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Bruiser, cruiser but no boozer

23 November 2002

12:00 AM

23 November 2002

12:00 AM

THE SHORT SHARP LIFE OF T. E. HULME Robert Ferguson

Penguin/Allen Lane, pp.314, 20

The subject of this intelligent biography was among the founders of the Modern movement in British art before the first world war, and a leading formulator of what he considered to be its principles.

A philosopher/aesthetician, he was a friend of Epstein, Wyndham Lewis, Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska, and was thought a great poet by the young T. S. Eliot. Ezra Pound published Hulme’s five short poems at the end of one of his own books, entitling them The Collected Poetical Works of T. E. Hulme. A joke, of course, but they consist of the pictorial, of images; publicist Pound borrowed a word from the French and founded the Imagist school.

Hulme published no book in his lifetime and his scattered papers were put together in the 1920s by Herbert Read under the title Speculations.

What Hulme was against he makes clear: Romanticism (‘split religion’), the Englightenment (Goethe, ‘lasting and devastating stupidity’), Rousseau (‘decay’), Humanism and the idea of inevitable ‘progress’. He believed that all had gone wrong since the Renaissance because man had put himself at the centre of the universe and thus begun the journey towards false sentiment and ‘slush’. Art was to go back and rediscover abstraction, the linear and geometrical – Byzantine, Egyptian, African – purged of ‘personality’. He insisted on replacing the idea of progress with that of original sin, purging this, at least in his writings, of its religious context. Whether he could have succeeded in filleting Christianity from original sin would have been interesting to watch. However – and it is tempting to say ‘of course’ – he was blown to bits in France in 1917 at the age of 34.


Bertrand Russell hated him; 40 years after Hulme’s literal disappearance (he was directly hit by a shell) Russell could not bring himself to regret his fate. Epstein loved him, and Hulme was putting together a book about Epstein’s sculpture when he was killed.

For a man so contemptuous of the by-products of ‘personality’ he seemed to have had a meaty one of his own. He was an eager joiner and founder of groups and in these he was usually the dominant figure. In argument he was a forthright bruiser. He was a bruiser physically also, sent down from Cambridge for felling two policemen in Piccadilly on Boat Race night. (He was six foot two and more than 14 stone). Charged with being drunk and disorderly, he, a lifelong teetotaller, was indignant at the ‘drunk’. A bruiser, therefore, but not a boozer. He was also, in a heterosexual sense, a cruiser. Chatting at the CafZ Royal, he would spot a passing girl, excuse himself, return half an hour later and resume the discussion. Richard Aldington and David Garnett were not alone in finding this unpleasant, even sinister.

As a philosopher he was untrained; he had gone to Cambridge as a mathematician. His lack of a degree became an inconvenience, so, recommended by Henri Bergson, he wangled his way back to Cambridge in 1912, when he was 29. Unfortunately, he was at the time conducting a correspondence with a schoolgirl at Roedean, daughter of a fellow philosopher, the frankness of which, the blunt descriptions of who should do and say what to whom, would have shocked the Lady Chatterley trial 50 years later. The letters were discovered by the girl’s father; Hulme had the distinction of being sent down from Cambridge twice. He fled to Germany.

Ferguson does not speculate on the reasons for what looks like priapism on philosophical principle. In the absence of correspondence he is content to report merely, and this makes his account more intriguing, not less.

Hulme’s own Speculations contains much of real interest: obvious, now, once stated, but still radical. He notices the paradox, for example, that ‘the Middle Ages, which lacked entirely the conception of personality, had a real belief in immortality’, whereas the Renaissance, as it progressed, largely lost the belief.

You might have expected that it would be the people who thought they really had something worth preserving [their ‘personalities’] who would have thought they were immortal, but the contrary is the case.

He was born to (and the despair of) a well-to-do family in Staffordshire. ‘He retained the accent that had made the fortune of Gracie Fields,’ Wyndham Lewis reported sourly, but we have to remember that Hulme had stolen Lewis’s girlfriend, had suspended Lewis by his trouser- turn-ups from the railings in Soho Square and, anyway, preferred the work of Epstein. Nevertheless, Lewis valued Hulme’s influential good opinion, wanted to keep in his good books, and this is a good book about an extraordinary young man.


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