Today’s piece uses a very short poem about a famous doomed adventurer written by a too-little known early modernist soldier-poet.
The words’ author, T. E. Hulme, is a name I kept running into as I read about the connections between modernist American and Irish writers in England at the beginning of the 20th Century. Many of those connections can be traced to a group of writers and artists, led by Hulme, who congregated in London beginning around 1908. It’s there that Ezra Pound, soon to be literary modernism’s greatest promoter, met Hulme who many view as modernism’s originator. The argument for preeminence comes down to classic one: who thought of it first vs. who practically introduced it.
So far here I’ve concentrated on Pound’s role, but as I began to look at this circle, I must consider Hulme’s impact as well. And then a few weeks ago, through the wonderful blog "Interesting Literature," and its founder Oliver Tearle, I finally read some of Hulme’s poetry, his own practical application of his ideas.
If there’s a reason I hadn’t read Hulme yet, it may be that his poetry isn’t as well known, and there is very little of it—and what there is, is little twice: about 25 poems totaling about 260 lines. That’s right, as disciples of Bill James will quickly recognize, the average for a Hulme poem is shorter than a sonnet, just a bit more than 10 lines. His short poems, as much or more than other famous short Imagist poems like Pound’s “In A Station on the Metro”, Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” or Sandburg’s “Fog” challenge the reader to find worth and significance in a few words and a putatively mundane subject. Today’s piece uses the words of Hulme’s “Raleigh In the Dark Tower,” and is something of an outlier in Hulme’s poems, as it’s subject is not so ordinary.
I used Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Lie” earlier this month, and in writing about this extraordinary condemnation of human failings, I told you what every English schoolkid of certain generations would have learned or known about Raleigh: that he was an Elizabethan English hero, and yet he was executed by the English government.
Once more I’m going to have compress Raleigh’s life into shortcuts, some of which are matters of dispute. He lived in a time of brutal Christian religious wars and is said to have witnessed both the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and to be captain of the troops ordered to perform the execution of prisoners after the Siege of Smerwick. He was lifetime soldier of fortune and entrepreneur, a cross between James Bond and Richard Branson. He popularized the potato and smoking tobacco, and so can be blamed for lung cancer and my spreading waistline. His expeditions pioneered European settlement of North Carolina, which means he is partially responsible for both Michael Jordon and insufferable Duke basketball fans. He twice led English expeditions into Guyana in South America, without which we would not have Davey Graham and acoustic guitars tuned to DADGAD. Oh, and he was a writer.
Even during his three separate confinements to the prison in the Tower of London, Raleigh wrote. Or perhaps he wrote because of his confinements? He wrote the first volume of a monumental attempt at a history of the world during one prison stay, but his release ended the chance of the series continuing.
To present Raleigh, Hulme in his conciseness, give us just these few lines:
Raleigh in the dark tower prisoned
Dreamed of the blue sea and beyond
Where in strange tropic paradise
More depends on Raleigh’s life than depends on a Red Wheelbarrow, but Hulme lets that be only understood. And Hulme’s Imagist philosophy, a “dry hardness”, would urge fewer romantic dreams and more direct observation, but even in his few words, he allows this prisoner the immediacy of his dreams and voyages.
Raleigh would be executed for serving the amoral interests of his country too well, and Hulme would die a soldier on a WWI battlefield believing to the end in the causes of a war that was soon portrayed as absurd.