Dr Oliver Tearle’s summary of a classic imagist poem
T. E. Hulme’s poetry offers something different from the poetry being written by his near-contemporaries, ‘Georgian’ poets such as Rupert Brooke and John Drinkwater – or, indeed, the surviving ‘Victorian’ poets such as Thomas Hardy. ‘Conversion’ is not quite as famous as several of Hulme’s other poems, but it was one of the six poems he allowed Ezra Pound to reprint in the facetiously titled ‘The Complete Poetical Works of T. E. Hulme’, at the end of Pound’s 1912 volume Ripostes. Here is ‘Conversion’, with a few comments on it, that are designed to serve as preliminary analysis of its form, meaning, and imagery.
Light-hearted I walked into the valley wood
In the time of hyacinths,
Till beauty like a scented cloth
Cast over, stifled me, I was bound
Motionless and faint of breath
By loveliness that is her own eunuch.
Now pass I the final river
Ignominiously, in a sack, without a sound,
As any peeping Turk to the Bosphorous.
Like another of Hulme’s poems, ‘The Embankment’, ‘Conversion’ has a speaker who contrasts past with present, ‘then’ with ‘Now’. Something has changed, as pointed up by this poem’s title, ‘Conversion’. In summary, the poem’s speaker has undergone some sort of change, but whether this is a religious conversion or not remains unknown and unknowable.
In the poem, the speaker is drugged with beauty – indeed, by beauty – as though beauty were chloroform or, more sinister still, a kidnapper; he is then bundled into a sack and thrown into the river, like a litter of kittens to be
drowned. (The ‘final river’ denotes the River Styx from classical mythology, which transported the dead to their final resting-place.)
Beauty, personified in the poem as female, has an assistant to aid her in this kidnap-and-murder enterprise: Loveliness, which is characterised as a eunuch, a castrated man.
The ‘scented cloth’ of Hulme’s ‘Conversion’ is not far removed from the anaesthetic which Eliot would use to such great effect in the opening lines of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (with its vision of the sunset as like a ‘patient etherised upon a table’). For Hulme also draws this implicit link – a sort of latent pun – between aesthetics and anaesthetics, by likening beauty (i.e. the realm of the aesthetic) to a soporific drug (i.e. an anaesthetic) which is used to reduce the all-too-human speaker to a weak and helpless state.
If this is a conversion, then it is not one of soul-searching transcendence, but squalid and humiliating abasement to a force far more powerful than oneself: the speaker even uses the word ‘Ignominious’ for his unconscious state.
In ‘Conversion’, there is an acknowledgement of the physical power of such a psychological or philosophical experience: in adopting the ‘religious’ attitude, and in abasing oneself before beauty, one’s very body is altered. This is no Romantic transcendence, where man is one with nature: nature is the one with the power, and beauty has complete control over the individual. (Hulme, in his essay ‘Romanticism and Classicism’, set himself firmly against the Romantic notion of progress and boundlessness; for him, human experience was always beset by limitations and restraint, and art should seek to reflect this.)
The language Hulme uses in this short, unrhymed poem effectively conveys the speaker’s squalid state. How faint a rhyme do ‘cloth’ and ‘breath’ make, mimicking the failing consciousness of the speaker who uses these words; how deliciously does ‘bound’ hang over the end of the line, leaving us anything but certain – or ‘bound’ – to know what is to come next.
‘Conversion’ is a minor poem and a brief one – Hulme supposedly wrote it as a blackboard exercise to demonstrate the new principles of modern poetry, chiefly classicism and restraint – but its images remain ambiguous and its language hauntingly evasive.
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.