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February 1997

The importance of T.E. Hulme

by Roger Kimball

On The Collected Writings of T. E. Hulme edited by Karen Csengeri

The fundamental principle of all morality is that man is a being naturally loving justice. In Emile I have endeavored to show how vice and error, foreign to the natural constitution of man, have been introduced from outside, and have insensibly altered him.
—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The “classical” point of view I take to be this. Man is by his very nature essentially limited and incapable of anything extraordinary. He is incapable of attaining any kind of perfection, because, either by nature, as the result of original sin, or the result of evolution, he encloses within him certain antinomies. There is a war of instincts inside him, and it is part of his permanent characteristics that this must always be so.
—T. E. Hulme

“The history of philosophers we know, but who will write the history of the philosophic amateurs and readers?” Thus did the Imagist poet and essayist T. E. Hulme begin “Cinders,” a posthumously published collection of notes and aphorisms about art, life, and language that he scribbled in his early twenties while traveling across Canada working on railways, farms, and in timber mills. Hulme (the name is pronounced “Hume”) was himself a conspicuously philosophical amateur. Or perhaps one should say “amateur philosopher” (I use “amateur,” as he did, in its most flattering sense). Among much else, he was a translator and—for a few years, anyway--champion of the work of the French philosopher Henri Bergson; he was an early and voluble reader of Edmund Husserl, G. E. Moore, Alexius Meinong, Georges Sorel, Max Scheler, and other difficult, path-breaking thinkers; he was the first to disseminate in England Wilhelm Worringer’s ideas about the “urge to abstraction” in art; he was an enthusiastic proponent of certain strains of avant-garde art, an implacable critic of others. Above all, Hulme was a committed if idiosyncratic Tory, an ardent propagandist for “classicism” and “the religious attitude,” an adamant scourge of pacificism and anything that he could construe as “romanticism” or “humanism.”

Today, Hulme merits an extended footnote in the history of English modernism— the high modernism of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wyndham Lewis. In her recent edition of Hulme’s writings for Oxford’s Clarendon Press,[1] Karen Csengeri calls Hulme “one of the most misunderstood figures in twentieth-century letters.” He is at any rate one of the most fugitive. Hulme is one of those curious figures whose influence outruns his achievement—or at least whose achievement is difficult to reckon by the usual standards. The aesthetic movement with which he is most closely associated—Imagism—is, as René Wellek observed, based on ideas that are “extremely simple and even trite.” Poetry, Hulme wrote in one typical exhortation, should be “a visual concrete” language that “always endeavors to arrest you, and to make you continuously see a physical thing, to prevent you gliding through an abstract process.”

Well, OK. But even in the Teens that was not exactly press-stopping material. And Hulme’s own poetry? In bulk, anyway, his contribution was comically modest. “The Complete Poetical Works of T. E. Hulme” consists of five short poems first published together as an appendix to Ezra Pound’s Ripostes in 1912. Of course, the title was partly a joke. But it was hardly an exaggeration. Hulme’s total poetic oeuvre runs to eight poems, the longest of which is fourteen lines. They belong to the same genre as Pound’s famous “In a Station of the Metro.” Here is “Autumn”:


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 stop to speak, but nodded,
and round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.
Charming, yes; memorable, probably; but surely rather … small. It is not surprising that Hulme approvingly quotes G. K. Chesterton on the difference between old and new poetry: “the old dealt with the Siege of Troy, the new attempts to express the emotions of a boy fishing.”

Hulme’s philosophical musings are more ambitious, but he not did make any notable theoretical advances. He was an amusingly original character but not—as his friend Michael Roberts acknowledged—“an original thinker, he solved no problems.”

Sometimes, however, articulating problems can be as fruitful as solving them. In his book Romantic Image (1957), Frank Kermode devotes an entire chapter to Hulme. Kermode winds up being highly critical, almost dismissive, but he does admit that Hulme was “in some respects, the most influential” member of his literary coterie. Many critics come away from Hulme feeling this way. He was somehow more than the sum of his parts. Hulme was a human tuning fork, vibrating powerfully to certain intellectual and spiritual currents. And—what turned out to be more important—he managed to set off vibrations in others.

Perhaps the eminence who responded most vividly to Hulme’s example was T. S. Eliot. In 1924, seven years after Hulme’s death, his friend the art critic Herbert Read assembled a chrestomathy of Hulme’s writing and published it under the title Speculations. Writing in The Criterion, Eliot lavished praise on both the book and its author. Speculations, he wrote, is

a work of very great significance. In this volume [Hulme] appears as the fore-runner of the twentieth-century mind, if the twentieth century is to have a mind of its own. Hulme is classical, reactionary, and revolutionary; he is the antipodes of the eclectic, tolerant, and democratic mind of the end of the last century.
“Classical,” “reactionary,” suspicious of the “democratic mind”: Eliot had no higher encomia. In his Clark lectures of 1926, Eliot referred to Hulme as “the most fertile mind of my generation.” Elsewhere, he described him variously as “the most remarkable theologian of my generation” and a “great poet.” “The poems of T. E. Hulme,” Eliot wrote in “The Function of Criticism,” “only needed to be read aloud to have an immediate effect.”

Of course, not everyone was as susceptible to Hulme’s spell as Eliot. Ezra Pound, for example, soon became disenchanted with the cult growing up around Hulme, and did everything he could to minimize his role in defining the Imagist aesthetic. “Mr. Hulme is on his way to mythological glory,” Pound complained in the 1930s, dismissing one appreciative study of Hulme with a summary, Poundian “bullshit.”

If Hulme has remained a somewhat shadowy figure, one reason is that he has, until now, been poorly served by his editors. In 1955, Samuel Hynes published a second Hulme miscellany, Further Speculations, and other writings by Hulme have appeared in appreciations (now out of print) by Michael Roberts and Alun Jones. But Herbert Read’s Speculations is the volume most people interested in Hulme know. As Karen Csengeri points out in her introduction to the Oxford edition of Hulme’s writings, Speculations provides a highly misleading view of Hulme’s thought. The essays are arranged more or less in reverse chronological order, and Read provides no clues to their dates of composition. Thus the volume opens with “Humanism and the Religious Attitude,” a version of Hulme’s very last piece of philosophical writing that Read abridged and adorned with his own title. (Csengeri prints the original version under Hulme’s title, “A Notebook.”) Read also left out several important essays, slighting Hulme’s political writing, his writing about art, and his writing about the war. Even more problematic was Read’s inclusion of so much of Hulme’s writing about Bergson. As Csengeri notes, Speculations makes Bergson “seem to be the centre-piece of Hulme’s intellectual life, instead of simply an important step to the extremely individual views of his later work.” Hulme was not a systematic thinker, but his thought did develop out of a consistent world view; Speculations obscures both the development of Hulme’s thought and its underlying emotional consistency.

Although occasionally marred by typos— “Hulme” printed as “Hume,” mangled Greek (and in a Clarendon Press book!), etc.—this new edition of Hulme’s writing deserves praise. Not only has Csengeri done a professional job of editing and annotating Hulme’s text, but also she has supplied a balanced and insightful introduction that goes a long way toward situating Hulme’s achievement. She recognizes Hulme’s virtues as a thinker—above all his “intellectual honesty”—but does not overstate his importance. In short, she has made newly accessible to us the work of a neglected conservative thinker of great if fragmentary suggestiveness, formidable rhetorical skill, and keen passion.

Thomas Ernest Hulme was born in September 1883, in North Staffordshire to a family in comfortable circumstances; his father was a gentleman farmer and businessman. In 1902, Hulme won a mathematics exhibition to St. John’s College, Cambridge. A teetotaler himself, Hulme apparently consorted with some who were not. He was at any rate sent down in 1904 for what Herbert Read delicately called “indulging in a brawl.” (A college document that might have slipped out of Bertie Wooster’s dossier mentions “over-stepping the limits of the traditional license allowed by the authorities on Boat Race night.”)

Read correctly noted that Hulme’s temperament was “not one that could submit readily to an academic mould.” After being sent down, he knocked about London and studied briefly at the University of London before embarking on his trek across Canada. Succeeding years found him in Brussels, back in London lecturing to the Poets’ Club, in Bologna for a meeting of the Philosophical Congress, absorbing ideas from Pierre Lasserre and L’Action française in Paris, and from Worringer in Berlin. His writings appeared regularly in A. R. Orage’s magazine the New Age and other journals. In 1912, he applied to be readmitted to St. John’s. Henri Bergson supplied a rousing letter of recommendation (“… un esprit d’une grande valeur … rare qualités de finesse, de vigueur, et de pénétration”) and Hulme was duly readmitted. Instead of continuing his studies, however, Hulme had to flee the country when an enraged father threatened to prosecute him for trying to seduce his sixteen-year-old daughter. When the war came, Hulme was quick to enlist; in April 1915, he was wounded and sent home to recuperate. The following year he was granted a commission in the Royal Marines Artillery and returned to the front.

“Always seek the hard, definite, personal word,” Hulme admonished in “Cinders.” In the course of his short life—he was just thirty-four when killed in action near Nieuport, Flanders, in September 1917— Hulme ostentatiously sought the hard, the definite, the impersonally personal in every aspect of his life. The sculptor Jacob Epstein—a close friend—proudly noted that Hulme “was capable of kicking a theory as well as a man downstairs when the occasion demanded.” Epstein’s bust of Hulme is reproduced on the cover and frontispiece of Speculations. It reveals an English officer right out of central casting: chiseled features, neatly trimmed moustache, reserved and coolly assessing gaze. A monocle and riding crop would not have been out of place.

Force of personality was one reason that Hulme—a young provincial, after all—was able to make such an impression on his generation. Force of style was another. Hulme commanded a brisk, tonic prose; just as he favored the concrete image over abstraction in poetry, so he managed to endow even the most abstruse philosophical issues with palpable immediacy. Hulme’s essays and lectures tend to be episodic and epigrammatic. In places, they seem inconsecutive; they are never rote. Reading Hulme is intervening in a vigorous intellectual quest, cheerful, serious, impatient. Typical is the way he begins the important essay “A Tory Philosophy” (1912, and not, incidentally, included in Speculations): “It is my aim to explain in this article why I believe in original sin, why I can’t stand romanticism, and why I am a certain kind of Tory.”

Hulme’s pugnacious style made him particularly effective on the attack. “A Tory Philosophy” is in part a brief for what he calls the “classic” world view, a view that, suspicious of claims to moral progress, emphasizes order, discipline, and tradition. Hulme realizes that such prescriptions were not new, but he is careful to distinguish his own brand of classicism from others he regards as spurious. Here, for example, is what he has to say about Nietzsche:

Most people have been in the habit of associating these kinds of views with Nietzsche. It is true that they do occur in him, but he made them so frightfully vulgar that no classic would acknowledge them. In him you have the spectacle of a romantic seizing on the classic point of view because it attracted him purely as a theory, and who, being a romantic, in taking up this theory, passed his slimy fingers over every detail of it. Everything loses its value. The same idea of the necessary hierarchy of classes, with their varying capacities and duties, gets turned into the romantic nonsense of the two kinds of morality, the slave and the master morality, and every other element of the classic position gets transmuted in a similar way into something ridiculous.
Philosophically, Hulme was not at all in Nietzsche’s league; but his observations are to the point and, as far as they go, quite devastating. One feels that Hulme could have done for Nietzsche what Nietzsche did for Wagner.

Hulme could be especially brutal about his contemporaries. An avid admirer of Jacob Epstein’s sculpture, he did not take kindly to obtuse criticism of Epstein’s work. In “Mr. Epstein and the Critics” (1913, not in Speculations), he reviews some of what he considers the most egregious writing about Epstein’s art. He devotes hilarious attention to one Anthony Ludovici, who, as it happens, was an early (and notoriously muddled) commentator on Nietzsche. “What,” Hulme asks, “is the particular type of charlatan revealed in this book on Nietzsche”?

Mr. Ludovici, writing on Nietzsche, might be compared to a child of four in a theatre watching a tragedy based on adultery… . You picture then a spruce little mind that has crept into the complicated rafters of philosophy—you imagine him perplexed, confused —you would be quite wrong… . [On the contrary, he] blots out all the complexity which forms the reality of the subject, so that he is simply unaware of its existence. He sees only what is akin to his mind’s manner of working, as dogs out for a walk only scent other dogs, and as a Red Indian in a great town for the first time sees only the horses. … That a man should write stupid and childish things about Nietzsche does not perhaps matter very much… . But when a little bantam of this kind has the impertinence to refer to Mr. Epstein as a “minor personality” … then the matter becomes so disgusting that it has to be dealt with. The most appropriate means of dealing with him would be a little personal violence. By that method one removes a nuisance without drawing more attention to it than its insignificance deserves.

Hulme was more subtle, and perhaps more effective, in his attacks on the pacifism of Bertrand Russell and the Bloomsbury art critic Clive Bell in “War Notes,” the miscellaneous commentaries he wrote while convalescing in 1915–16. Herbert Read described Hulme as “a militarist by faith.” This is misleading. Hulme was hardly insensitive to the horrors of the war. Nor was he a thoughtless hawk. In “Diary from the Trenches,” which originated as letters to his family, he wrote that life in the trenches was “a kind of nightmare, in which you are in the middle of an enormous saucer of mud with explosions and shots going off all round the edge.” “As soon as you had seen someone hurt,” he noted, “you began to look at shelling in a very different way”: “there is nothing picturesque about it. It’s the most miserable existence you can conceive of.”

Hulme understood and indeed sympathized with the pacifist revulsion at war. But he also understood that, in the war with Germany, what was at stake made that revulsion a form of moral cowardice. “What is being settled in the present war,” Hulme observed, “is the political, intellectual, and ethical configuration of Europe for the coming century.” The “enlightened” pacificism of Russell and Bell arose from an ideology that “finds no place whatever for the heroic,” that deeply discounted the importance of honor, and that was prepared to sacrifice virtually any principle for the sake of peace. Hulme had nothing but contempt for it. “It comes to this,” he wrote, “that for the emancipated man death is too great a price to pay for anything. Life and comfort are the ultimate goods.” Noting the Socialist rhetoric with which the well-to-do Bell was wont to festoon his pacifist protestations, Hulme made an observation that is as pertinent and withering today as it was in 1916: “It is a widespread but entirely mistaken idea to suppose that you amend for the advantages of wealth by asserting verbally that you are a Socialist.”

Emphasizing the idea of original sin; proclaiming a classicist aesthetic; disparaging the romantic ideology of progress; insisting on the importance of honor and physical courage: in these and other ways Hulme was about as politically incorrect, avant la lettre, as it was possible to be. That, in fact, is one reason he remains fresh and engaging. But there are deeper reasons for the importance of T. E. Hulme. His opinions were the product not of superficial attitudinizing but a passionate engagement with fundamental spiritual questions. Hulme lived at a moment when cataclysmic social change and naïve optimism about the power and beneficence of rationality combined to threaten the survival of any values not subject to a utilitarian calculus. As Csengeri notes, a major source of Hulme’s passion was “fear that the modern world, carrying with it a scientific and philosophical baggage from the Victorian past, was trying to merge the sphere of values with that of science. To allow the two to be merged could only lead to the destruction of the ethical.” In this, as she points out, Hulme looks forward to many later thinkers, including Wittgenstein.

At bottom, no matter what the subject at hand, Hulme spoke as a moralist. In “Cinders,” he proclaimed the irreducible plurality of the world and issued nominalitic warnings about the seductions of language: “Symbols … picked out and believed to be realities.” His long flirtation with Bergson developed because he hoped that Bergson’s notion of “intuition” could provide a convincing response to the dehumanizing, mechanistic world view that, gaining ground everywhere around him, threatened to obliterate the very idea of moral freedom and transform the world into a place where “the word ‘value’ has clearly no meaning.” Hulme eventually repudiated Bergson because, under the influence of Pierre Lasserre, he came to believe that Bergson’s solution rested on a species of sentimentality—that it was, in fact, “nothing but the last disguise of romanticism.” Finally, Hulme was attracted to Wilhelm Worringer’s theory about the origins of abstract art because he believed that it presaged the renewal of a fundamental spiritual resource that had been obscured by a long addiction to superficial humanism: “the re-emergence of geometrical art,” Hulme wrote in “Modern Art and Its Philosophy,” “may be the precursor of the corresponding attitude towards the world, and so, of the break up of the Renaissance humanistic attitude.”

Many of Hulme’s critics have been quick to point out that his use of terms like “humanism” and “Renaissance”—to say nothing of “romanticism” and “original sin”—is Pickwickian at best. They are of course correct. But there is an important sense in which such criticisms are beside the point. Hulme did not pretend to be a scholar: he was after not accurate verbal taxonomy but an accurate description of man’s spiritual condition. Thus, for example, he freely acknowledges that he is “not … concerned so much with religion, as with the attitude, the ‘way of thinking,’ … from which a religion springs.” Any threat to this way of thinking, he believed, was also a threat to the spiritual integrity of man. What he called “romanticism” was naturally hostile to the religious attitude because it encouraged sentiments of delusive self-infatuation. The “root of all romanticism,” for Hulme, was the belief 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.” Again, there are plenty of Romantics (including, some would say, Hulme himself) to whom this description does not apply. But Hulme’s characterization located a spiritual temptation that is as alive today as it was when he wrote.

In a famous passage from his essay “Romanticism and Classicism,” Hulme remarks that “part of the fixed nature of man is the belief in the Deity.”

By the perverted rhetoric of Rationalism [he continues], your natural instincts are suppressed and you are converted into an agnostic. Just as in the case of the other instincts, Nature has her revenge. The instincts that find their right and proper outlet in religion must come out in some other way. You don’t believe in God, so you begin to believe that man is a god. You don’t believe in Heaven, so you begin to believe in a heaven on earth. In other words, you get romanticism. The concepts that are right and proper in their own sphere are spread over, and so mess up, falsify and blur the clear outlines of human experience. It is like pouring a pot of treacle over the dinner table. Romanticism then, and this is the best definition I can give of it, is spilt religion.
The exact nature of Hulme’s own religious beliefs is a matter of some dispute; but one need not, I think, subscribe to any particular credo to see the power of his objection: “That man is in no sense perfect,” as Hulme put it elsewhere, “but a wretched creature, who can yet apprehend perfection.” It is not perhaps a cheerful philosophy, but it has the advantage of being true. Which was why Hulme concluded that he did not “put up with the dogma for the sake of the sentiment, but … may possibly swallow the sentiment for the sake of the dogma.”

 

Notes
Go to the top of the document.

  1. The Collected Writings of T. E. Hulme, edited and with an introduction by Karen Csengeri; Oxford University Press, 489 pages, $89. Go back to the text.

Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion and President and Publisher of Encounter Books. His latest book is The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press).


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 February 1997, on page 18

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