Facts about poet and thinker T. E. Hulme
1. Hulme wrote what is arguably the first modern poem in the English language. There are numerous candidates for who was the first truly modern English poet, but one could do worse than propose T. E. Hulme (1883-1917). In 1908, on the back of a hotel bill, Hulme wrote ‘A City Sunset’ – perhaps the first recognisably ‘modern’ poem in the language. It was written in an unsentimental free verse form, took the modern city as its focus, and fused French Symbolist influences with what Hulme called a ‘classical’ spirit founded on principles of restraint and limitation. ‘The Embankment’ – probably his most famous poem – also exemplifies the modern (and, indeed, modernist) spirit. Hulme’s call for a ‘dry, hard, classical verse’ to replace the weary and worn-out Romanticism of much late Victorian and Georgian poetry would feed into the Imagist movement, founded by Ezra Pound in 1912.
2. When he was sent down from the University of Cambridge, Hulme’s friends held a mock funeral for him. Hulme went to study at Cambridge, twice – but on both occasions left without a degree. On the first occasion, Hulme was studying for a degree in Mathematics, but had little interest in the subject. When he was expelled, a mock funeral cortege paraded itself through the streets of Cambridge, reportedly the longest mock funeral the city had ever seen. Hulme would later return to Cambridge to study Philosophy, following a letter of recommendation from the French philosopher Henri Bergson, but once more he would leave without having graduated.
3. Indeed, T. E. Hulme was a rebellious shaker-upper both in print and in person. The following anecdote exemplifies Hulme’s rascally behaviour: one night he was urinating in the street in London, when a policeman approached him. ‘You can’t do that here,’ the policeman reprimanded the young poet. Hulme buttoned himself up and replied, ‘Do you know you are addressing a member of the middle classes?’ The policeman promptly apologised. ‘I beg pardon, sir’, and off he went. Such behaviour should be seen as part of Hulme’s impatience with convention and with what is tediously taken for granted. He would later sign up and defend the cause of the First World War, partly for similar reasons (Bertrand Russell would later decry him as ‘an evil man’, following their heated public debate over the War in national newspapers).
4. Hulme also once had a fight with Wyndham Lewis in Soho Square. Hulme was no idle, or indeed genteel, discusser of ideas: he was a fighter, a spirited debater and a contrarian. He was also, in the literal sense, a fighter, and he once boxed his sometime friend, the writer and artist Wyndham Lewis, over a girl.
5. T. S. Eliot considered Hulme a ‘great poet’ and the ‘forerunner of a new attitude of mind’. The author of The Waste Land spoke approvingly of Hulme’s small poetic output (some of which was reprinted in the influential posthumous volume of 1924, Speculations), calling him the author of ‘two or three of the most beautiful short poems in the language’. He also called him ‘the forerunner of a new attitude of mind, which should be the twentieth-century mind, if the twentieth century is to have a mindof its own’. ‘The Complete Poetical Works of T. E. Hulme’ first appeared in 1912, at the back of Ezra Pound’s volume Ripostes; this sturdy-sounding volume contained just five poems, none of them longer than half a page, and the total running to just 33 lines. Yet those 33 lines helped to spark the modernist revolution in English poetry. It is from ‘The Embankment’ we get to The Waste Land.