- T. E. Hulme and Modernism by Oliver Tearle
Hulme’s poetic output is notoriously slim: in his lifetime, he published only six short poems, five of which appeared as “The Complete Poetical Works of T. E. Hulme” in 1912. In it, Eliot found some of the “most beautiful short poems in the language.”1 Yet, despite the approval of a modernist trendsetter such as Eliot (who considered Hulme “a really great poet”),2 Hulme’s poetry has been consistently overshadowed by his critical writings. In T. E. Hulme and Modernism, Oliver Tearle returns attention to Hulme’s poetic experiments in order to bring them “more fully into a discussion of his overall oeuvre” (6). Patiently, attentively, and lucidly, he engages with Hulme’s poetry (including his posthumously published “satellite” poems), making a convincing case for the revaluation of Hulme as a significant modernist poet. Through imaginative close readings, and by drawing on Hulme’s notebooks, lectures and essays, Tearle reveals the poet’s work to be richer than often assumed and, furthermore, complementary to his critical and philosophical thought. The book does have its problems; but in its poetic analysis, T. E. Hulme and Modernism is a refined and well-negotiated exercise in literary criticism. As the first book-length analysis of Hulme’s poetry, it is also an important addition to the field.
Among Hulme’s key contributions to modernist poetics was his insistence that modern poetry should strive to offer new and unexpected images (presented in juxtaposition); he also wanted the modern poet to acknowledge the finite and limited nature of humanity, according to his famous “classical” doctrine. Both these preoccupations (the second one of which was only clearly set out in “Romanticism and Classicism” in 1911–12) are at play in the poems Hulme composed in 1908–9. Take for instance “Autumn,” which associates the moon with the earthly “red-faced farmer”; or “Above the Dock,” which likens 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 awayIs but a child’s balloon, forgotten after play.
The juxtaposition of “moon” and “balloon” is surprising and yet not devoid of association: the moon is ball-shaped when it is full; the moon as a balloon works by rhyme-association (the internal [End Page 575] chiming of “moon” with “balloon”); and the “loon” that “balloon” contains reminds us of the lunar (53). Unpacking Hulme’s interpretation of Henri Bergson’s intuitive metaphysics, Tearle shows how Hulme’s poems alert us to an image, only to then invite us to detect a deeper intratextual association. Hulme’s short poems can thus be seen to work “in the manner of puzzles, where the reader is engaged in the task … of ascertaining how the two images in the metaphor or simile are working together (and, just as importantly, why they work together)” (72).
In the sunset poems, the unexpected analogy between “sunset” and ”scarlet sóre” shares something with Eliot’s comparison of the evening sunset to a “patient etherized upon a table” in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Eliot’s association is Hulmean in that it offers a fresh analogy, and simultaneously resists the infinite and transcendent. Here Tearle insightfully observes that, though the sunset may be “vast, boundless and quasi-mystical in poetry,” for Hulme and Eliot alike it “must be pulled back to within our reach” (15–16). Hulme’s poetry is also preoccupied with the finite or the definite: it is “firmly down-to-earth” (16). As Tearle playfully puts it, it “may not have gravitas but it has gravity” (23). In “Mana Aboda,” for example, the “singing poets” are “not tall enough”; they cannot reach the Polynesian deity Mana Aboda (who acts as a divine muse here) not only, Tearle finds, because they are “slaves to a worn-out poetic style, but because they are not divine” (21). Similarly, in “Susan Ann and Immortality,” Susan Ann (likened to a rabbit) summons immortality by flinging her...