Dr Oliver Tearle’s summary of a classic modernist poem
‘Autumn’ by T. E. Hulme (1883-1917) is arguably the first modern poem in the English language. Written in 1908, it shows something different from the poetry being written by the Georgian poets such as Rupert Brooke and John Drinkwater, or the surviving ‘Victorian’ poets such as Thomas Hardy. Here is this short gem of a poem, with a few comments on it, that are designed to serve as preliminary analysis of its form, meaning, and imagery.
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.
In summary, the poet is taking a walk one autumn night – ‘abroad’ suggesting that he has stepped outside of the town or city and crossed into the countryside – when he spies the moon, lit with a reddish glow thanks to the sunset, and is put in mind of the red face of a farmer. But there is nothing grandly transcendent about this encounter: the poet merely nods, also observing that the stars in the sky are like the white faces of children. (They are ‘town children’ presumably because the smog and dirt and general grimness of urban life makes their white faces stand out among their surroundings, much as the stars shine out against the darkening evening sky.)
Where many poets writing at the start of the twentieth century were still using tried and tested poetic forms (such as the sonnet or quatrain forms), Hulme, in ‘Autumn’, gives us a seven-line stanza that constitutes the entire brief poem. Where many Georgians wrote poetry using a regular rhythm, metre, and rhyme scheme, Hulme presents us with a poem that has no intrusive rhythm and no rhyme scheme (good luck finding a rhyme for ‘children’!).
Many poets of the time were still fond of rhetorical effusions in their work – you can normally spot such moments by the prevalence of exclamation marks. Hulme, instead, gives us something understated and plain-spoken: ‘A touch of cold’, ‘I did not stop to speak, but nodded’.
When it comes to modernist poetry, Ezra Pound (1885-1972) usually gets the credit for having ‘made it new’, and it’s true that Pound would later found the Imagist movement with English poet Richard Aldington and fellow American Hilda Doolittle (known as ‘H. D.’). He also wrote ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’, a short manifesto which sets down some of the rules for modern poetry. But Hulme, some five years earlier, had already formulated many of these and put them into practice, in poems such as ‘Autumn’.
What is particularly striking about the central simile in ‘Autumn’ is the fact that it appears odd but is backed up by logic, though this logic is neither rigidly enforced nor explicitly stated. Likening the moon to the red face of a farmer does appear strange, but when we recall that this scene is taking place in the autumn, and that the autumn moon is also known as the harvest moon, and farmers bring in the harvest, we see that the chain of connections moon-farmer-autumn-harvest unites to make sense of the analogy.
There may also, though, be a touch of autobiography in the image of the ‘red-faced farmer’, since T. E. Hulme apparently had a ruddy complexion and hailed from the rural North Staffordshire area.
If you enjoyed this analysis of Hulme’s poem, see our pick of the best very short modernist poems. And to discover more about Hulme’s work, we recommend Oliver Tearle’s book T.E. Hulme and Modernism, the first book-length study of Hulme’s poetry.
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.
Image: T. E. Hulme (author unknown), before 1917, Wikimedia Commons.