A few years ago, I had the privilege of writing a piece for The Imaginative Conservative about the almost nearly forgotten Cambridge man of letters and poet, T.E. Hulme (1883-1917). It is one of the pieces of which, frankly, I am most proud to have written in my professional life. It’s also the kind of piece, I think, for which Winston Elliott created The Imaginative Conservative.
At the time, I labeled Hulme “the first conservative of the twentieth century.” Looking back, I don’t think this was mere hyperbole. Granted, hyperbole is a Birzer-family talent and trait. Indeed, having spent a few more years reading Hulme and being drawn back to him, time and again, I am more convinced than ever that his thought, his publications, and his reputation must be resurrected fully by those not on the ideological left as we continue to move into the twenty-first century.
It is more than possible that the myth that once engulfed Hulme is more important than the facts. As one writer claimed in the New York Times (1960): “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.”
In large part, the myth that clung to Hulme between the two world wars dealt with possibilities. What might have happened to arts and letters in the 20th century had the young man survived the trenches of the Great War? Certainly, critical figures such as T.S. Eliot and Christopher Dawson believed Hulme to have been the best man of his age, a herald who might very well have challenged all forms of progressivism and ideology through the merits of deep thought, a revival of the virtues, and heroic sacrifice.
The First Humanist
This semester, I am teaching one of my favorite classes at Hillsdale, an examination of the ideas of twentieth-century Christian Humanism. In particular, I’m interested in why humanism needed reviving in the twentieth century and how it captured the imaginations of some of the finest minds of the time.
After a century–the nineteenth–in which most thought, no matter how brilliant, tended more and more toward the particular and as academic and philosophical fields narrowed and narrowed, the humanism of Hulme, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, T.S. Eliot, and Nicholas Berdyaev attempted to regain a semblance of universal truths as manifested in the unique dignity of each individual person.
At the forefront of that humanism stood Hulme, and he stood rather fixedly. When the editor of The New Age, one of the leading modernist journals of the 1910s and 1920s, posthumously discovered the extent of Hulme’s unpublished manuscripts (locked away in a trunk in a relative’s attic), he enthused:
I may offer my opinion that in T.E. Hulme our nation lost as promising a mind as we had amongst us, which is to say a great deal in view of the actual losses the world knows it has sustained. Hulme’s mind was constructed on the grand scale simple, and the impression irresistibly formed of him by everybody capable of judgment was one of capacity. It is obvious, too, from the material left by him, that his conception of his life’s work was proportionate to his abilities. He was still very young, but the fragments he had begun to accumulate were plainly intended for a cyclopean architecture. None of us, I am sure, had any adequate idea of the industry with which Hulme was preparing himself for a long and great career. In personal contact he appeared to be too overflowing with energy and bonhomie to be capable, as yet, of the sustained study and practice indispensable to great expression; but there is the evidence of the rick of MSS. which I have seen to prove that all the while Hulme was gathering himself and his powers for the work he intended one day to accomplish.” 
Already a central figure in English literary and poetic circles when among the quick, Hulme’s death propelled his reputation ever higher. His vast *potential* corpus as discovered by Orage only added to the man’s mystery, making him and his thought impossible to ignore. For conservatives and humanists, Hulme became the symbol of the lost generation, an exemplar of the best of his generation.
Again, what might have happened had the fierce man survived? Here was, after all, a person who believed that original sin tainted all and could be challenged only by heroic virtue and sacrifice. Here was a man who fearlessly told all liberals they were merely corrupt and deluded thinkers, unoriginal at best and heretical at worst. Here was a man who proclaimed all “progress” to be a sham. Here was a man paradoxically who–as with Eliot and Frost, following in his footsteps–used the very tools of modernity to spread an anti-modernist message and remind western civilization of first principles.
When the famous literary critic and anarchist Herbert Read first read through the Hulme manuscripts (or, at the very least, Hulme outlines), he too felt overwhelmed, as had Orage.
Those who knew Hulme in a more personal sense will tell you that he represented much more than was ever revealed in public print. He was a man of intense masculine force, of great intellectual energy, and by virtue of his personality and mind he would inevitably have assumed the leadership of the progressive [sic; Read means forces of change, not actual “progressivism”] elements in modern English culture. But few even of his personal friends could be aware of all the ramifications of his interests and aspirations, which encompassed every category of thought, and ran back to every source and reservoir of knowledge. Hulme must have been gifted with the power of immediate penetration into the gist of things. He planned his intellectual life with all the strategy and foresight of a military genius (for that matter, he was a military genius, as these Notebooks prove). Lectures, pamphlets, books, theories of aesthetic and systems of philosophy were designed in advance with the aim of a sudden and overwhelming concentration of forces. The climax would have been a definite and impelling event. But the war intervened Hulme entered upon it with complete satisfaction. He was absorbed. He was killed. A stray shell destroyed this brain that might have been the germ of an English Renascence. Hulme gone was a leader lost. The Renascence he imagined was dissipated, never, perhaps, to be recalled. 
A stunning blow to the forces of conservatism and tradition, indeed. It should be noted, when Orage and Read write of “England,” they mean “western civilization” as much as they mean the actual country. Happily, The New Age of the 1910s and 1920s, perhaps the most prominent of modernist periodicals, now thrives in fully searchable pdf glory on the internet.
One can now gain access to many of Hulme’s writings far better than one could in his lifetime. Three volumes of his writings have appeared since 1924. In 1924, Read published his edited collection of Hulme’s writings, Speculations, sometimes featured in Eliot’s The Criterion. In 1955, Sam Hynes edited and published Further Speculations. And in 1994, Karen Csengeri released The Collected Writings of T.E. Hulme, noting, however, that many of his writings might still be lost, making appearances at some unknown future date.
To conclude this piece, it’s worth recalling some of Hulme’s most interesting beliefs. First, Hulme reminded his readers of the necessity of a common core of literature, reminding us first and foremost what it means to be human.
It is quite as easy and natural for emotion and enthusiasm to crystalise around the idea of a constant world as around the idea of progress. An extraordinary solidarity is given to one’s beliefs. There is great consolation in the ideas that the same struggles have taken place in each generation, and that men have always thought as we think now. It gives to religion a great stability, for it exhibits it as a permanent part of man’s nature, and the nature of man being constant, it places these beliefs beyond all change. All the pleasure that one takes in old literature comes from the fact that it gives us this strange emotion of solidarity, to find that our ancestors were of like nature with ourselves. 
Second, Hulme mocked the conformist thinking of the World War I generation of progressives, drowning in their own subjective but immensely unoriginal realities.
There must be one word in the language spelt in capital letters. For a long time, and still for some people, the word was God. Then one became bored with the letter G, and went on to R, and for a hundred years it was Reason, and now all the best people take off their hats and lower their voices when they speak of Life. The Deities’ wanderings about the alphabet would make an interesting Odyssey.
Finally, Hulme reminded his audience that conservatism and humanism need not compromise on certain ideals. Indeed, he feared that one of the greatest problems of the modern humanist was the incorporation of false ideas into some kind of supposedly palatable hybrid of thought, one a tapioca public might eagerly accept. “We have been beaten, to a certain extent, because our enemies’s theories have conquered us. We have played with those to our own undoing.”
In these last words, Hulme reminds us much as Winston Elliott has, that should we adopt a defeatist or compromising position, should we fail to know who we are, we deserve failure. But, as Bearers of the Word, we, our ancestors, and our children deserve so much better. Perhaps, we too, can recapture the spirit of Hulme: tradition; virtue; and heroic sacrifice.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
- Orage, “Readers and Writers,” The New Age (August 26, 1920): 259.
- Herbert Read, “The NoteBooks of T.E. Hulme,” New Age (January 19, 1922, pg. 148)
- Hulme, “Tory Philosophy.”