WARNING! THIS ENTRY IS HUMONGOUS!
It's no surprise by now that I love Thomas Ernest Hulme. In spite of this love, I have attempted to keep my commentary as unbiased and broad as possible; and, as in my classroom teaching (not that any of you really require a teacher), have tried merely to point out the available doors, opening only a few, rather than shove you through them. I am, as always, entirely open to contradiction and refutation, discussion and question, and even, if you're willing, blind sycophancy.
I would like to offer two categories of the beautiful, and those based upon the artists who create, rather than the works themselves. First, there are those artists whose raw, natural abilities permit them apparently effortless access to the beautiful. Examples: Mozart and Chopin (see playlist below), Matsuo Basho, Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt (forgive the inclusion of athletics, but I do indeed see track and field as art, truly). Second, there are artists whose talents they must wrestle and struggle into submission in order to most efficiently and effectively magnify them. Examples: Bach and Debussy, Mike Powell and Michael Johnson, T.E. Hulme. The former astound like the gods; the latter astound like only the most dedicated and successful of humanity can, whose tortuous and oft tortured hard work (and think Mike Powell, a long jumper, doesn’t fit the bill? Read about him) play out in their art and genius so much more resonantly than that of one who just does it. The art and success don’t flow from the soul like breath; rather they’re a mortal struggle, and only the strongest survive.
The Effortless (Usain Bolt; Carl Lewis):
The Dedicated (Michael Johnson; Mike Powell):
It’s possible that Hulme is not one who managed survival. After all, what is the measuring stick for a poet’s success? Depending upon your functioning definition of survival, at least in this context, consider this: T.S. Eliot (no poetry slouch, I’m sure you’ll agree) claimed in his The Criterion that Hulme had written “two or three of the most beautiful poems in the language.” But If that's the case, and in consideration of "survival," here’s what I don’t get? If this dude—Thomas Ernest Hulme—is really so freaking great, then why doesn’t anyone ever study him!? Why didn't he write more? Why isn't he ever on a Hallmark card? (Perhaps this should be the ambition of teacherly life.)
Thomas Ernest Hulme only ever published 7 poems. (Any others we have were all published posthumously.) While there are further poems of his available now, they’ve been culled from his personal notebooks or they were published not as stand-alone works but demonstrations for his literary philosophies. 5 of the aforementioned 7 were made available by Ezra Pound, as I’ve enthusiastically mentioned before. The 6th of the 7 is more like this:
Even before reading the poem—all 8 words of it—the title alone, “Image,” tells us it doesn’t belong. What kind of title is that? Well, actually, as titles go, it fits the bill, making suggestion of, without giving away, the material to follow; but it’s so generic (especially compared to two other similar poems, which we’ll look at shortly, “In a Station of the Metro,” by Ezra Pound, and “The Red Wheelbarrow,” by William Carlos Williams) as to be glib. (It is possible the title is in fact not a title at all, but a label ascribed by some anonymous editor somewhere along the line; I recently found the two lines in their original philosophical context and it, together with a companion piece (see way below), was without title of any sort.) This poem was an experiment, yet an experiment profound enough to warrant inclusion to major literature anthologies and, less significantly, change my life. Here they are, Hulme's third:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
—William Carlos Williams
Old houses were scaffolding once
and workmen whistling.
Hulme’s definition of the concept of IMAGE is this: just what the senses can acquire instantaneously via presented material. That being the case, each of these poems is indeed imagistic—Pound’s is the most romantic, tapping directly into the emotion of a metro station, insinuating the weather and colors and thus the mood of the place; Williams’ is very localized, yet through its few words paints a picture of an entire farm, wet, green, and gray after a storm or shower; but it is Hulme’s that is the most expansive, reaching through the entire life of a house, an "old" house—one that has survived, either for its grace, its structural integrity, historical significance, or some combination thereof. This image, more than just the house, calls also on the reader's impressions and experiences of City and the given city’s history and the surrounding buildings. The poem took on greater significance for me when I lived in Saginaw, Michigan (as compared to having first encountered the poem in Provo, Utah), a once-great city losing its light by the plague of rotten economy, and perhaps more similar to what Hulme had in mind. It is a city replete with blocks and blocks of old houses that were certainly once mere scaffolding and whistling workmen, then made homes with tended yards and family traffic, then subdivided for apartments, and now forgotten and moldering under dirt and ivy.
Yet this poem, beautiful as it is—or, rather, as beautiful as its image is (there is a difference between the sign for something—here, the poem—and the referent—the image) —was not written for its own merit, but as demonstration for his definition of Image and what the potential of words may be to literally stimulate more than just eyes or ears. There is something about the immediacy of “Image,” the poem, that brings me the smell of wet concrete, dug earth; the sound of distant construction workers’ talking and laughing and of their hammers and the creaking timbers raised in frames, then the emotional weight of the history that follows. While this effect, for me anyway, is less with Pound’s attempt, Williams’ "The Red Wheelbarrow," on the other hand, similarly manages to prick the schema and recall a composite of all my many Midwest memories of rain and farm and all the subsequent sensory impressions right along with them. Pound’s lack of success--more unfair than it deserves--for me is most likely due to my absence of personal history with metro, train, or subway stations.
While none of Hulme’s poetry can be reasonably labeled as “widely published” or “recognized,” there are 5 that are at least available with relatively little digging (in order of their appearance in Hulme’s Ripostes): “Mana Aboda,” “Autumn,” “Above the Dock,” The Embankment,” and “Conversion.” Pound’s tribute was not the first publication for all these poems, but I think there’s a measure of his own artistic touch (particularly as "Autumn" was originally published before "Mana Aboda") in his order of their presentation. This sequence is as tangible a contribution to the overall collection’s substance as the poetry itself, and for this organization of assembly is potentially indicated Hulme’s overall philosophy, approach, and frustration (which emotion I’m less convinced was an issue, and may actually need to be replaced with boredom, as I’m learning*) with writing poetry. The problem is that this impression may be solely evinced by the fabrication of Pound’s assemblage, not the words of his friend that fill the after-market scaffold.
The Collected Poetical Works of Thomas Ernest Hulme
Whatever may be the case and what may or may not have been communicated and manipulated between Pound and Hulme for the publication of the former’s book, the progression of idea and theme through the five poems is undeniable, and I mentally compare it to a ballet—the musical elements, at least, though the dancers are not uninvited. Consider Andy Narrell’s Green Ballet. The pieces are disparate, yet possess between them a similarity of concept, approach, and style which work together to, as they say, make the whole greater than the pieces. Similarly, as Hulme’s work transcends the old limitations of words, so does Narrell (a humbler accomplishment, though nonetheless beautiful) transcend the old limitations of steel drums.
Before you go on, take a moment a reread the five poems, and while reading look for the following motifs and themes: beauty, mythology (and general religiosity, especially in terms of our proximity to heaven, where deity resides), and references to agriculture; as well as a general impression of whether the poem leans toward the positive connotation or the negative.
Conclusion? If you were to label just one of the motifs or themes as the one most dominant, which would it be? It would be beauty, as far as I’m concerned, and both in mention and demonstration and as it relates to God. While its intention is vague in Ripostes (and specific only to “Mana Aboda” in its other published locations, T.E. Hulme, Selected Writings and The Collected Writings of T.E. Hulme), the prefatory sentence is significant, despite how hard it is to really "get." I believe that Pound, if not Hulme, saw this sentence as a viable preface not just for “Mana Aboda,” but for all five poems together, and that he intended it to behave as such. This being the case, then Beauty is definitely our dominant theme, especially considering the final poem, “Conversion,” which takes place “in the time of hyacinths,” a classic and mythical symbol for sublime beauty, and thus the opposing book end.
So what about the poems’ connoted moods? Is beauty not an issue of the good and pleasant and happy? On the scale from positive to negative—zero in the middle—doesn’t beauty fall, by its very nature, dominantly, if not wholly, on the plus side?
This preface, I think, is decidedly negative. If beauty is a soldier (recalling Hulme’s military service), it merely marks time; if it’s among the realm of physics (recalling Hulme’s other dominant interest), then it makes no waves, ineffectual and impotent; if the next—a “feigned ecstasy of an arrested impulse” —well, then we need to broaden our gaze.
Remember Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his Romanticism, in particular that of “Kubla Kahn” —the very embodiment in textual form of the definition for Romanticism? The Romantics were all about finding the explosive ecstasy of the creative process and painting it within the frame of literature. Hulme mocks this. (For my part, I love Coleridge, though not as much as Hulme, but if proof is in the pudding, Coleridge is the more durable.) That ecstasy of surging poetic expression and experience—union of natural inspiration and poetical genius—is feigned! It’s a farce! It doesn’t really happen! And it’s natural end, perhaps—a piece of poetry that adequately praises beauty and its eternal creator—isn’t realized. Nor is it in Hulme's.
Well, that’s where we get to “Mana Aboda,” which contextualizes the prefatory statement and leads us into the following four.
I've talked a little about this one before. What it comes down to is that Mana Aboda, a goddess (but more than that if you dig into here name: the celestial home or locus of godly power in feminine form), is bored with attempted poetic praise, yet, by indication of her hunching over the Earth and her mourning, appears intent on seeing what else might come her way. Is she sad that something better hasn't come along, that the creations (her creations?) can't manage better than they do? Interesting the Hulme chooses "Josephs" as the descriptor for all the poets, perhaps even himself. Joseph, the stepfather to God's son on earth. Poets will never be gods, but what of their poetry? Is there more potential here, and that's why she mourns? If poets may indeed be Josephs, can their poetry be sires of God?
"Autumn" departs this small religiosity and takes a more Tolkein'ish stance--bucolic and agrarian. But God is not absent; He's never far from one of these five poems, in fact, as Hulme seems entirely bent on maintaining an upward gaze, except in "Conversion," later one. But here, God, or the god, present as the face of the moon (and this is the Tolkein, anti-industrialization point of comparison, I think--he and Hulme were contemporaries, after all, and served in the same war), condescends and visits the man walking (Hulme? a poet? mankind?), and shows that He is everywhere--in the stars, the town's citizenry, the growth of crops and the rest of the verdure. Put another way: God is everywhere, and we are welcome to pass through and observe, as He observes us. But why only the nod?
Going back to the previous poem, is the nod on this evening stroll any less respectful or complete than the well-intended though menial tribute of the rose, song, or poem? Maybe this is all the more respectful for the practical realization that any more praise is no more complete--just frilly, as though the prayer were more for the garnered respect of other poets and men, not God.
While readily apparent in the first poem, what significance there is and so easy to recognize for its exotic words, so here is the title so easy to overlook for its blatant mundanity, but a title--at least in the hands of the skilled, or attentive, at least--is never a throwaway, and here, it is the link to the overall theme of beauty unattainable.
Such is the call of any title, and the essence that elevates it from label, which is so often the case for novels. A poem's title, and any artistic piece's title, should be a matting and frame (consider a worn wooden frame versus a lavish gilt one, and what their careful selection can do to the artwork within), indicating significance of colors, direction of eye, intended value, audience, etcetera. But what beauty might this frame add to the poem? "Autumn." I think it taps into the nostalgia of the reader, and the general experience most of the Northern hemisphere has with warmth against the chill of coming winter. More than that, well, how beautiful is a crystal clear autumn night with a great big harvest moon hanging low?
Into the next poem, "Above the Dock," it is this moon, the oculus of God, that carries the torch, though it might be said that the torch is dropped.
There are two ways to look at this entry, and I think they go hand in hand. One is the continued ubiquity of deity, and second is the simple beauty of the image presented. This is another poem written just after the very invention of the new poetic movement and by its inventor after all. Looking at this image and its beauty, it persists in the melancholy of the previous two ("Mana Aboda" is obviously melancholy, but the blue of the second rests in the season, autumn--always at least a little mournful, especially at night). The moon is "tangled," and once looked "so far away." If the moon is again our connection to Heaven, then we lose the benevolence of the ruddy-faced farmer. Now He is far. And when we realize that it isn't the moon at all--God, or his eye--it's just a balloon, which distances Him even farther from us than he was. Notice also that there are no stars this night; they've retreated with their moon, and the stars are a device Hulme uses as frequently and pointedly. These stars, however, make their renewed appearance in the fourth poem, "The Embankment," at least by influence, if not in personal appearance. Here we also get a second mention of the impotence of poetry.
Scanning this poem, there appear a string of allusions and references. An "embankment" is, most simply, a wall of earth; a "fantasia" is not typically used to represent fantasy, but is a free-from musical composition (kind of like Hulme's own free-verse poetry); the literal music of the fantasia goes with the fiddles' and their finesse, though distant they are, in line 1, and no more than a lost glamor in line 2; lines 3 and 4 indicate that futility of poetry--or "poesy," an old way of saying poetry--and itself a potential symbol for the opulence mentioned in 1; and lines 5-8 are a prayer where once again we get the great, unfortunate distance between God and the narrator, and this with the addition of a nice little bit of negative connotation in "star-eaten blanket," like the stars are no more than noisome moths at the woolens.
This poem seems a lot bigger to me than the previous three. Is it imagistic? Yes. The flashes of old riches and earthly comfort are visual and even audible; the prayer has a strong tactile quality to it; the emotion--a sixth sense--is stronger here than in any of the others; and the embankment itself, like an earthy sofa for the homeless--spiritually or literally homeless--against which they may rest their backs, wrapped in a natty blanket. Such a blanket, though, is mere fantasy for this fallen gentleman. He's lost everything, God is too far away--either because that is the nature of this capricious God, or because the man has done something to sacrifice his favor--as is the false poetics of his former life, and there is no blanket. In this desperate moment he prays, but without hope.
So what of beauty? I have to confess a personal preference here: this is my favorite of all of Hulme's poem. It is also his most famous (if famous can describe any of his works). There's a close second in "Town Sky-Line," below, though it lacks the emotional potency of "The Embankment." What it does have is a distinct dark beauty of language; it is despair and ugliness portrayed elegantly, beautifully, which only heightens the emotion of the solitude and emptiness the man feels.
Makes me wonder what he did or what happened to him. Makes me wonder about the possibility of autobiography. It sounds confessional--almost.
Before we move on, look back at the progression so far:
- an abstract look at deity and her disappointment--with unverifiable cause--and the futility of poetry;
- it is night, cold, and there is God, present if unreachable;
- night lingers, God has departed;
- the thrilling nightlife has completed its course and left a casualty, who prays for the simplest comfort but is left without.
The title of the fifth appears to offer reprieve: "conversion," the word, indicates a change from one state to another. Has the gentleman--and is this the same man from the preceding two poems? --turned his life around? Have prayers been answered? Is God not so far after all--drawn near by the man, or the man having drawn himself nearer God? "Conversion" is not, I think, a return to day and a departure to another land where, perhaps, the grass is greener or the flowers more lovely. Given the context from the rest of the suite, I believe this is a dream, which does not remove the dreamer from his physical location and predicament, except for the temporary relief sleep might offer.
This fifth contribution returns us to the abstraction of the first, and, as I mentioned before, is the foil for the mentioned theme from the preface. But beauty here has an almost malevolent presence. Beauty doesn't need the encased protection and offered-immortality of poets' words; beauty, loveliness, is her own eunuch--her own protector. The narrator--the man, Hulme, all of us, whoever--walks into this dream cheerfully, expecting relief, perhaps. And every visual cue indicates such should be the case, but the beauty is suffocating and sweeps him away, wrapping him up bodily, just his little eyes peeking out, to the final river. While I believe that the "peeping Turk" is just for the image of it, and the Bosphorous because it's right there in Turkey, the "final river" is the important metaphor, as there are two eternal destination, each with its own series of rivers, four a piece in fact: Paradise and Hell.
I expect at this point the man awakes, but it's not mentioned. The end is left open. I wonder if beauty is taking her revenge on the poet for such shoddy adulation. Here the poet literally steps into--invades--the beautiful, rather than just attempting to transcribe it, and it is indeed a trespass. He's not permitted, and she defends herself from his uncleanness. Note the return of the explicit female that's been missing since "Mana Aboda," and after her attack, like an immune system, the man is carried away, ignominious as the Joseph he is. (But come on! Is it that insulting to be only a Joseph!?)
And that's it. "The Collected Poetical Works of T.E. Hulme."
So, uh, therefore what? Is there a point? A lesson? Or, being a collection of imagist poetry, is it just something pretty to look and think about?
A final thought: Hulme is not only a master technician, but an artist. Artists tend to have statements, or a font from which they draw the necessary emotion and passion to drive their work. These poems are indeed emotionally driven, but I don't know enough about Hulme to make any conclusion about where the emotions draw from. I want to say this series is autobiographical, but I can't. Maybe instead I see myself in that man of these poems who seeks God and beauty, and is left--worst case scenario--lost in a river or cold against the embankment (interesting: in "Conversion," there is a wrapping, a blanket of sorts, while in "The Embankment" it's denied him). I certainly fall short. I fail over and over again, and it even seems that the very beauty I seek to explore and convey in my own writing is indeed out to get me. She is the source and object of my inspiration, and I only ever catch glimpses of her from either end--source or result. But this, for me, is a thing separate from seeking God; while here, for Hulme, they appear to be the same, or at least closely connected. My problem with Hulme is that by all appearance, he let frustration and hopelessness win out. He stopped writing poetry long before his death.
Or did he just stop while he was ahead?
Or did he just stop while he was ahead?
The Treasure Hunt
Tracking down Hulme has been a treasure hunt. It started five and a half years ago with a research project assigned to my students. One group took Hulme. I had only two of his pieces at that point, "Image" and "The Embankment," but knew nothing else about him--nothing. The group worked diligently but found little, only a few more pieces that only further sparked my curiosity. For the most part, the following years were too busy to do much more than enjoy what I did have. The last couple months, however, have seen an increase of fervor for the hunt, and it's been exciting--from "digging up" a few more pieces online, to taking my son into the bowels of the philosophy section of the BYU library to find Hulme's Collected Writings. There's something about this quality of the unknown, the discovered, and the required efforts and adventure that make all of it--the man, his life, his art--that much more attractive. Maybe he's really not as great as I think he is, and that's why he's so greatly unrecognized, and maybe I'll come back to all this in a few years and wonder why I was so smitten. Maybe it was just the thrill of the hunt.
Who cares? I've loved every minute. His words are still electric and inspiring. And that's the point, I think.
A couple additional pieces (special thanks to Sarah C., who found these HERE (scroll all the way to the bottom of the preview and get the final few poems I didn’t know even existed—exciting!) and relayed the message):
Consider the following as a foil to “Image:”
The flounced edge of a skirt
recoiling like waves off a cliff.
And one more:
On a summer day, in Town,
Where chimneys fret the cumuli,
Flora passing in disdain
Lifts her flounced blue gown, the sky.
So I see her white cloud petticoat,
Clear Valenciennes, meshed by twisted cowls,
Rent by tall chimneys, torn lace, frayed and fissured.
* I wish I had all these materials--the hard-to-find and expensive collections--just with me (though that would sacrifice the adventure of tracking them down). Alas time and money are temporarily insurmountable obstacles. There are available sources which could give me all the information I need—and which I really want—to write a much more complete portrait of this artist—maybe my favorite artist—than anything I’m managing here. Unfortunately, copyright laws prohibit a full disclosure of his “Selected Writings” by Google Books, and his complete writings are only available by $200 payment or regular patronage to BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library, twenty minutes away. I am not dissatisfied, but it’s difficult sometimes to moderate my impatience for the information and materials I really want. Selfish, huh?
By the way, Hulme and the other imagists believed that the cadence of poetry should not be like the measured time of a metronome or a duple versus a triple meter, but follow the cadence of a musical phrase. Put more simply, the meter should follow the singer or the violin, not the rhythm section or, for you steel drummers, the engine room. Ballet, not steam engine maintenance. In their words: Pound, “Compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metaphor;” Hulme (who appears even to mock those of the carefully measured meter in metric), “It is a delicate and difficult art, that of evoking an image, of fitting the rhythm to the idea, and one is tempted to fall back into the comforting and easy arms of the old, regular metre, which takes away all the trouble for us.”
Special thanks to James and Devin (here) who helped me work out a couple of especially baffling passages.