Against utopia

The Short Sharp Life of T E Hulme

Robert Ferguson <em>Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 314pp, £20</

Here are three disconnected notes or "speculations" by T E Hulme: ''Smoothness. Hate it. This is the obsession that starts all my theories . . ." "In opposition to socialism and utopian schemes comes the insistence on the unalterability of motives. They are the rock . . . they are the constitution of the whole." "Generalisations are only [a] means of getting about. Cf. the words love, sex, nude with the actual details."

My guess is that the attitudes these observations express and the brusque manner of their expression will repel some readers, attract others, and do both simultaneously to a few. My guess also is that Hulme (1883-1917), who was a pugnacious yet surprisingly good-humoured controversialist, would have greeted with equal appetite all such responses to himself and any of his numerous "theories". Big and boisterous, his intellectual interests and ambitions ranged around like a searchlight with a loose joint somewhere in its works, illuminating starkly whatever it fell upon and then plunging everything into darkness once more. Yet no bystander would find it easy to rid himself of the vivid after-images left on his retina.

Born to a respectable, middle-class family in Staffordshire, Hulme was killed in Belgium during the First World War while serving as an artillery officer. (He had been wounded during an earlier spell in the trenches, and had sought for a safer and drier posting.) By the time of his early death, he had managed to distinguish himself in various ways, some of them more creditable than others. He had twice been expelled from Cambridge, with a gap of eight years between each exit - the first arising from a display of hooliganism during a royal visit, the second from the discovery of some lewd letters written to a Roedean schoolgirl whom he was trying to seduce. He had established himself in London's literary and artistic circles first as a modernist (imagist) poet, then as a critic of art and poetry, and finally as an unpredictable but trenchant thinker about language and politics. Widely regarded as a loner and an intellectual tough - an assiduous womaniser, he made a habit of carrying a knuckleduster about with him - he was in fact inveterately gregarious, a serial joiner of clubs and reading-groups of all kinds and a self-sacrificing friend to those people whom he chose to admire.

The author of this new biography confesses that an "almost impossible combination of talents" would be needed to write with "complete authority" on the extraordinary range of Hulme's activities as a writer and thinker. As the impossible is beyond him or anyone else, Ferguson has sensibly set himself the tasks of tracing "the style and development" of the man's personality and of placing in context his intellectual forays into the various fields that preoccupied him. One thing that Ferguson's conscientious discharge of these tasks makes especially clear is that Hulme always appeared to act under a compulsion to think about the topics that caught his attention as if he were the first man on earth, or very nearly so, to consider them. In other words, he constantly tried to work from first principles and saw no contradiction between proceeding in this manner while at the same time defiantly presenting himself as an upholder of tradition.

For all his energy and independence, however, it is doubtful that his name would have survived as anything more than a series of footnotes in the lives of acquaintances who are today far better known than himself - Jacob Epstein, for example, whose work he championed when it was generally regarded by the public as bizarre and obscene, and Ezra Pound, with whom he later quarrelled. It was Pound who almost certainly rescued his work from oblivion by generously including Hulme's output of five tiny, startlingly original poems in a volume of his own verse. (The Complete Poetical Works of T E Hulme was the prophetic name given by Pound to this supplement to his book.) Even more significantly, Pound drew the poems to the attention of T S Eliot, who admired them greatly and later acknowledged the influence they had had on his own poetic practice. When Speculations, a volume of Hulme's prose writings, appeared seven years after his death, Eliot naturally sought out the book and spoke of it with warmth and gratitude.

At that stage, Eliot was in the process of articulating his own beliefs (in God, sin, the Church, classicism, tradition, conservatism and so forth), and in attacking what he regarded as the spiritually corrupting forces of humanism, liberalism and Romanticism. So it was natural that he should have been strongly taken by the posthumous writings of this fallen English ally, who had preceded him by several years in choosing to describe himself as a "reactionary", to inveigh against Romanticism ("spilt religion", Hulme called it), and to speak in minatory fashion of "original sin". As a result, Pound and Eliot remain jointly responsible for whatever currency Hulme's name still has today. Unfortunately it is probably because of their original sponsorship, too, that people who have merely heard of Hulme, and even some who have actually read him, are still inclined to think of him as a proto-fascist - which he was not.

A "reactionary" he certainly was (though not when it came to his own writing or his response to the art of others, such as Epstein, Wyndham Lewis and David Bomberg). It is also true that in the years before his death, he became more and more eager to define and somehow to establish a footing for himself in a realm of ethical values which would be independent of human invention and therefore immune to human contamination. But by temperament he was neither an ideologist nor a believer, and from this distance there appears to be something oddly offhand in his use of terms such as "original sin" and "Romanticism". In fact, they served him essentially as polemical cudgels. His notion of original sin is so far divorced from any recognisable theological context - God does not figure in it, nor the Fall, nor divine judgement, nor any prospect of redemption - that it ultimately expresses not so much a religious sensibility in the making as the author's despairing, earthbound sense of humankind's perversity, its inexhaustible capacity for self-deceit and self-frustration, its talent for misery. In analogous fashion, his "Romanticism" is little more than a shorthand term for what he felt to be a despicably shallow belief in mankind's progress towards a permanent state of happiness and self- satisfaction. Of those forms of Romanticism (Coleridge's, for example, or Words-worth's, or even Byron's) which explored and articulated the terrors that inhabit the human mind, and without which it would not be human, he does not speak at all.

None of which should diminish a contemporary reader's respect for his struggle to be true to himself and to the world as he had found it. His little poems did indeed manage to "follow the contours of thought", as he put it, in a way that no one else had quite tried to do before. In his essays, criticism and disjunct aphorisms he warred against the two opposing, nightmarish visions that obsessed him: the one being of a world of "mud", "cinders", shapelessness, meaninglessness; the other of human life willingly captive to the play of unerring, repetitive physical forces. What could he, Thomas Ernest Hulme, put up to oppose both? Just this: "a book which is real clay, moulded by fingers that had to mould something, or they would clutch at the throat of their maddened author".

Dan Jacobson's most recent book is Heshel's Kingdom (Penguin)