100 years ago, a WWI German artillery shell ended the life of T. E. Hulme, the man sparked off what we now know as modern English poetry. I was going to say “invented,” but that’s a dodgy word in art as much a science. Hulme borrowed ideas from several places, and adapted poetic tactics the French and some Americans had already made use of. But we can still say he started things off because he collected the tinder and cordwood in the Poet’s Club in London in the first years of the 20th Century, and the spark was applied by suggesting that everything he thought poets were doing since, well, just about the Renaissance, was wrongheaded. Too flowery. Too ornamented. Too “romantic,” an error he believed made them think of mankind as exalted and godlike.
Hulme, interested in visual art as much he was in literature, thought the new literary direction should be visual. Cold hard images, direct and vivid, not abstract, were to be the new order, but these images could even be homey and simple (as long as they retained that vividness), not the sort of thing that signaled high culture in the British poems of the past couple of centuries. He was very certain of this, and he either made a convincing case or provided the theoretical underpinnings through first or second order influence on the soon to mighty modernists: Pound, Eliot, Yeats, H.D., and Frost.
Hulme illustrated his ideas with short poems. I not altogether sure how seriously he took these writings, but I find they have three attractive attributes. First, for all the bluster and pugnaciousness that he propounded his theories, the poems are very unassuming. In subject, they often seem to follow one of the principles I try to follow in the Parlando Project: “Other people’s stories.” Second, they are short, and I am attracted to the variety of expression that can succeed in short poetry. And lastly, they are the first. They have that charm, the same charm I might apprehend looking at a Chuck Statler music video, an Apple I or MITS Altair personal computer, an early horseless carriage, or the pictograms on a cave wall. The other beginners looked at this, and said “why not?” Ezra Pound related to Hulme’s ideas in formulating “Imagism.” T. S. Eliot either saw or was reinforced in his ideas for a new classicism in poetry in Hulme’s work.
What would be striking about today's piece, Hulme’s “Autumn,” in 1908 when it was published?
It’s “free verse.” No rhyme, no regular metrical scheme. Americans Walt Whitman and Hart Crane had done this, but this was still rare, and rarer still in England. I find the last part of Hulme’s “Autumn” quite musical however, essentially iambic, and sound echoes, if not rhyme, are present in “wistful stars with white faces.”
Hulme’s two substantial images are extraordinarily unpretentious, particularly the first one: “the ruddy moon” at sunset leaning “over a hedge/Like a red-faced farmer.” Compare this to Shelley’s “To the Moon” where the moon is “of climbing heaven” and is addressed as “Thou chosen sister of the Spirit” or Wordsworth’s “With How Sad Steps, O Moon” which is “running among the clouds a Wood-nymph’s race”—and these are examples from good poems of the 19th Century, not the more forgettable lot.
Over at the Interesting Literature blog, where I discovered Hulme, it is pointed out that Hulme, who was from a rural district, also had a ruddy complexion. Perhaps Hulme is looking at himself when he sees the ruddy moon, or his hometown in the moon, but we don’t need to know this subtext to sense the nostalgic comfort in this scene. Except for “cold” near the beginning, which is a sensation as well as an emotion, the only other emotion that is “told” rather than “shown” in the poem is the adjective “wistful” applied to the stars.
Did Hulme toss this off, just to say “Look! You can write a poem like this.” I don’t know, but that’s beside the point. As a person myself who has emigrated from a small rural town, Hulme’s “Autumn” works as well or better than a grander poem in a more florid manner.
What would Hulme have done if he hadn’t insisted in serving his country in WWI or if the shell had landed on some other poor soul? That, no one can tell.