TE Hulme at night
A touch of cold in the Autumn night -
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.
Hulme is the only man to have been expelled - or sent down, in the charmingly indirect parlance of the English - twice from Cambridge University. He was sent packing in 1904 after some mysterious 'boisterousness' at a party on the River Cam, then spent years wandering through the cafes and salons of Paris and the plains of western Canada, before producing a long, fragmentary manifesto called 'Cinders', which mixed pessimistic statements about the frailty and fallibility of human beings, vivid travel sketches, and calls for a way of thinking and writing that was 'dry and hard'. 'Cinders' earned Hulme a recall to Cambridge. He was expelled a second time when his love letters to a teenage girl were uncovered by that girl's father, who happened to be one of his teachers. The letters' dry and hard prose style alarmed the don.
Oliver Tearle thinks that TE Hulme was the first modern poet in English, and he's quite possibly right. Along with his mate Ezra Pound, Hulme inveighed against the beautiful imprecision of the late nineteenth century. The two modernists poured DDT over the luxuriant plantations of Swinburne and Tennyson, and raised austere Japanese stone gardens on the ground they had ravaged.
Learning from the haiku writers of Kyoto as well as the telegraph operators of America, Hulme and Pound replaced extended passages of narrative and explanation with unexplained and therefore exhilarating leaps from one object or event and another. Decades before the internet was a twinkle in the eye of Steve Jobs, they had already mastered the hyperlink.
Like so many ferocious innovators, though, TE Hulme had a secret, and perhaps subconscious, love of the past. The severe shapes and surfaces of his poems can't hide his affection for the English landscape, and for the poets who have celebrated that landscape. 'Autumn' seemed shockingly short and coarse when it was published in 1909, but the poem helped renew a pastoral tradition that had become exhausted in the late nineteenth century, because it found fresh images for old conceits. The contrast between a healthy countryside and a baleful urban world, which Raymond Williams and William Empson have identified as essential to English pastoral poetry, informs Hulme's picture of a ruddy-faced moon and pale 'city' stars.
By the time he volunteered for frontline duty in the First World War, Hulme had decided that he was a 'sort of a Tory', and had become friendly with the neo-royalist, anti-democratic Action Francaise movement.
The author of 'Autumn' was blown apart ninety-eight years by a German shell. His comrades had heard the weapon's whine and dived to safety. Hulme, who had a half-finished manuscript about modern art in his pocket, had been too busy thinking to move.
I don't mourn Hulme in quite the same way I mourn other great poets who died in World War One, like Isaac Rosenberg and Georg Trakl, because if the author of 'Autumn' had lived long enough he might well have followed Ezra Pound into the ranks of Europe's fascist movement, and tarnished poems like 'Autumn'.
If you're in Titirangi tonight I'd love to talk about TE Hulme with you over a biscuit or three.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]