The author of this week’s poem is remembered today chiefly for the anthology-favourite, “Autumn”. TE Hulme published only six short poems in his lifetime. Without Ezra Pound’s faintly ambiguous championship, he might not be known as a poet at all. Though omitting his work from the official Imagist anthologies, Pound added Hulme’s five earlier poems to his own 1912 collection, Ripostes, “for good fellowship: for good custom, a custom out of Tuscany and Provence… and for good memory…”, as he put it in the preface.
No original manuscript of “Trenches: St Eloi” remains. According to some accounts, Hulme recited it from memory to his fellow Imagists at the Poets’ Club while home on leave from the front (he served with the Royal Marine Artillery). Pound’s epigraph suggests the even more informal origins of a conversation. The poem was transcribed either by Pound himself, or by Hulme’s lover, Kate Lechmere. Pound admired the poem sufficiently to include it later on in his Catholic Anthology, in the august company of Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Yeats, among others. If Pound had made revisions or “abbreviations”, Hulme must have approved them.
It’s arguably the most radical of any of the English first world war poems. (Isaac Rosenberg and Herbert Read are the writers who come closest.) The style and structure are casual, but a stringent craft underlies the appearance of improvisation.
The opening scene-setting needs some effort of imagination. “Flat slopes” could imply naturally low slopes, slopes flattened in battle, or even the trenches of the title. The image of the sandbags is contrastingly precise and arresting. To this disturbed pastoral is added one further detail – “night”, set on its own line, so that it seems to expand into the surrounding space. Hulme had a romantic predilection for nightfall in his earlier poems, but this night, unembellished, is absolutely unlike the others.
The poem illustrates the unceremonious way the routines and horrors of warfare coexist. The depiction of the men walking about casually, “as on Piccadilly” is a brilliant novelistic stroke. We can just about see them, “making paths in the dark”, instinctively feeling their way. And then the scattered horses and the dead Belgian’s belly are introduced not simply in the midst of these casual comings and goings, but virtually underfoot. Juxtaposition is everything. Hulme adds no grisly detail. He trusts the shocked listeners, including those non-combatant poets, to imagine it for themselves.
Despite the superb imagist technique, the poem is interested in something besides the visual. The later stanzas head for the psychological interior. The flat reportage of “The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets” seems childishly naive, and verging on self-pity, perhaps, but is perhaps intended to mime the obsessive, simple litany of despair. The image of the cannon, “lying back miles”, resembles the earlier wall of sandbags, only on a vaster, breathtakingly intimidating scale. Then the single abstract noun, “chaos”, declares what lies ahead: the defeat of the image by the indescribable.
Hulme’s speaker repeats twice the grammatical structure of the line about the rockets. The first line of this modernist couplet is completely unexpected: “My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.” The word “corridor” evokes emptiness, in utter contrast with the busy pottering and walking to and fro of the earlier scene. It originally meant a place for running. What runs through the hollowed-out mind might be the vague, impossible thought of running endlessly away. The stoic, Beckettian last line rebuffs it. “Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.” Hulme might be thinking about the poem, his sense that there is nothing more to say. But the whole horrible war must often have aroused a similar hopeless thought among those on the ground.
An aesthetic philosopher, influenced by Henri Bergson, Hulme seems to have arrived at an imagist theory independently of Pound, and perhaps earlier. He was a pugnacious character, sent down from Cambridge, allegedly, for brawling, and he became fascinated by military strategy. Possibly he thought war would be his métier.
“Trenches: St Eloi” reflects innocence transformed. In the previous poems, the images are a little whimsical. The moon is “like a red-faced farmer” in “Autumn”. Then there is the “old star-eaten blanket of the sky” that the fallen gentlman wishes could provide a warm cover in “The Embankment”, and the moon as a lost balloon in “Above the Dock”. The free-verse structure, and the brevity, make such poems seem fresh, but there is romanticism, or at least aestheticism, in the nocturnal air, and, sometimes, an anachronistic flourish: “Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy…” None of that fiddling obstructs the chilly line of “Trenches: St Eloi.” The poem is as stark as the period’s cubist art.
Pound wrote that Hulme “set an enviable example to many of his contemporaries who have had less to say”. Had Hulme not been killed in action in 1917, and had he continued to write poetry, the category “War Poets” might have had far wider connotations.
Trenches: St Eloi
(Abbreviated from the Conversation of Mr TEH)
Over the flat slopes of St Eloi
A wide wall of sand bags.
In the silence desultory men
Pottering over small fires, cleaning their mess- tins:
To and fro, from the lines,
Men walk as on Piccadilly,
Making paths in the dark,
Through scattered dead horses,
Over a dead Belgian’s belly.
The Germans have rockets. The English have no rockets.
Behind the line, cannon, hidden, lying back miles.
Beyond the line, chaos:
My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.
Nothing suggests itself. There is nothing to do but keep on.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/10/poem-of-the-week-t-e-hulme