A Short Analysis of T. E. Hulme’s ‘Romanticism and Classicism’

‘Romanticism and Classicism’ by T. E. Hulme (1883-1917) was posthumously published as part of the 1924 collection Speculations but probably written in 1911-12. It’s an important attack on romanticism in art and poetry, and was an influential defence of the ‘philosophy’ (though that may be too grand a word for it) underpinning much modernist poetry in English. You can read ‘Romanticism and Classicism’ here; in this post we’re going to attempt to summarise and analyse the main points of Hulme’s argument.

T. E. Hulme had begun ‘A Lecture on Modern Poetry’ (1908) by saying, ‘A reviewer writing in the Saturday Review last week spoke of poetry as the means by which the soul soared into higher regions, and as a means of expression by which it became merged into a higher kind of reality. Well, that is the kind of statement that I utterly detest. I want to speak of verse in a plain way as I would of pigs: that is the only honest way.’ Pigs, as the old cliché has it, cannot fly; they roll around in the mud, are bound up with the earth, are down-to-earth creatures. It is for these reasons that Hulme chooses them for the purposes of analogy. We have a firm sense of coming back down to earth with a bump. Good modern poetry is rooted to the ground, and may only treat of higher things within strict limits.

In ‘Romanticism and Classicism’, Hulme states that there are two basic positions to adopt in relation to humanity: the romantic and the classical. The romantic position is ‘that man, the individual, is an infinite reservoir of possibilities; and if you can so rearrange society by the destruction of oppressive order then these possibilities will have a chance and you will get Progress.’ The classical position, by contrast, sees man as ‘an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant. It is only by tradition and organisation that anything decent can be got out of him.’ Hulme uses the metaphor of the well and the bucket to illustrate these two concepts: romanticism is like a well, because there is a limitless faith in human potential and achievement; by contrast, classicism is the bucket. You can only fill up a bucket with a limited amount of water, whereas a well could, in theory, go on filling your bucket time and time again. Romanticism is about limitless possibility; classicism is about limitation and restraint. Hulme is firmly on the side of classicism, arguing that the romantic impulse has dominated poetry for too long, and it’s time for a return to classical values.

How does this classical view manifest itself in poetry? Hulme elaborates:

What I mean by classical in verse, then, is this. That even in the most imaginative flights there is always a holding back, a reservation. The classical poet never forgets this finiteness, this limit of man. He remembers always that he is mixed up with earth. He may jump, but he always returns back; he never flies away into the circumambient gas.

Hulme’s poetry is frequently a lucid embodiment of this classical spirit: larks are not ‘ascending’ (as in the title of the George Meredith poem and Vaughan Williams composition) but are likened to fleas crawling on a human body; the moon is not some grand symbol of beauty but is like the red face of a farmer. Things are constantly being reined in, brought down to earth. But if this is the case, then where is the grandeur in such poetry? Where, for want of a better word, is its ‘poetic’ quality?

T E Hulme portraitHulme argues that the problem with romanticism is that poets on the ‘romantic’ side (and here he doesn’t refer narrowly to Romanticism with a capital R – he means not only Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, and some of Keats, but also a later poet like Swinburne) always want to bring in talk of ‘the infinite’: they want to reflect this ‘infinite reservoir of possibilities’ by implying that, in terms of humanity’s achievements and potential, the sky’s the limit. Hulme has little time for such a view. But if you banish talk of the infinite from verse, what do you bring in, what stands in place of the infinite and provides the poem with its ‘poetic’ aspect? Hulme’s answer is ‘zest’, which he sees as the poet’s contemplation of the world, with the poem being an ‘accurate description’ of the things the poet observes. In other words, this zest ‘heightens a thing out of the level of prose’ without raising it to such a high level that you end up talking about the infinite, and exaggerating the beauty or grandeur of the thing being described. Hulme uses an example from Robert Herrick’s seventeenth-century poem ‘Delight in Disorder’, which describes a woman’s creased petticoat as ‘tempestuous’. Tempests are on a grand scale, but what saves this metaphor from flying off into the realm of the infinite is the use of the adjective ‘tempestuous’ to refer to something as small and everyday as a piece of clothing. We can observe a similar comparison in Hulme’s poem ‘The Embankment’, which likens the vastness of the starry night sky to a moth-eaten blanket.

What links this ‘zest’ in ‘Romanticism and Classicism’ to Hulme’s previous ‘Lecture on Modern Poetry’ is his call for clear, direct metaphors in this new ‘classical’ poetry:

It always endeavours to arrest you, and to make you continuously see a physical thing, to prevent you gliding through an abstract process. It chooses fresh epithets and fresh metaphors, not so much because they are new, and we are tired of the old, but because the old cease to convey a physical thing and become abstract counters. A poet says a ship ‘coursed the seas’ to get a physical image, instead of the counter world ‘sailed’. Visual meanings can only be transferred by the new bowl of metaphor; prose is an old pot that lets them leak out.

We might analyse and summarise this position as follows: poetry should be about hard, clear language and vivid, sharp, physical images. In short, we need a new ‘dry, hard, classical verse’ that reacts against the ‘wet’ romanticism of much recent poetry.

Hulme’s role in modernism, then, was as a shaker-upper, a rabble-rouser, a populariser of ideas. If you wish to see modernism as a literary revolution (and many have), Hulme would be one of its more anarchic and disruptive revolutionaries. But for all his bluster and provocative posturing, Hulme had a serious desire to make poetry new and to reinvent the very language and style in which English poetry was written. ‘Romanticism and Classicism’ sets out and analyses the problems with romanticism and suggests how a classical spirit might be introduced into modern poetry in place of the romantic. The changes he introduced are still with us to this day.


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Posted on March 7, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. ThNks for sharing. Will have to look more into this artist. Weve got s rough draft out for a new short story of ours called Eaten an Eskimo and your thoughts on it would be incredible

  2. I don’t know if I agree with him entirely about Romanticism, but I do find empty, grandiose poetics off-putting. Poetry should earn its grandeur, and even undersell it if necessary.

    • I agree, Bryan – Hulme had a talent for rhetorical overstatement, and as I’ve argued in a short book on Hulme, I think his poetry manages that undersell very effectively (though I think he’s also more Romantic than he lets on)…

  3. Thank you. Very well explained. Esoecially the first part :)

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