to acquire his secondary education, then as an assistant to an evangelical country vicar, spreading the word, doing good works, and cramming his spare time with extramural courses to qualify him for a university scholarship. But he lost his faith and failed to win the scholarship. To escape his mother’s disappointment as well as his own, he left England and went to teach English at a Berlitz School in Bordeaux.

He had been writing poetry since his adolescence—lush, melodious verse in the manner of Keats—but France changed him. He discovered harmless pleasures like smart clothes, good food and wine—his pious mother deplored the demon drink—and came to accept his homosexuality. He also met a real poet for the first time, Laurent Tailharde, a sixty-year-old disciple of Mallarmé and friend of Verlaine, who introduced the young Englishman to their work and seems to have fallen briefly in love with him.

Hibberd thinks that reading French poetry and trying to translate it led Owen to his great and liberating innovation, the use of half-rhymes and assonance—keeping the consonants and changing the vowels: “laugh/leaf/life,” “blood/bled,” “smell/smile”—which Edmund Blunden later named the “pararhyme.” Owen called it, more modestly, “my Vowel-rime stunt,” but when Robert Graves read the poems he understood the technical implications straight away and sent him a letter saying,

Don’t make any mistake, Owen; you are a damned fine poet already & are going to be more so… you have found a new method…those assonances instead of rhymes are fine—…Puff out your chest a little, Owen, & be big—for you’ve more right than most of us… You must help… [us] revolutionize English Poetry.

When Graves wrote that, in 1917, he had been in the army for three years and knew that the sweet-toned, pastoral innocence of the Georgian poets—the verse equivalent of the music of composers like George Butterworth and Peter Warlock—could not accurately express the reality of trench warfare. Just as Freud had responded to the Great War by positing a death instinct beyond the pleasure principle, Graves knew that something darker and more dissonant was needed. He himself never managed it, although he went on to write some of the most beautiful love poems of the twentieth century; nor did Siegfried Sassoon, despite his anger and stylish satires. Perhaps both of them were too much the officer-and-gentleman, too full of sporting spirit and ideals of honor and bravery.

Owen had these, too, but with a difference. Although he was the least warlike of men, nothing was lost on him and he had a gift for learning from experience, using it, and changing himself in the process: from studious mother’s boy to pious lay assistant, to Frenchified dandy and finally, astonishingly to a first-rate officer—efficient, hard-working, knowledgeable, brave, and an excellent marksman. But because his mother’s presence was always with him he saw the senseless slaughter through her eyes. Whence, I think, his famous preface to the poems he did not live to see published: “I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” This was not a perspective that came easily to poets like Graves and Sassoon, who had been raised in the harsh, motherless atmosphere of an English public school.

In his brilliant book on the war poets, Paul Fussell writes, “The innocent army fully attained the knowledge of good and evil at the Somme on July 1, 1916,…one of the most interesting [moments] in the whole long history of human disillusion.”2 Owen arrived at the Somme six months later and within weeks was enduring what he called “seventh hell”—almost dying of cold when pinned down in no man’s land, watching one of his men choke to death in a gas attack, nursing a blinded sentry while he died, then another terrible vigil, pinned down again, with the shattered remnants of a friend’s body all around him. Within six months, he was sent back to base with shell-shock and ended up in Craiglockhart Hospital, near Edinburgh. Craiglockhart was doubly lucky for Owen: his psychiatrist encouraged him to face his nightmares by writing poems about them, and Sassoon, a fellow patient, was there to read them and urge him on. The result was the beginning of an extraordinary creative spell, like Keats’s “marvellous year,” in which Owen wrote all his greatest poetry.

Like Keats, Owen’s subject was death, but his journey into the “inwardness of war” was also the end of Romanticism for him. In a poem called “À Terre,” which Owen called “a photograph” and Hibberd thinks was based on something the poet had seen in a field hospital, a shattered, dying soldier yearns for life in any form and on any terms—as a rat, a maggot, a microbe:

Certainly flowers have the easiest time on earth.
“I shall be one with nature, herb, and stone,”
Shelley would tell me. Shelley would be stunned.
The dullest Tommy hugs that fancy now.
Pushing up daisies is their creed, you know.

Shelley had been another of the young poet’s idols, and by the time Owen bids him farewell, the pararhymes are doing their dissonant work and the pentameters are stirring in their groove. Shelley would have been stunned in every way.

Owen was killed on November 4, 1918, one week before the Armistice, so it is impossible to know if his poetry would ever have developed along the lines Hulme had proposed. All that is certain is that he knew what his subject must be and it was far from Romantic. The previous New Year’s Eve, he had written to his mother:

I go out of this year a Poet, my dear Mother, as which I did not enter it. I am held peer by the Georgians; I am a poet’s poet.

I am started. The tugs have left me; I feel the great swelling of the open sea taking my galleon.

Last year, at this time, (it is just midnight, and now is the intolerable instant of the Change) last year I lay awake in a windy tent in the middle of a vast, dreadful encampment. It seemed neither France nor England, but a kind of paddock where the beasts are kept a few days before the shambles. I heard the revelling of the Scotch troops, who are now dead, and who knew they would be dead. I thought of this present night, and whether I should indeed—whether we should indeed—whether you would indeed—but I thought neither long nor deeply, for I am a master of elision.

But chiefly I thought of the very strange look on all the faces in that camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England, though wars should be in England; nor can it be seen in any battle. But only in Étaples.

It was not despair, or terror, it was more terrible than terror, for it was a blindfold look, and without expression, like a dead rabbit’s.

It will never be painted, and no actor will ever seize it. And to describe it, I think I must go back and be with them.3

As the disasters of the twentieth century unfolded, that “blindfold look” became, I think, the underlying theme that Modernist masters like Eliot, Yeats in his maturity, Kafka, and Beckett strained to express. Maybe Modernism would have been less an American-Irish affair if potentially major poets like Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, as well as a whole generation of English poets who had yet to develop, had not been slaughtered in the Great War.

This Issue

May 15, 2003