Monday, 4 February 2013

T. E. Hulme: A Staffordshire First World War Poet

Thomas Ernest Hulme was born in 1883 at Gratton in north Staffordshire, and brought up at Endon, near Stoke-on-Trent, where his father was a businessman dealing in ceramic transfers for the pottery industry. He attended the High School in Newcastle-under-Lyme, where his cleverness and interest in the arts blossomed. He excelled at maths and physics, edited the school magazine, played in the rugby team and dominated the debating society, but also emerged a rebellious, self-willed character with a sardonic turn of phrase, who did not care in the slightest what anyone thought of him.
In 1902 he won an Exhibition grant of £40 a year to read maths at St John’s College, Cambridge, but after two years he was “sent down” for a combination of riotous behaviour in the town and complete absence of any serious work. (Throughout Hulme’s life, his bad language and rowdy conduct frequently led to accusations of drunkenness: in fact he was a lifelong teetotaller!) He spent the next few years in Canada and in Europe before returning to live in lodgings in Chelsea in 1908.
In London he quickly established himself amongst the literary and cultural avant-gard. He was friends with Ezra Pound, Percy Wyndham Lewis and Robert Frost, and also the sculptor Jacob Epstein, whose work he greatly admired. He also met Rupert Brooke and D. H. Lawrence, but did not feel much empathy with them or their work. He strongly disliked Roger Fry and the Bloomsbury group. He declared himself to be a Tory; rejecting socialism, the whole notion of “progress”, and the essential “sentimental sloppiness” of Romanticism. He praised the rigid formalism of Byzantine art, which he had seen in the mosaics at Ravenna. He delivered lectures, wrote poems and articles for literary magazines, and had his work praised by T. S. Eliot. He met and admired the French philosopher Henri Bergson, and translated the latter’s “Introduction to Metaphysics”. Later he also translated Georges Sorel’s “Reflections on Violence”. (He must have had help with these, since his French was never good enough for him to be a professional translator). But to some extent he remained an adolescent: he never made any attempt to take a regular job or earn enough to live on: instead he relied on financial support from his aunt Alice Pattinson, in Macclesfield. At his death his total wealth amounted to no more than £232.
Hulme was part of the “Imagist” school. Poetry, he thought, should be simple, dry, accurate and formal, avoiding sentimentality and unnecessary waffle and verbiage. A few examples, taken from his “Complete Poetical Works” (1912), show how he was also influenced by Chinese poetry and Japanese haikus:-

Mana Amboda, whose bent form
The sky in arched circle is
Seems ever for an unknown grief to morn
Yet on a day I heard her cry
“I weary of the roses and the singing poets
Josephs all, not tall enough to try”

Far back there is a round pool
Where trees reflected make sad memory
Whose tense expectant surface waits
The ecstatic wave that ripples it
In sacrament of union
The fugitive bliss that comes with the red tear
That falls from the middle-aged princess
(Sister to the princely frog)
While she leans tranced in a dreamy curve
As a drowsy wail in an Eastern song.

“Embankment (The fantasia of a fallen gentleman on a cold bitter night)”

Once in the finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy
In a flash of gold heels on the hard pavement
Now see I
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy
Oh God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky
That I may fold it round me, and in comfort lie

A touch of cold in the autumn night -
I walked abroad
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.

In 1912 Hulme successfully applied for readmission to Cambridge on the basis of his work on Bergson; but this time he lasted only a few months at the university. All his life he was a relentless pursuer of women, and now some sexually explicit letters he had written to a sixth-form girl at Roedean school came to light. He retreated to Berlin for a while before returning to London.

At the declaration of war in August 1914, Hulme immediately volunteered as a private in the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC), and after some preliminary training was sent to the continent at the end of the year. He spent the early months of 1915 in the front line or on carrying fatigues, experiencing heavy fighting at Kemmel and Spanbroekmolen. He kept a detailed diary, and also wrote long letters to his father, describing his experiences in a typically laconic, unemotional style. A few extracts will have to suffice:-

Jan. 27th 1915
“We went up to a kind of circular reserve trench. I don’t think I’ve been so exasperated for years as I was in taking up my position in this trench. It wasn’t an ordinary one but roofed over most of the way, leaving a passage about 4 ft: absolutely impossible for me to walk through. I had to crawl along on my hands and knees, through mud in pitch darkness and every now and then seemed to get stuck altogether. You feel shut in and hopeless. I wished I was about 4 ft. This war isn’t for tall men. I got in a part too narrow and too low to stand or sit and had to sit sideways on a sack of coke to keep out of the water. We had to stay there from about 7 pm till just before dawn the next morning, a most miserable experience. You can’t sleep and you sit as it were at the bottom of a drain with nothing to look at but the top of the ditch slowly freezing. It’s unutterably boring. …….
“It’s curious to think of the ground between the trenches: a bank which is practically never seen by anyone in the daylight, as it is only safe to move through it at dark. It’s full of dead things; dead animals here and there, dead unburied animals, skeletons of horses destroyed by shellfire.”

Feb 10th
“We had seen shells bursting fairly near to us before, and at first did not take it very seriously. But soon it turned out to be very different. The shells started dropping in the trench itself. We shared this trench with the X regiment. About 10 yards from where I was a man of this regiment had ¾ of his head blown off: a frightful mess, his brains all over the place, some on the back of the man who stands beside me in the photograph. The worst of the shelling is, the regulars say, that you don’t get used to it, but get more and more alarmed at it every time. At any rate the regulars in our trench behaved in a rather strange way. One man threw himself down on the bottom of the trench, shaking all over and crying. Another started to weep. It lasted for nearly 1 ½ hours and at the end of it parts of the trench were all blown to pieces. It’s not the idea of being killed that’s alarming, but the idea of being hit by a jagged piece of steel. You hear the whistle of the shell coming, you crouch down as low as you can and just wait. ……
“The next night went up to new trenches altogether. This time we weren’t in the firing line, but in a line of dugouts, or supports. These dugouts were about 2 feet deep, so you can imagine how comfortable I was. They put me in one by myself. It felt just like being in your grave, lying flat just beneath the surface of the ground and covered up. And there I had to be for 24 hours, unable to get out until it was dark next night, for we could be seen from the German lines. ….. A man I know quite well had a bullet entered one side of his nose and came out near his ear. They sent him back to England and say he will remain. I’m getting more used to this kind of life and as long as I don’t get hurt or it doesn’t rain too much, I don’t mind it at all.”

March 21st
“I had myself one night the unpleasant job of carrying down one of our men who had been shot dead through the heart. This is a very unpleasant job when you have to go in pitch darkness a way you don’t know very well over mud and ditches. I’m glad it wasn’t a man I knew, but it’s queer as you carry him down shoulder-high, his face is very near your own. …..
“We spent one evening with some Belfast Tommies, men about 35 who had rejoined; very simple people with faces like pieces of wood, who told us fearful stories of this sort: Some Ghurkas were left in charge of German prisoners. In the morning all the Germans were found with their heads off. Asked for an explanation, they opened their haversacks, each of which had a German head in it and said, “Souvenir Sahib”. All this in the most wonderful accent you ever heard.”

His only printed war poem: “Trenches: St Eloi” (Published as “Abbreviated from the conversation of Mr T.E.H.”) was published from these experiences:-

“Over the flat slopes of St Eloi
A wide wall of sandbags.
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, lying back miles.
Beyond the lines, chaos:

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

In April 1915 he was shot through the arm and invalided back to England for treatment. He now applied for and was given a commission as 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Marine Artillery, but was not called up for service until late in 1916. In the meantime he resumed his writing, publishing “War Notes” under the pseudonym of “North Staffs”. His attitude was that, despite the appalling conditions and the incompetence of the High Command, which he never denied, the war was “a stupid necessity”, to save Europe from being dominated by “Prussian militarism”. He therefore clashed with Bertrand Russell, Clive Bell and other prominent opponents of the war. Hulme considered that pacifism “lacked the force to radically transform society”; the pacifists were addicted to ease and comfort, and suffered from the delusion that mankind was by nature “good” and benevolent. As ever, he fiercely rejected “the sentimental decadence of humanism”. He continued his friendship with Jacob Epstein, who produced a bust of him during this period.

In May 1917, after some time guarding naval bases in Scotland,  Hulme was sent to Belgium. He was to serve with the big guns preparing for the coming offensive at Ypres, better known to posterity as the battle of Passchendaele. He found the experience vastly preferable to being in the trenches, but it was just as dangerous. On September 28th he was hit by a shell and literally blown to bits. He was 34 years old. The book he was writing on Jacob Epstein was lost without trace. His gravestone at Koksijde simply calls him “One of the war poets”. There is a memorial window to him at St Luke’s church, Endon Bank, back in Staffordshire.

Hulme has been largely forgotten nowadays, but at the time many people noticed him; not all favourably. Bertrand Russell, years later, remembered him as “An evil man, who could have created nothing but evil”, and would, had he lived, have “wound up an Oswald Mosley type”. Would Hulme have drifted towards Fascism in the post-war years? Certainly Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis came to support the extreme Right, and it is difficult ever to imagine Hulme as a moderate.  But Epstein considered he was always a conservative, not a Fascist. T.S. Eliot in 1924 summed him up as, “Classical, reactionary and revolutionary …… the antipodes of the eccentric, tolerant and democratic mind of the end of the century.” Hulme was a product of his time, even though he was in revolt against what it stood for. The fact that he was remembered by the likes of Bertrand Russell and T. S. Eliot shows that he was a man of significance then.

(The extracts from the diary are taken from “The Short Sharp Life of T. E. Hulme”, by Robert Ferguson. Hulme’s papers are held at Keele University)

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