A brief introduction to one of modernism’s most important early poems
T. E. Hulme (1883-1917) was an influential poet and thinker in the first few years of the twentieth century. He left behind only a handful of short poems – our pick of which can be read here – but he revolutionised the way English poetry approached issues of rhyme, metre, and imagery. Few before Hulme had thought seriously to liken the moon to a child’s balloon or the ruddy face of a farmer, but Hulme was resolute that poetry, in the hands of the Victorians, had become stale and old, and needed to be reinvented.
In many ways Hulme’s masterpiece is the following poem, ‘The Embankment’, written around 1908-9 while Hulme was an active member of the Poets’ Club (later the Secession Club) in London:
(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.
First, a short paraphrase of the poem: on London’s Embankment (an area well-known for homeless people sleeping rough), a ‘fallen gentleman’ reflects on his past and how he found pleasure in worldly social activities (the ‘finesse of fiddles’ suggesting musical gatherings, such as dances) and beautiful women – probably (given the ‘flash of gold heels on the hard pavement‘) courtesans or prostitutes. But now, down on his luck and most probably sleeping rough on the streets, he realises that warmth is what really matters and is what poets should be singing about. The poem then ends with a heartfelt entreaty to the heavens, with the poem’s speaker beseeching God to make a blanket of the starry sky so that the speaker’s wish for warmth might be granted.
This is a very different kind of poem from the sort of thing being written in England a few years before. Although many poets of the 1890s had written about ‘fallen gentlemen’ (not just men down on their luck, but often, by implication, those who had succumbed to sexual temptations and been subsequently ruined emotionally or financially), and had treated the stars in the night sky as an appropriate topic for their poetry, none of them had taken the bold step of reimagining that starry canopy as a moth-eaten blanket. (For more about the development of English poetry, see our crash-course on the history of English poetry, told through 8 key poems.) But that is precisely what the ‘old, star-eaten blanket of the sky’ achieves through a concise compacting of the two ideas, with the starry sky being overlaid with the less grand (or typically poetic) image of the moth-eaten blanket. However, Hulme is out to question our notions that the starry sky is a more fitting subject for poets to sing or write about: we think of the night sky as beautiful and romantic and a moth-eaten blanket as squalid and unattractive, but to the speaker freezing to death on London’s streets, the blanket is more immediately valuable and beautiful than the sky above him. To invert Oscar Wilde’s famous line, we can all look at the stars, but some of us are in the gutter. Talk of the beauty of a starry night is of little use to someone in the gutter: a blanket, though – now you’re talking sense, Mr Poet.
The internal rhymes of the poem, running from the poem’s subtitle or description to the last line – those of cold, gold, old, fold – help to form a chain that unites the central images of the poem. We are presented with a contrast between past and present, with the poet’s ‘I’ invoking the different physical senses in order to draw the contrast between ‘Once’ and ‘now’: the poet’s speaker remembers finding pleasure in sounds (amply summoned through the alliterative and assonantal sounds of ‘finesse of fiddles’) and sights (‘flash of gold heels’), but now rejects these in favour of sensation (‘warmth’s the very stuff of poesy’). The ‘gold’ of the ‘gold heels’ is destined to disperse into, respectively, the ‘God’ and ‘old’ of the succeeding lines, just as the former wealth of the ‘fallen gentleman’ has now given way to fruitless prayer (‘Oh God’) and a plea for shelter (any ‘old’ blanket will do).
If one thing uniting moths with stars is the fact that they are usually seen only at night, and are then associated with light, then the poem does not ask us to observe this association, merely to see ‘star-eaten’ as breathing new life and warmth into the lifeless and fusty old cliché that is ‘moth-eaten’. The suggestion of the poem – again, what it says without saying – is that the speaker is homeless, the Thames Embankment having a long-standing association with homelessness. What this poem iterates, therefore, is the thesis that only what is essential to human existence makes good poetry. In other words, good poetry deals with the necessary and includes only what is necessary. Hulme pushes this point home by choosing ‘fiddles’ and ‘gold heels’ as the images with which he rejects sound and sight respectively; both are associated with luxury, with what is not necessary but merely desired. But warmth is something different: warmth is not only desired but needed for us to live.
For a more detailed analysis of T. E. Hulme’s ‘The Embankment’, and Hulme’s other poems, see Oliver Tearle, T.E. Hulme and Modernism.
For more classic poetry, check out our pieces on Wilfred Owen’s ‘Futility’, Edward Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’, and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’. You might also like our short introduction to the history of English poetry.
Image (top): T. E. Hulme (author unknown), before 1917, Wikimedia Commons.