Thomas Ernest Hulme (T. E. Hulme) was born at Gratton Hall, Endon, Staffordshire on the 16th September 1883. He grew up in an affluent household with chauffeurs, gardeners and a big house. He was educated at Newcastle-under-Lyme High School where he was a prominent member, nicknamed “The Whip”, of the school debating society. He studied at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he read mathematics. He founded a group called the Discord Club which indulged in provocative bad behaviour and certain disreputable activities after the Boat Race in 1904 led to him being sent down. After his expulsion a mock funeral was held in his honour, seemingly the longest such funeral ever seen in Cambridge. He later returned to Cambridge to study philosophy, but was again expelled after some explicit love letters to an under aged girl were discovered. He then studied at University College London for a time before travelling through Canada where, as he put it, the first time I ever felt the necessity or inevitableness of verse was in the desire to reproduce the peculiar quality of feeling which is induced by the flat spaces and wide horizons of the virgin prairie of Western Canada. He moved to Brussels where he learned French and German. While there he acquainted himself with the works of the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, which led him to develop the ideas which led to the creation of “Imagism” in poetry.
Hulme was noted for his truculence. Over six feet tall with a ruddy complexion, and what Wyndham Lewis called an “extremely fine head” and “legs like a racing cyclist”, his arguments were often physical as well as philosophical. He once fought Wyndham Lewis over a girl, Kate Lechmere. Although the fight had started indoors, when it moved outside in Soho Square, Hulme hung Lewis upside down on the railings by his trousers. His inclination for physical violence and intemperate arguments was aided by a knuckle-duster made for him by the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. There are strong suggestions from his biographers that this knuckle-duster was also used to pleasure his lovers. A non-smoking, teetotalling Tory, he loved sex and boiled sweets, and he preferred suet pudding and treacle to cigarettes and alcohol.
in London, in 1908, he established the Poets’ Club, a group who met once a month to discuss and share poetry and prose, and there he advanced his poetic ideas of image particularly in his celebrated “Lecture on Modern Poetry”, a manifesto of sorts for the Imagist movement. Eventually he grew tired of the Poets’ Club and established a new group that met at the Cafe Tour d’Eiffel where he attempted to create a new English poetry embracing the attitudes of pre-war England. Ezra Pound was part of this group. There was a fractious relationship between the two men with Pound often claiming credit for Hulme’s contributions to Imagism. His interest in poetry declined by 1910 and this led to the dissolution of the Cafe Tour d’Eiffel group. However, he continued to write literary criticism and journalism.
He became increasingly obsessed with the impending world war and when, on August 4, 1914, it was announced that Great Britain had declared war on Germany, after the German Army invaded Belgium on its way to attack France, Hulme entered military service and joined the Honourable Artillery Company. He was sent to the Western Front. His defence of that war irked Bertrand Russell who called him ‘an evil man’, following their heated public debate over the War in national newspapers. He wrote of his war experiences in his diary: It’s not the idea of being killed that’s alarming, but the idea of being hit by a jagged piece of steel. You hear the whistle of the shell coming, you crouch down as low as you can and just wait. It doesn’t burst merely with a bang, it has a kind of crash with a snap in it, like the crack of a very large whip. They seem to burst just over your head, you seem to anticipate it killing you in the back, it hits just near you and you get hit on the back with clods of earth and (in my case) spent bits of shell and shrapnel bullets fall all around you. I picked up one bullet almost sizzling in the mud just by my toe… What irritates you is the continuation of the shelling. You seem to feel that 20 minutes is normal, is enough – but when it goes on for over an hour, you get more and more exasperated, feel as if it were ‘unfair’. However, he added a postscript: I’m getting used to this kind of life and as long as I don’t get hurt or it doesn’t rain too much, don’t mind it at all.
He was wounded in April 1915 and sent home. In March 1916 he was commissioned into the Royal Marine Artillery and was sent to the Royal Naval Siege guns on the Belgian coast. Initially he enjoyed a quieter war. However the fighting intensified and, on 28th September 1917, he was killed while manning a gun near Nieuport in Flanders when he was blown to bits by a direct hit from a shell. He was thirty-four years old. He is buried in the Koksijde (Coxyde) Military Cemetery, Belgium. His headstone carries the inscription “One of the War Poets”.
THE POETRY OF T. E. HULME
T. S. Eliot admired Hulme’s small poetic output, about 25 poems totalling some 260 lines. He praised him as the author of two or three of the most beautiful short poems in the language, calling him the forerunner of a new attitude of mind, which should be the twentieth-century mind, if the twentieth century is to have a mind of its own. His poems “Autumn” (see below) and “A City Sunset”, both published in 1909, have the distinction of being considered the first Imagist poems. His search for a ‘dry, hard, classical verse’ to replace the tired Romanticism of much late Victorian and Georgian poetry, inspired the Imagist movement, supposedly founded by Ezra Pound in 1912. The Complete Poetical Works of T. E. Hulme first appeared in 1912, at the back of Ezra Pound’s volume Ripostes and contained just five poems, none of them longer than half a page, and the total running to just 33 lines. Yet those five poems ignited the modernist revolution in English poetry, a revolution that embraced brevity, precision of image and language, understatement, free verse and topical everyday experience.
A philosophical concept of “image” lay at the root of Hulme’s poetic philosophy which incorporated elements of Bergson’s philosophy. Image, he argued, was the untouched material of experience that could be artistically represented in poetry. He was inspired also by Gustave Kahn, a French symbolist poet, who had written about free verse in his book Premiers poemes (1897). Khan’s poems resisted following stringent rules of meter, rhyme, and rhythm; instead, it meandered with the mind of the writer. Hulme was clear on what he wanted from poetry: I want to speak verse in a plain way as I would of pigs: that is the only honest way. Although Ezra Pound often gets the credit for founding the Imagist movement, (along with English poet Richard Aldington and American poet Hilda Doolittle) and writing the influential ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’, the ideas had already been formulated by Hulme years earlier. Although Pound and Hulme were associates, Pound later minimised the role Hulme had played in the formation of Imagist practice. However, Pound did acknowledge his significance when he wrote that Hulme set an enviable example to many of his contemporaries who have had less to say. Whatever poetic limitations Hulme’s (and Pound’s) philosophy have, the poetry of T. E. Hulme deserves a modern audience.
Brief Poems by T. E. Hulme
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.
Above the Dock
Above the quiet dock in mid night,
Tangled in the tall mast’s corded height,
Hangs the moon. What seemed so far away
Is but a child’s balloon, forgotten after play.
Old houses were scaffolding once
and workmen whistling.
Three birds flew over the red wall
into the pit of the evening sun.
O daring, dooméd birds that pass from my sight.
Raleigh in the dark tower prisoned
Dreamed of the blue sea and beyond
Where in strange tropic paradise
Her skirt lifted as a dark mist
From the columns of amethyst.
This to all ladies gay I say.
Away, abhorréd lace, away.
The lark crawls on the cloud
Like a flea on a white belly.
The mystic sadness of the sight
Of a far town seen in the night.
like bats in the dusk.
The flounced edge of skirt,
recoiling like waves off a cliff.
Down the long desolate street of stars.
The bloom of the grape has gone.
When she speaks, almost her breasts touch me.
Backward leans her head.