We’ve written about T. E. Hulme (1883-1917) before, in this previous post on his importance as a modern poet. In this follow-up post, we’ve put together ten of Hulme’s shortest and sweetest poems – most of which were written in around 1908-9 when Hulme was in his mid-twenties.
These helped to light the touchpaper for modern English poetry, influencing Ezra Pound and imagism (Hulme’s prose writings would also later influence T. S. Eliot). Our founder-editor, Oliver Tearle, has written a little book arguing for the importance of Hulme’s poetry, so if this post whets your appetite for more, his book is available from your favourite bookstore (and if it isn’t, then, as Joan Rivers liked to say, get a new favourite). Anyway, here are the poems.
The following short two-line fragment was one of a number of short ‘images’ Hulme never worked up into a full poem. But the image the poem conveys – as well as the poignant suggestion of memento mori – makes it worthy of inclusion here.
Old houses were scaffolding once
and workmen whistling.
One image that Hulme did work up into a full poem was the following lunar simile, which forms the basis of ‘Autumn’ (arguably the first modern poem in English). There may be a touch of autobiography in the image of the ‘red-faced farmer’, since Hulme apparently had a ruddy complexion and hailed from the rural North Staffordshire area:
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.
This poem’s use of free verse and understatement might be productively compared to Joseph Campbell’s short poems. Hulme was drawn to the moon as perhaps the romantic poetic image to trump all romantic poetic images, and returned to it in ‘Above the Dock’ (a poem that is slightly more conventional in that it is written in rhyming couplets):
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.
Hulme likes the wistfulness of the city or town seen at night, with that meeting of the romantic (the stars and night sky) and the modern and urban. This two-line couplet fragment demonstrates this succinctly:
The mystic sadness of the sight
Of a far town seen in the night.
‘Mana Aboda’ was, along with the two previous poems, among the five short pieces which originally comprised ‘The Complete Poetical Works of T. E. Hulme’, which appeared as a postscript to Ezra Pound’s volume Ripostes in 1912 (Hulme must have had his tongue well and truly in his ruddy cheek when he came up with the title). ‘Mana Aboda’, by the way, is a Polynesian goddess.
Mana Aboda, whose bent form
The sky in arched circle is,
Seems ever for an unknown grief to mourn,
Yet on a day I heard her cry:
‘I weary of the roses and the singing poets—
Josephs all, not tall enough to try.’
‘Susan Ann and Immortality’ is another variation on a common theme of Hulme’s poetry – the relationship between the vast expanse of the skies and the small, earthbound things beneath our feet:
Her head hung down
Gazed at earth, fixedly keen,
As the rabbit at the stoat
Till the earth was sky,
Sky that was green,
And brown clouds past,
Like chestnut leaves arching the ground.
Meanwhile, in this initially untitled poem (Patrick McGuinness, in his excellent edition of Hulme’s Selected Writings (Fyfield Books), calls it ‘The Poet’), the poet figure dreams of a poetic founded on concrete images rather than abstract romantic platitudes.
Over a large table, smooth, he leaned in ecstasies,
In a dream.
He had been to woods, and talked and walked with trees.
Had left the world
And brought back round globes and stone images,
Of gems, colours, hard and definite.
With these he played, in a dream,
On the smooth table.
The following poem, ‘The Sunset’, offers – like ‘Autumn’ and ‘Above the Dock’ – a surprising comparison between the traditional romantic symbol (here, the sunset rather than the moon) and something unexpected (here, a ballet dancer).
A coryphée, covetous of applause,
Loth to leave the stage,
With final diablerie, poises high her toe,
Displays scarlet lingerie of carmin’d clouds,
Amid the hostile murmurs of the stalls.
Several of Hulme’s poems are preoccupied with fallen figures, people who have lost everything and find themselves dreaming of something now out of reach. We’ll finish with two examples. The first is a little-known fragment about Sir Walter Raleigh, and the other is perhaps Hulme’s most famous poem, ‘The Embankment’.
Raleigh in the dark tower prisoned
Dreamed of the blue sea and beyond
Where in strange tropic paradise
(The fantasia of a fallen gentleman on a cold, bitter night)
Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy,
In a flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.
If you enjoyed these poems, Tearle’s book is now out in paperback and our previous post on Hulme can be read here. And you can read our analysis of Hulme’s ‘The Embankment’ here. To see how Imagist poetry developed in the wake of Hulme’s poetry, see our analysis of Pound’s two-line ‘In a Station of the Metro’. Hulme’s poems are available in their entirety in Selected Writings: T. E. Hulme (Fyfield Books).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.