An analysis of a classic imagist poem
T. E. Hulme (1883-1917) wrote very different poetry from the verse composed by his near-contemporaries, ‘Georgian’ poets such as Rupert Brooke and John Drinkwater – or, indeed, the surviving ‘Victorian’ poets such as Thomas Hardy. His poems are clear, direct, and simple. Yet not so simple as to make any analysis of their meaning redundant. In his brief four-line poem ‘Above the Dock’, Hulme likens that poetic trope par excellence, the moon, to a child’s balloon:
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.
Like another of Hulme’s poems, ‘Autumn’, ‘Above the Dock’ wants us to see the moon in a fresh and exciting way. Rather than associating the moon with unrequited love (as Sir Philip Sidney had done in one of his sonnets) or with some ethereal goddess, Hulme likens to moon to altogether more mundane and everyday things, like the face of a farmer (as in ‘Autumn’) or, here, a child’s balloon.
Yet the balloon is not completely devoid of association with the moon, not only by being ball-shaped when it is full; for the moon as a balloon works by rhyme-association (the internal chiming of ‘moon’ with ‘balloon’), but also through the ‘loon’ that ‘balloon’ contains, reminding us of the lunar.
We are invited to see the comparison or association between the moon and the balloon as representative of feelings we can all relate to: a loss of childhood innocence, and the realization that while the moon is constant for the passing generations, a balloon is not. Indeed, balloons are notoriously ephemeral things. But Hulme does not romanticise this feeling: the sentiment is not allowed to become sentimental. This is because Hulme, as he made clear in his later essay ‘Romanticism and Classicism’, believed that poets should reject the Romantic spirit of boundlessness and excess in favour of a return to classical notions of restraint. Mankind is not a well of infinite possibility, but a finite creature, governed by limitations and, indeed, flaws.
This sense of finiteness amid seemingly infinite flights of imagination is what ‘Above the Dock’ seeks to capture, in the literal flight of the child’s balloon. For just as children quickly grow sick of their toys, so they also grow up quickly, too, and one generation must give way to the next, for whom the moon will appear just as it did once for us. The moon is destined to be around for longer than we will, and is practically eternal – in a word, infinite – when compared to the fleeting existence of a child’s balloon. Hulme’s poem elicits this response without being sentimental about it: the ‘but’ in the last line is poised between cool, literal statement or understatement of something physical (what the speaker took for the moon is only a discarded toy) and the suggestion of something approaching the metaphysical (that, since life is so short for us, the moon might as well be as earthly and ephemeral as a child’s balloon).
For more analysis of Hulme’s poetry, see the first book-length study of Hulme’s poems, published by Bloomsbury in 2013 as T.E. Hulme and Modernism.