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T. E. Hulme’s War Poem: ‘Trenches: St Eloi’

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle celebrates the poet and thinker who died 100 years ago this week

On 28 September 1917, T. E. Hulme was killed in action in Oostduinkerke in Flanders. Hulme’s death, as Robert Ferguson records in his biography, The Short Sharp Life of T. E. Hulme, was particularly brutal: he suffered a direct hit from a large shell which literally blew him to pieces. What was left of him was buried in West-Vlaanderen, Belgium where he is described in the war graves records as simply ‘one of the war poets’.

In some ways, this is a decidedly inapt description of Hulme. His entire poetic output was slim – including verse fragments it stretches to no more than 20 pages – and he wrote all of his poetry in the years preceding the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. But the poems he did write helped to forge a new form and style for English poetry.

T. E. Hulme was a larger-than-life figure in virtually every way. Standing at over six feet tall, with a ruddy complexion, a willingness to argue with anyone (or, indeed, to fight them: he once famously boxed with his friend Wyndham Lewis in Soho Square – over a girl), he hailed from Staffordshire where he had been born in 1883. After a spell at Cambridge (from which he was sent down without a degree, for – and I quote – ‘idleness and a surfeit of pranks’) and a brief adventure in Canada in his early twenties, Hulme finally settled in London, where he founded a Poetry Club, argued with people, ate lots of sweets (he was a teetotaller and non-smoker who preferred suet pudding and treacle to cigarettes and alcohol), and wrote a handful of short poems which might be described as the first ‘modern’ poems in English.

But T. E. Hulme did write one poem while he was on active service – or rather, he both did and didn’t write it. That is to say, he composed it, but he didn’t write it down (indeed, he refused to do so himself), instead leaving it to his friend and fellow poet, the American expatriate Ezra Pound, with whom he had had some heated discussions before the War about how to modernise English verse. Pound published Hulme’s poem in an anthology of poetry titled Catholic Anthology in 1915. The poem was given the title ‘Trenches: St Eloi’, along with the subtitle: ‘T.E.H. Poem: Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr T.E.H.’

Over the flat slopes of St Eloi
A wide wall of sand bags.
Night,
In the silence desultory men
Pottering over small fires, cleaning their mess- tins:
To and fro, from the lines,
Men walk as on Piccadilly,
Making paths in the dark,
Through scattered dead horses,
Over a dead Belgian’s belly.

The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets.
Behind the line, cannon, hidden, lying back miles.
Beyond the line, chaos:

My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.
Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.

As Ferguson remarks in his biography of Hulme, this poem ‘feels like poetry’ but ‘looks like prose’, and ‘the mere fact that it could be considered a poem at all is a mark of the triumph of the poetic revolution Hulme had helped to start just seven years earlier’ (in 1908 with his poem ‘Autumn’). If Hulme is, as the war graves record suggests, ‘one of the war poets’, he is a decidedly different war poet from his fellow combatants Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg.

Central to Hulme’s attitude to life and poetry was the idea of classicism as opposed to romanticism. Whereas the romantic impulse in poetry tended towards progress, infinity, and grandeur, the classical spirit saw mankind as fundamentally limited, confined, fallen, down-to-earth. Hulme was firmly in the latter camp. In the trenches, of course, men were literally as well as psychologically confined and limited, restricted and constrained – to borrow a phrase Hulme himself used of classicism, man is literally ‘mixed up with earth’. But this also has a psychological impact, Hulme’s trenches poem seems to say: the mind becomes narrowed like a corridor and the soldier cannot think beyond the confines of the trenches and tunnels in which the body moves. ‘Trenches: St Eloi’ doesn’t rhyme, but it does create its own rhythms through repetition:

The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets.

And:

My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.

This rhythmic patterning is significant in Hulme’s poem because it suggests this trapped and confined nature of life in the trenches: there is no romantic self-pity here, no talk of infinity or limitlessness. The immediate problem is that the enemy has rockets while your side doesn’t have anything to retaliate with, and such tunnel-vision extends to the mind’s eye as well: the mind becomes a corridor, like a trench or tunnel, and is unable to think about anything else. The repetition of corridor/corridors in that second example brings this home, the repetition providing this unrhymed poem with a rhythmic pattern which stands in for rhyme, but which also reflects the sense of fixation and powerlessness that was part of the psychological life of men in the trenches. For poetry, it was the start of something new.

Hulme’s legacy continues to be felt and his poetry is inspiring new writers, artists, and musicians – see Frank Hudson’s excellent piece on one of Hulme’s most haunting poetic fragments, and have a listen to the song he wrote based on this four-line fragment.

Continue to explore the poetry of WWI with our analysis of Wilfred Owen’s classic ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.

Dr Oliver Tearle is the author of T.E. Hulme and Modernism, the first book-length study of Hulme’s poems, which is out now in paperback.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on September 29, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the link and the introduction to Hulme’s poetry. Earlier this month I also did a performance of “Trenches: St Eloi”

    https://frankhudson.org/2017/09/05/trenches-st-eloi/

    I have no trouble finding the music in Hulme, even when it comes from the music of thought and associations, which, I found out, both he and I call “chords”,

    • Thanks for this, Frank – I’ve bookmarked your performance of ‘Trenches: St Eloi’ and will listen to it in the next few days. I’m teaching Hulme’s poetry to my students in a couple of weeks’ time and may mention your point about finding the music in Hulme’s poetry!

  2. Reblogged this on Musings of a Penpusher and commented:
    Another memory worth archiving.

  1. Pingback: Drummond Allison: The Forgotten ‘War’ Poet | Interesting Literature

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