I return today to the work of pioneering English modernist T. E. Hulme, he of the entire compass of poetic work comprising 260 lines. “The Embankment” is 7 to 9 lines, 63 words, of that.
The Embankment in London, with St. Paul’s Cathedral in the distance.
It was a well-known site at the time for the homeless to sleep out the night.
What can a writer put in such a small container? Hulme was a founding theorist of Imagism. In that small circle in England where Imagism emerged, the pioneers looked to various models in poetic concision. Pound to the Tang Dynasty Chinese poets. H.D. to Sappho and the early Greek lyric poets. Hulme probably considered the classic Latin poets—a form of writing I’m largely ignorant of—but in his writing about what modern poetry should be, he spoke more about what his ideal of poetry was in opposition towards.
He looks serene, but Hulme was kicked out of school twice for misconduct
He called everything he didn’t want in the new poetry “Romanticism,” and he was having none of that. Lofty, fulsomely expressed sentiment? Away with it. Elaborate conceits where everything would be compared to something Olympian and mighty? Nope. Mankind, and mankind’s artists, the heroic part of the world? No! Fallen, humbled, limited…
Instead he propounded a new classicism, a “dry hardness” he called it. Imagism, presenting things directly without extraneous comment, and the concision of Hulme’s poetical works, follow from this thought. The epic, the soaring ode, the dramatic statement many acts long—even if it reflects those same convictions in its content—defies its argument with its elaboration. Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, two writers influenced by Hulme, tried to disprove this, but with Eliot’s “The Wasteland” or Pound’s Cantos, they often used small, fragmented sections collaged into a larger thing, trying to make this contradiction work.
I’m now halfway through Dr. Oliver Tearle’s book-length consideration of Hulme’s poetry, but besides introducing me to Hulme’s work, Tearle’s book (T. E. Hulme and Modernism, available wherever books are sold) points out that Hulme, so sure and combative in his critical writing, was not so pure in his expression of those ideas in his poetry. The poetry’s radical simplicity can achieve a humility that no theory written in disputive counter-punches can express.
Tearle also founded InterestingLiterature.com, which is what it says on the tin.
“The Embankment” demonstrates this. Following the theory, its sole character is that of a homeless man, his history shortened to a former gentleman’s status, once accustomed to finesse, joy, and fine clothes, currently sleeping outside on the banks of the Thames. Then, for three lines, theory breaks in: “Now see I/That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy./Oh, God, make small”—that last line ending, we will find, in an enjambment, but we do not know that yet as we listen or read.
Hulme has called for a “dry hardness” in his critical theory, and the bum in his poem certainly has the hardness in the pavement he’s sleeping on, and we can only hope he also has the dryness to go along with that. Is the warmth that the bum desires, that he—suddenly an aesthetic philosopher—states is essential to poetry, part of his fallen state? Or is it, as we the reader might empathize, a universal human want that none of us can escape?
Oh God, make small.
And then that wonderful, short line, Hulme’s own “Beauty is truth, truth is Beauty” — “Oh God, make small.”
And as the enjambment on the embankment falls to the next line, we learn that what the bum wants small is the sky, presented in a perfect Hulme reverse-Olympian image, as a star-pierced, moth-eaten blanket, full of holes.
Is there comfort in those lines of prayer that conclude “The Embankment?” If there is, it’s in the strange—and unstated in the poem—comfort of empathy, that sometimes painful human emotion of warm connectedness that possibly transcends our imperfections.
Musically I thought I couldn’t help but take a cue from the “finesse of fiddles” mentioned in the poems few words. No longer jaunty dance fiddles of the the fallen gentleman’s partying past, but two violins none-the-less. I’m a bit worried that the arrangement echoes my arrangement of Hulme’s “Raleigh In the Dark Tower,” the other Hulme poem I’ve presented here, but perhaps I should say that I attempted to connect them musically rather than accepting my fallen state as a musician? The one new timbre I introduced in “The Embankment” are some soft, far-off clock-tower bells, a tip to my memory of looking across the Thames from The Embankment one evening last year at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
To hear my presentation of T. E. Hulme’s “The Embankment,” use the player below. And continue to spread the word about what the Parlando Project is doing combining various music with various words here by sharing our links on social media and elsewhere. Thanks!