History should never have forgotten T.E. Hulme, and we would do well to remember him and what he wrote. Indeed, the German shell that took his life in the early autumn of 1917 might have changed a considerable part of the twentieth century by removing Hulme from it. Our whole “Time of Troubles” as Kirk defined it, might have been attenuated by the presence, personality, and witness of this man.
Eliot, certainly one of the greatest of twentieth-century men, understood the importance of Hulme in 1924. Eliot saw him as the new man—the twentieth-century man. In April 1924, he wrote: “When Hulme was killed in Flanders in 1917 . . . he was known to a few people as a brilliant talker, a brilliant amateur of metaphysics, and the author of two or three of the most beautiful short poems in the language. In this volume [the posthumous Speculations, edited by Herbert Read] he appears as the forerunner of a new attitude of mind, which should be the twentieth-century mind, if the twentieth century is to have a mind of its own.”
Hulme is, Eliot continued, “classical, reactionary, and revolutionary; he is the antipodes of the eclectic, tolerant, and democratic mind of the end of the last century . . . . A new classical age will be reached when the dogma. . . of the critic is so modified by contact with creative writing, and when the creative writers are so permeated by the new dogma, that a state of equilibrium is reached. For what is meant by a classical moment in literature is surely a moment of stasis, when the creative impulse finds a form which satisfies the best intellect of the time, a moment when a type is produced.”
Eliot continued to praise Hulme in his private letters. In one, he stated bluntly to Allen Tate, “Hulme has influenced me enormously.” In another, Eliot claimed Hulme to be “the most remarkable theologian of my generation.”
Historian Christopher Dawson believed that Hulme, almost alone in his generation, understood the dangers of progressivism: “The essentially transitory character of the humanist culture has been obscured by the dominance of the belief in Progress and by the shallow and dogmatic optimism which characterized nineteenth-century Liberalism. It was only an exceptionally original mind, like that of the late T.E. Hulme, that could free itself from the influence of Liberal dogma and recognize the sign of the times—the passing of the ideals that had dominated European civilization for four centuries, and the dawn of a new order.”
In hindsight, the praise of such magnitude from both Eliot and Dawson should give any twenty-first century conservative pause. Who was this man who profoundly shaped the thought of two of the most recognized conservatives of the last century. Unfortunately, the name of “Hulme” no longer rolls off the tongue when we think or our lineage. We might think: Godkin, Babbitt, More, Nock, Eliot, Dawson, Kirk . . . . But, rarely does a conservative mention the name of Hulme.
Yet, at one time, few would have questioned his shaping of a movement.
In 1948, the Jesuit periodical, America, proclaimed Hulme as the model—mostly in thought, if not in person—for a literary revival. The English poet offered a “charter,” as the author put it, of Catholic arts and literature.
A writer in the New York Times in 1960 summed up Hulme’s influence nicely: “T.E. Hulme had modified the consciousness of his age in such a way that by 1939 his name had become part of a myth.”
It is a myth that we—those of us writing and reading the Imaginative Conservative, Ignatius Insight Scoop, Front Porch Republic, Pileus, etc.—would do well to revive.
Hulme, from all accounts, possessed a rather powerful personality, able to form communities of thought and art around himself. As just mentioned, he might well serve as a model for our own conservatism as we think about rebuilding what two decades have torn apart in terms of our coherence as an intellectual movement and what centuries have deconstructed in terms of culture and the rise of Leviathan and Demos.
If Hulme is remembered, he’s best remembered as a poet of influence. Most credit Hulme with founding Imagist poetry.
Imagism, as our own John Willson has argued, connected the horizon and the sky, the vertical and horizontal, time and eternity.
F.S. Flint, a companion of Hulme’s, remembered the creation of the Imagist movement in 1908, in the May 1, 1915, issue of The Egoist:
“SOMEWHERE in the gloom of the year 1908, Mr. T. E. Hulme, now in the trenches of Ypres, but excited then by the propinquity, at a half-a-crown dance, of the other sex (if, as Remy de Gounnont avers, the passage from the aesthetic to the sexual emotion. . . the reverse is surely also true), proposed to a companion that they should found a Poets’ Club. The thing was done, there and then. The Club began to dine; and its members to read their verses. At the end of the year they published a small plaquette of them, called For Christmas MDCCCCVIII.”
Hulme’s poem “Autumn” appeared.
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.
While this poem doesn’t strike me as anything profound in terms of its theme (though, maybe I’ve not spent enough time with it), I can readily see its influence on the work of Eliot. Could Eliot have produced The Wasteland, The Hollow Men, or the Four Quartets without the influence of Hulme and the school of poetry he founded? The Four Quartets is arguably the greatest work of art of the twentieth century. If for no other reason, I’m truly thankful Hulme contributed what he did simply in offering this new form of poetry.
Like Eliot, Hulme adopted and accepted modernist forms of art while rejecting the meaning and essence of modernity. In one of his most powerful essays, defining the nature of humanism, properly understood, Hulme argued that all scholarship and art must begin with the premise (fact) of original sin. “What is important, is what nobody seems to realise–the dogmas like that of Original Sin, which are the closest expression of the categories of the religious attitude. That man is in no sense perfect but a wretched creature who can yet apprehend perfection.”
Rousseauvian/enlightenment thinking had moved society away from understanding this fundamental truth of the human person. As Hulme saw it, Rousseauvianism is a “heresy, a mistaken adoption of false conceptions.” By focusing on feelings and individual desires and blind lusts (and glorifying them) it attempts to allow man to become a God—and, as a result, “creates a bastard conception of Personality.”
The human person only overcomes his depravity though heroic virtue, Hulme argued:
From the pessimistic conception of man comes naturally the heroic task requiring heroic qualities. . . virtues which are not likely to flourish on the soil of a rational and skeptical ethic. This regeneration can, on the contrary, only be brought about and only be maintained by actions springing from an ethic which from the narrow rationalist standpoint is irrational being not relative, but absolute.
When Hulme received a commission in the British Army during the Great War, he embraced what he had preached, and he gave his life as a patriot of western civilization.
Even in the trenches, before his death, Hulme continued to shape his contemporaries.
In all this [group of poets] Hulme was ringleader. He insisted too on absolutely accurate presentation and no verbiage; and he and F. W. Tancred, a poet too little known, perhaps because his production is precious and small, used to spend hours each day in the search for the right phrase. Tancred does it still; while Hulme reads German philosophy in the trenches, waiting for the general advance. [Egoist, May 1, 1915]
Critically, Hulme published a series of war notes from France. In one, he attempted to explain to the liberals that their version of history rested on dubious assumptions.
“Similarly our Liberal friends may be reminded that the lines now making a map of Europe are the result in every instance of local circumstances governable by men; and as they were determined by men they can be changed by men. Europe, in short, is a creation, not a blind evolutionary product; and nothing connected with its mental features is any more fixed than the present relations, as expressed in the trench-lines, between the Allies and the enemy.
Another prevalent Liberal assumption, hostile to a proper appreciation of the significance of the war, is that progress is both inevitable and of necessity in one direction. That change, like the girl in the play, may of itself or by the intention of those who bring it about, take the wrong turning seems never to enter the heads of some of our most popular doctrinaires. All that is not Liberal in Europe or elsewhere is in their opinion not even fundamentally anti-Liberal or other-than-Liberal,—it is merely an arrested development of an evolution which in any case must needs be Liberal in the end, or a reaction against, but still upon the line of Liberalism. This, I need not say after stating it, is not only an error, but a particularly insular error. In the first place, evolution in our sense of the word—that is, evolution towards democracy—is not only not inevitable, but it is the most precarious, difficult and exigent task political man has ever conceived. And, in the second place, far from it being the predestined path of every nation and race, only one or two nations have attempted to pursue it, while the rest deliberately and even, we might say, intelligently, pursue another path altogether as if that were progress, and are thus sincerely hostile to our own.” [Quoted from Karen Csengeri, ed., The Collected Writings of T.E. Hulme (1994), 333]
If only Hulme’s mind—per Eliot’s wishful thinking in 1924—had become the “twentieth-century mind.” We might very well have avoided a “progressive” world immersed in ideological terror on one side and in flabby citizens demanding unearned health care and subsidies for big businesses (so-called stimulus packages) on the other.