A summary of a key modernist essay
There are numerous documents which might be described as ‘manifestos’ for modernist poetry in English – Ezra Pound’s ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’ springs to mind – but T. E. Hulme’s ‘A Lecture on Modern Poetry’ was almost certainly the earliest. It’s an important announcement of a new poetic style and, in a small way, a revolutionary document in modern poetry. You can read ‘A Lecture on Modern Poetry’ in full here, but in this post we’re going to try to analyse Hulme’s essay and pinpoint why it was so important.
In 1908, there was a widespread feeling – well, it was widespread among a small but significant group of new poets, anyway – that a new way forward needed to be found for English verse. Algernon Charles Swinburne, who would die the year later but who had been a powerful force in English poetry since the 1860s, proved a particular sticking-point. T. S. Eliot, looking back on the year 1908 (when he was still an undergraduate at Harvard), said the key question was: ‘Where do we go from Swinburne?’ The answer was, apparently, nowhere: he couldn’t find a way out from under the long shadow cast by Swinburne’s poetic virtuosity.
Across the Atlantic, at the meetings of the Poets’ Club in London, another young poet, T. E. Hulme, was offering an answer to the question Eliot had posed, in his ‘Lecture on Modern Poetry’ which he delivered to his fellow members of the Poets’ Club some time in 1908. In ‘A Lecture on Modern Poetry’, Hulme states a number of important and, as it would turn out, influential points about a new direction for modern poetry in English. These can be summarised as follows:
For English poetry to move forward, it needs a new form of expression. Hulme says that a new verse form is ‘a new toy’ for the poet to play with: a poet wants to experiment with it and see what can be done with it. Old forms decay and – before they die altogether – descend into ‘virtuosity’. (Swinburne may well have been one of the poets Hulme had in mind here: Swinburne was a poetic virtuoso, even a show-off, who wrote in a vast number of traditional verse forms, from ballad metre to the sonnet to rondeaus and ottava rima.) Here Hulme uses the example of the Renaissance, arguing that the ‘burst of poetic activity’ in English poetry in the sixteenth century had less to do with the discovery of America (as is sometimes somewhat dramatically claimed) and more to do with the introduction into England of French and Italian verse forms, most famously the sonnet form. One new form which had recently been introduced into England in the early twentieth century, when Hulme was writing, was vers libre or ‘free verse’, from France. Which leads us to Hulme’s next big point…
Free verse frees English poetry from the ‘hypnotic’ effects of rhyme and regular metre. T. E. Hulme namechecks Gustave Kahn, a French poet, as the person who first outlined the virtues of vers libre or free verse. As Hulme himself puts it:
The length of the line is long and short, oscillating with the images used by the poet; it follows the contours of his thoughts and is free rather than regular; to use a rough analogy, it is clothes made to order, rather than ready-made clothes.
By using free verse in modern poetry, the poet can free himself from the regularity of conventional poetic metre (what Ezra Pound would later liken dismissively to the metronome). As Hulme argues, regular rhythms in poetry stem from the days when poetry was ‘a religious incantation’, and ‘rhyme and metre were used as aids to the memory’. But the modern poet has no need for such out-of-date techniques, which are more likely to ‘produce a kind of hypnotic state’ in the reader or listener. Free verse will keep the reader on their toes, since the rhythm will continually vary and the reader will never know whether to expect a long or a short line next, a rhymed or an unrhymed one.
Poetic language needs to be direct and use fresh metaphors. This is the last and perhaps the most important tenet, in view of Hulme’s wider philosophy of poetry, in all of ‘A Lecture on Modern Poetry’. For Hulme, poetry is the place where new metaphors are created; once they become familiar phrases they are used in prose as readily understandable terms, and then they ‘die a long lingering death in journalists’ English’ (nothing much changes). Hulme uses the example of describing the hill being ‘clad with trees’: when this was first used it was probably uttered by a poet, who was using a metaphor (suggesting that the hill is clothed with the trees), but now when we hear it we pass over it as a familiar and even clichéd expression. (You can probably think of your own examples here: think of Shakespeare’s phrases, such as ‘heart of gold’ or to vanish ‘into thin air’, which when first heard would have sounded fresh and inspired a vivid image in the listener’s mind; now, though, we merely pass over them as conventions, comprehending their meaning without really stopping to visualise them as images.) Modern poetry, as Hulme writes towards the end of ‘A Lecture on Modern Poetry’, should endeavour to forge fresh metaphors and vivid images.
Those are the main points of T. E. Hulme’s argument in ‘A Lecture on Modern Poetry’, which can be read as a blueprint for the modernist poetic revolution that followed, including the work of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. This short summary and analysis of Hulme’s position has sought to summarise some of the key aspects of his essay, but there are numerous questions to ask of this position. How does one go about creating new images which aren’t too outré, too absurd? Even the description of hills being ‘clad’ with trees may once have sounded silly and far-fetched. And how should free verse be used responsibly by the poet, so that a poem doesn’t essentially become a piece of prose chopped up? (For more about this, see T. S. Eliot’s essay ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’, which addresses this point.)
Discover more about Hulme’s poetry with this poem he wrote in the WWI trenches and this selection of some of his finest poems. For a more detailed discussion of Hulme, we recommend this book by the founder-editor of Interesting Literature, Dr Oliver Tearle, T.E. Hulme and Modernism.