Imagism Pt. 2: The House That Hulme Built

February 07, 2024 Elijah Perseus Blumov
Imagism Pt. 2: The House That Hulme Built
Show Notes Transcript

Mea culpa: Yes, I know "Sailing to Byzantium" was written like 20 years after "Conversion." By the time I realized my anachronism, it was too late. Something something Borges retroactive influence... 

Topics discussed in this episode include:


-Mary Renault's "The King Must Die." 

-Decadence begets Primitivism

-Gauguin, Picasso, Stravinsky

-Gustave Kahn and vers libre

-T.E. Hulme's essay, Lecture On Modern Poetry

-T.E. Hulme's essay, Romanticism and Classicism

-Symbolism vs. Imagism

-The conservative flavor of 20th century Classicism 

-Science, Politics, and Gnosticism by Eric Voegelin

-Gettin' zesty

-Autumn by T.E. Hulme

-Conversion by T.E. Hulme

-The saga continues...

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Art by David Anthony Klug

List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)

In Mary Renault’s vivid and inventive novel of the early life of Theseus, The King Must Die, there is one scene which has always stuck with me. In the book, a sharp contrast is drawn between the mainland Hellenes, of which the Athenian Theseus is one, who are depicted as unsophisticated but virile warriors, and the Cretans, who are depicted as culturally advanced, but also decadent and effete. In the scene of which I speak, Theseus visits a potter’s studio in Crete. Speaking of the unparalleled craftsmanship of Cretan pottery, he goes on to say: 

 “But even beauty wearied them if it was not new. The truth is that what had not been tried in a thousand years was not worth doing. I remember one lord I dined with, taking us to see his potter’s workshop and the latest work. There was a great deal of talking, which I could not follow, for they have many more words than we. So, finding a lump of raw clay, I amused myself for a moment by pinching out of it a little bull, such as children make at home when they play in the mud, but not so good, since I had lost the knack of it. Just as I was about to roll it up again, there was crying and twittering, my host and his friends holding back my hand, and crying out that it must be fired: “How fresh!” they said, “How pure!” “How he has understood the clay!” 

I felt affronted at being made so light of. I answered, “Clay I do not understand. I was not born in a craftsman’s house. But bulls I understand, and that is no bull. At home just as here, a gentleman knows the look of good work, though he cannot do it. We are not so backward as you suppose.”

At this they begged me not to be offended; swearing they had spoken in earnest, and that I had done what their newest craftsmen were winning praise for. To prove it they led me to a shelf covered with such wretched botched things as you will see at home far up in the back hills, offered at a little shrine of no reputation, the work of some ham-fisted peasant who never saw inside a workshop, but can sell them for a handful of olives or barley, because the place has no one better. “You see,” they said, “how we learn strength from the early forms.” 

I said I saw they had not mocked me, and was sorry; then I could think of no more to say. I thought to myself, “If I had my Companions here, and a few thousand warriors, I could sweep Crete from end to end. These people are in a second childhood; fruit for the plucking; finished, played out.” 

Other than being an interesting detail in the book, this scene of course also functions as a withering critique of the mid-century modern art of Renault’s own time: abstract expressionist splashes of paint that look like a child could have painted them; deformed hunks of metal that would seem more at home in a junkyard than a museum. Renault had come to the same counterintuitive insight that Yvor Winters had several decades before: Primitivism and Decadence go hand in hand. The existential ennui born of copious luxury, spare time, and over-refinement often leads to a desire to fetishize and imitate what is seen as raw and savage. Because decadence is numbing, primitivism is viewed by the jaded as a way to become fresh and alive again. Extreme devotion to primal pleasures like sex and violence thus paradoxically goes hand in hand with advanced stages of civilization: witness the orgies and gladiatorial spectacles of Imperial Rome, or the libertinism and bloodlust of 18th century France, or the popularity of casual sex and contact sports in our own day. As Freud correctly remarked, primal human instincts can never be eliminated, only repressed and sublimated. In the absence of war, we will pursue fantasies of war; in the absence of religion, we will devote ourselves to political ideologies, fandoms, or occult mysticism; in the absence of Dionysian ritual, we will go to concerts and raves. 

In the arts, this reactionary impulse has often manifested as a desire to return to some form of lost innocence, either the beginner’s mind of a child, mystic, rustic, or barbarian, or else the romanticized mores of an ancient civilization. We see this impulse as far back as the Greeks themselves—in the highly urbanized, sophisticated Hellenistic period of the 3rd century B.C.E, some sculptors revived the stiff but charming style of Archaic Greek sculpture; Theocritus invented the pastoral genre of poetry, which idealized simple country life; and scholarly librarian poets like Apollonius attempted to write epic in the vein of Homer. We see a stronger form of this impulse in the 19th century, with the Romantic devotion to the idea of the “noble savage,” the sublimity of nature, and the exoticism of far off places and times. 20th century Modernism, as is typical, took these Romantic traits and extremified them further. 

Back in the 18th century, Schiller had warned us that, as alluring as naïve art is, it is impossible to recreate it in a sentimental age. That remark however did not stop Schiller himself from trying, as in his pseudo-Greek tragedy The Bride of Messina, and it has not stopped anyone since. In late 19th century France, full of the decadent malaise of Baudelaire, the rarified mysticism of Mallarme, the shocks of industrialization and Darwinism, and the alarming decline of the aristocratic order, artists began to suspect that civilization itself, at least as they had known it, was reaching a dead end. The painter Paul Gauguin traveled to Brittany, the Caribbean, and Tahiti in search of more vital, spiritual forms of human life, and his famously idealized, problematic, dream-like depictions of tropical tribal rituals and sexual liberation helped to create a new and more intense vogue for so-called “savage” cultures; a fascination which would later prove inspiration to the Paris-based Picasso in the development of Cubism, perhaps the most significant art movement of the period. Another Parisian immigrant, Igor Stravinsky, provoked one of the most significant riots in music history at the 1913 premier of his ballet, The Rite of Spring, which shocked audiences with its rhythmic and harmonic ferocity, the tribal stomping of the dancers, and its lurid subject matter: the pagan sacrifice of a young maiden to welcome in the springtime. The art movement known as Primitivism had definitively arrived. Though a short-lived movement in itself, Primitivism’s obsession with forsaking traditional techniques and decorum in order to tap into primal states of feeling became a significant factor, along with like-minded movements like Expressionism and Dada, in leading to the post-civilized, childish messiness so derided by Theseus and Renault. 

In the shadow of Mallarme, French poetry continued to experiment in increasingly radical directions. In 1897, Mallarme’s associate Gustave Kahn published the first essay arguing for the practice of vers libre— what we now know as free verse. Meanwhile, would-be progressive poets of the English-speaking world could only look on the liberating developments in France with envy and frustration. In early 1900’s England and America, insipid, sing-songy, moralizing, sentimental Victorian-style verse still had a chokehold on the literary scene, and in the absence of geniuses like Browning and Tennyson, the situation was suffocating and intolerable. Many in the younger generations felt a profound disconnect between the exciting if angst-inducing developments of the modern world and the poetry that was being written, which seemed like quaint fossils of an earlier age. Clearly, something radical had to be done. 

There are many reasons to despise Ezra Pound. Reason number 3712 is that he had the unsavory habit of taking credit for other people’s intellectual property. Pound is often considered the founder of Imagism, but while it is true that he coined the term and popularized the movement, he was in fact nothing of the sort. Its true founder was a fascinating man who is perhaps the most interesting case in poetry of “what-could-have-been” since John Keats. Had he not been blasted to smithereens in World War I, he might well have proven to be as important an architect of poetic Modernism as Pound or Eliot. I am speaking of the poet, critic, and philosopher T.E. Hulme.

Hulme, who had been exposed to avant-garde French poetic theories during a post-collegiate sojourn in Belgium, returned to his native England and helped found the Poet’s Club in London in 1908, where he began to develop the ideas which would become the foundational theory of Imagist poetics. In a landmark speech given to the club, simply entitled “Lecture On Modern Poetry,” Hulme argued ardently for the adoption of free verse into English. Following Gustave Kahn, he defines free verse as: 


“A denial of a regular number of syllables as the basis of versification. The length of the line is long and short, oscillating with the images used by the poet; it follows the contours of his thoughts and is free rather than regular; to use a rough analogy, it is clothes made to order, rather than ready-made clothes.”


In what is a more direct and frank discussion of the Modernist agenda than anything I have found in Pound or Eliot, Hulme goes on to argue for why free verse ought to be preferred to traditional verse. I quote at length: 


Philosophers no longer believe in absolute truth. We no longer believe in perfection, either in verse or in thought, we frankly acknowledge the relative. We shall no longer strive to attain the absolutely perfect form in poetry. Instead of these minute perfections of phrase and words, the tendency will be rather towards the production of a general effect; this of course takes away the predominance of metre and a regular number of syllables as the element of perfection in words. We are no longer concerned that stanzas shall be shaped and polished like gems, but rather that some vague mood shall be communicated. In all the arts, we seek for the maximum of individual and personal expression, rather than for the attainment of any absolute beauty.

The criticism is sure to be made, what is this new spirit, which finds itself unable to express itself in the old metre? Are the things that a poet wishes to say now in any way different to the things that former poets say? I believe that they are. The old poetry dealt essentially with big things, the expression of epic subjects leads naturally to the anatomical matter and regular verse. 

But the modern is the exact opposite of this, it no longer deals with heroic action, it has become definitely and finally introspective and deals with expression and communication of momentary phases in the poet's mind. It was well put by Mr. G. K. Chesterton in this way – that where the old dealt with the Siege of Troy, the new attempts to express the emotions of a boy fishing. The opinion you often hear expressed, that perhaps a new poet will arrive who will synthesize the whole modern movement into a great epic, shows an entire misconception of the tendency of modern verse. We still perceive the mystery of things, but we perceive it in entirely a different way – no longer directly in the form of action, but as an impression, for example Whistler's pictures. We can't escape from the spirit of our times. What has found expression in painting as Impressionism will soon find expression in poetry as free verse. To put this modern conception of the poetic spirit, this tentative and half-shy manner of looking at things, into regular metre is like putting a child into armour.

The older art was originally a religious incantation: it was made to express oracles and maxims in an impressive manner, and rhyme and metre were used as aids to the memory. But why, for this new poetry, should we keep a mechanism which is only suited to the old?

The effect of rhythm, like that of music, is to produce a kind of hypnotic state, during which suggestions of grief or ecstasy are easily and powerfully effective, just as when we are drunk all jokes seem funny. This is for the art of chanting, but the procedure of the new visual art is just the contrary. It depends for its effect not on a kind of half sleep produced, but on arresting the attention, so much so that the succession of visual images should exhaust one.

Regular metre to this impressionist poetry is cramping, jangling, meaningless, and out of place. Into the delicate pattern of images and colour it introduces the heavy, crude pattern of rhetorical verse. It destroys the effect just as a barrel organ does, when it intrudes into the subtle interwoven harmonies of the modern symphony. It is a delicate and difficult art, that of evoking an image, of fitting the rhythm to the idea, and one is tempted to fall back to the comforting and easy arms of the old, regular metre, which takes away all the trouble for us.

The criticism is sure to be made that when you have abolished the regular syllabled line as the unit of poetry, you have turned it into prose. Of course this is perfectly true of a great quantity of modern verse. In fact, one of the great blessings of the abolition of regular metre would be that it would at once expose all this sham poetry.

Poetry as an abstract thing is a very different matter, and has its own life, quite apart from metre as a convention.

This new verse resembles sculpture rather than music; it appeals to the eye rather than to the ear. It has to mould images, a kind of spiritual clay, into definite shapes. This material is image and not sound. It builds up a plastic image which it hands over to the reader, whereas the old art endeavoured to influence him physically by the hypnotic effect of rhythm.

One might sum it all up in this way: a shell is a very suitable covering for the egg at a certain period of its career, but very unsuitable at a later age. This seems to me to represent fairly well the state of verse at the present time. While the shell remains the same, the inside character is entirely changed. It is not addled, as a pessimist might say, but has become alive, it has changed from the ancient art of chanting to the modern impressionist, but the mechanism of verse has remained the same. It can't go on doing so. I will conclude, ladies and gentlemen, by saying, the shell must be broken.


         Despite disagreeing with almost everything in this essay, I find it very interesting, and I highly recommend that you read the whole thing, which I’ll link to in the show notes. Elsewhere in the essay, Hulme explicitly highlights the Parnassians as likeminded reformers of traditional Romanticism, but laments what he felt was their swift decline into stale repetition and imitation. It is moreover interesting that he says that poets are no longer concerned with having their verse be polished like gems, but then goes on to argue that the new poetry will be like sculpture and plastic images. He has curiously adopted the aesthetic sensibility but not the accompanying formalism of Gautier. 

         By linking his poetic reform to mental impressionism, Hulme also reveals the unlikely link between Symbolism and Imagism. On the face of it, these two movements would seem to possess opposite priorities: Symbolism is about reaching for abstractions beyond words, whereas Imagism is about finding the most precise detail to describe a concrete phenomenon. To Hulme, however, whose notion of the image was influenced by Henri Bergson, their goals were similar: to plunge consciousness into a state of intuitive, sensuous, holistic awareness beyond the shackles of the intellect. The distinction between what was a symbol and what was an image was often blurred beyond recognition, an ambiguity which Yvor Winters recognized when he spoke of the “Post-Symbolist method,” which in reality was simply a more intellectually lucid, allegorical form of Imagism. 

Nevertheless, whereas Symbolism had idolized music, and therefore sought to make language as sonically and linguistically evocative as possible without much regard to what was actually being said, Imagism, like Parnassianism, idolized the plastic arts, and therefore placed much more emphasis on the vivid and sharp presentation of detail. 

         In his belief in the primacy of intuition, and in utterances like, “we seek for the maximum of individual and personal expression, rather than for the attainment of any absolute beauty,” Hulme seems to out himself as a through-and-through Romantic. Nevertheless, it is surprisingly from Hulme himself, and not from later bandwagoners like Pound and Eliot, that we get the notion that Modernism is a Classicist project. 

         Early in the essay, in words that remind me strongly of Winters, Hulme had said: 


         “A reviewer last week spoke of poetry as the means by which the soul soared into higher regions, and as a means of expression by which it became merged into a higher kind of reality. Well, that is the kind of statement that I utterly detest. I want to speak of verse in a plain way as I would of pigs: that is the only honest way. The President told us last week that poetry was akin to religion. It is nothing of the sort. It is a means of expression just as prose is, and if you can't justify it from that point of view it's not worth preserving.”


         Hulme would pursue this refreshingly common-sense view of poetry further in a second and even more interesting essay, entitled “Romanticism and Classicism.” Before going any further I must preface with the fact that Hulme, like Pound, like Eliot, like many of our beloved Modernists, had proto-fascist sympathies, and openly derived his understanding of the Classical vs. Romantic dichotomy from the theories of the Action Francaise, a far right-wing, Royalist, Nationalist party in France. When we hear Hulme, Pound or Eliot speak of Classicism, we should remember that they are not only mostly kidding themselves, but that they are speaking of a very specific vision of Classicism which lends itself to political conservatism and orthodox religious beliefs. When we recall this, it is easier to understand how the legacy of cultural Classicism became almost inextricably entwined with conservatism in the 20th century, trickling down to the New Critics and Southern Agrarians, all the way down to its contemporary reductio ad absurdum, Ben Shapiro’s sister’s Youtube channel, “Classically Abby.” As in so much else, the secular if Thomist-influenced classicism of Yvor Winters, which was for the most part a true Classicism, was a notable exception to this trend. As with Pound and Eliot, Hulme’s ostensible allegiance to a traditionalist vision of Classicism seems curiously at odds not only with his individualism and distrust of the intellect, but with his artistic radicalism and imperative toward newness. His essay, like Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” is in part a brilliant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reconcile these conflicting elements. In addition to Hulme’s previous essay, I highly recommend reading this essay too, which I’ll link to in the show notes. It’s one of the most intriguing, idiosyncratic, dryly funny treatises in the Modernist canon. 

         I ask your indulgence now as a I quote at length. Speaking of the Romantic French revolutionaries, Hulme says: 


“They had been taught by Rousseau that man was by nature good, that it was only bad laws and customs that had suppressed him. Remove all these and the infinite possibilities of man would have a chance. This is what made them think that something positive could come out of disorder, this is what created the religious enthusiasm. Here is the root of all romanticism: that man, the individual, is an infinite reservoir of possibilities; and if you can so rearrange society by the destruction of oppressive order then these possibilities will have a chance and you will get Progress.

One can define the classical quite clearly as the exact opposite to this. Man is an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant. It is only by tradition and organisation that anything decent can be got out of him.

Put shortly, these are the two views, then. One, that man is intrinsically good, spoilt by circumstance; and the other that he is intrinsically limited, but disciplined by order and tradition to something fairly decent. To the one party man’s nature is like a well, to the other like a bucket. The view which regards man as a well, a reservoir full of possibilities, I call the romantic; the one which regards him as a very finite and fixed creature, I call the classical.

One may note here that the Church has always taken the classical view since the defeat of the Pelagian heresy and the adoption of the sane classical dogma of original sin.

By the perverted rhetoric of Rationalism, your natural instincts are suppressed and you are converted into an agnostic. Just as in the case of the other instincts, Nature has her revenge. The instincts that find their right and proper outlet in religion must come out in some other way. You don’t believe in a God, so you begin to believe that man is a god. You don’t believe in Heaven, so you begin to believe in a heaven on earth. In other words, you get romanticism. The concepts that are right and proper in their own sphere are spread over, and so mess up, falsify and blur the clear outlines of human experience. It is like pouring a pot of treacle over the dinner table. Romanticism then, and this is the best definition I can give of it, is spilt religion.


I must now shirk the difficulty of saying exactly what I mean by romantic and classical in verse. I can only say that it means the result of these two attitudes towards the cosmos, towards man, in so far as it gets reflected in verse. The romantic, because he thinks man infinite, must always be talking about the infinite; and as there is always the bitter contrast between what you think you ought to be able to do and what man actually can, it always tends, in its later stages at any rate, to be gloomy.


What I mean by classical in verse, then, is this. That even in the most imaginative flights there is always a holding back, a reservation. The classical poet never forgets this finiteness, this limit of man. He remembers always that he is mixed up with earth. He may jump, but he always returns back; he never flies away into the circumambient gas.”


I have serious doubts about whether Pindar, Sophocles, or Aristotle would buy into the doctrine of original sin or see traditionalism as the solution to human waywardness. The Greeks were nothing if not innovators. Even Plato, who prized moral order more than anyone, was a utopian rationalist who favored complete societal overhaul—much more like a Jacobin than a Burkean. Moreover, the Greeks loved thinking about the Infinite. These reservations aside however, I think that much of what Hulme says here is on point. A realistic awareness of human limitation, depravity, and worldliness is deeply Classical, as is the believe in a consistent human nature. On the flip side, at the core of Romanticism does lie the gnostic, Promethean desire to transcend one’s limiting circumstances and attain to some simulacrum of Godhead, and, as we have discussed already, the necessary disappointment of the Romantic dream leads to a pessimistic trajectory. For more on the subject of Romanticism as Gnosticism, I highly recommend the short but insightful work, “Science, Politics, and Gnosticism” by Eric Voegelin. 

Throughout the course of the essay, Hulme prophetically predicts that Romanticism, like traditional verse, has run its historical course, and shall soon be inevitably replaced by a new variant of Classicism. Romantic wonder is a temporary state that can only last so long, he argues, and it must soon give way to a harder, calmer, saner way of being. He was of course completely wrong about this, as Modernism proved to be absolutely bananas, but it was a nice thought. More than a nice thought, it provided ammunition for the likes of Pound and Eliot to incoherently and hypocritically declare themselves the fulfillment of a Classical prophecy, whose mission was to cleanse literature of sloppy, sentimental Romantic thinking. Vowing to slaughter the sheep, they were, like the Parnassians, mostly sheep in wolves’ clothing. In a retrospective, Ezra Pound quaintly wrote: 


“As for the nineteenth century, with all respect to its achievements, I think we shall look back upon it as a rather blurry, messy sort of a period, a rather sentimentalistic, mannerish sort of a period. I say this without any self-righteousness, with no self-satisfaction.” Sure, Ezra. Sure.


“As to Twentieth century poetry, and the poetry which I expect to see written during the next decade or so, it will, I think, move against poppy-cock, it will be harder and saner, it will be what Mr Hewlett calls “nearer the bone.” It will be as much like granite as it can be, its force will lie in its truth, its interpretative power (of course, poetic force does always rest there); I mean it will not try to seem forcible by rhetorical din, and luxurious riot. We will have fewer painted adjectives impeding the shock and stroke of it. At least for myself, I want it so, austere, direct, free from emotional slither.” 


As we shall see, even under Pound’s aegis, Imagism was anything but free of emotional slither. Nevertheless, the pseudo-Classicism propounded by Hulme, Pound, and others, like the work of the Parnassians, partook of some genuinely Classical features which makes their study more interesting and fruitful than most. 

Let us now briefly return to Hulme’s essay. Against the vague, metaphysical bluster of the Romantics, whom he believes are limited to only the most serious and grand topics, he proposes a poetics of accurate, precise, definite description, suitable to the greater appreciation and understanding of all things, and capable of sharpening both our language and our intuition of the world around us. Hulme says:  


I shall maintain that wherever you get an extraordinary interest in a thing, a great zest in its contemplation which carries on the contemplator to accurate description, there you have sufficient justification for poetry. It must be an intense zest which heightens a thing out of the level of prose. I am using contemplation here just in the same way that Plato used it, only applied to a different subject; it is a detached interest. ‘The object of aesthetic contemplation is something framed apart by itself and regarded without memory or expectation, simply as being itself, as end not means, as individual not universal.’


It isn’t the scale or kind of emotion produced that decides, but this one fact: Is there any real zest in it? Did the poet have an actually realised visual object before him in which he delighted? It doesn’t matter if it were a lady’s shoe or the starry heavens.

Fancy is not mere decoration added on to plain speech. Plain speech is essentially inaccurate. It is only by new metaphors, that is, by fancy, that it can be made precise.”


It is fascinating to observe how even in this self-consciously Classical groundwork for the practice of Imagism, so much remains Romantic: the privileging of individuality over universality, the emphasis on purely aesthetic contemplation, the spiritual rather than technical distinction between poetry and prose, and the proclamation of emotional intensity—what Hulme calls “zest”— as the best justification for writing poetry. 

To summarize Hulme’s concept of Imagism, we may state the following: it is a poetry characterized both by detached, precise description and an underlying, restrained emotional intensity; this description derives its piercing accuracy not from clinical observation alone, but from the fresh metaphorical language used to describe it; it is a poetry focused on producing a direct, intuitive, holistic perception in the reader, with no reliance on overt intellection or abstraction; and of course, lest we forget, it is in free verse. 

After all this theory, it is high time we heard one of Hulme’s lyrics. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the first Imagist lyrics ever written, and therefore one of the first truly modern lyrics in English. It is simply entitled, “Autumn:” 


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.


We can instantly see what Hulme meant by a poetry of impressions. In this case, the moon as red-faced farmer and the stars as white-faced children are the inventive metaphors by which the literal image of the scene is made vivid to us. For Hulme, the imagination serves the description, not the other way around. We do however also note the textbook Romanticism of the phrase, “wistful stars.” 

To my mind, Hulme’s best and most interesting lyric by far is the following, entitled “Conversion:” 


Lighthearted I walked into the valley wood
 In the time of hyacinths,
 Till beauty like a scented cloth
 Cast over, stifled me. I was bound
 Motionless and faint of breath
 By loveliness that is her own eunuch.


Now pass I to the final river
 Ignominiously, in a sack, without sound,
 As any peeping Turk to the Bosphorus.

The semantic concentration and metaphorical ingenuity here is breathtaking. As conversion pieces go, I would take this over the verbose and pretentious “Ash Wednesday” any day. 

The lyric begins by describing a time of pagan innocence: the “time of hyacinths.” Hyacinths suggests not only springtime flowers but mythological, pastoral Greece, and also hints at the theme of death and resurrection. Hulme then vividly describes being assaulted by a revelation of beauty, which stifles him like a scented cloth, leaving him motionless and breathless. The phrase “loveliness that is her own eunuch” is bewildering and marvelous, the sort of Baroque reflexive metaphor one would expect of a poet like Gongora or Crashaw. There are probably various ways to interpret this line, but my reading is that, just as eunuchs were commonly employed to guard the beauties in a sultan’s harem, so does beauty guard itself against being fully grasped by the observer. More than this, it suggests that the presence of extreme beauty can actually feel like an assault on the observer. Furthermore, the metaphor suggests, reminiscent of Kant, that beauty is something detached, sterile, and unearthly. 

The mention of the “final river” instantly reminds us of the underworld, but it also reminds us of the river that Dante must cross in earthly paradise in order to get into heaven. In both cases it is a liminal space, an entry into a divine realm. Beauty as eunuch flings the embarrassed speaker into the river, in a sack, as if he were a “peeping Turk” trying to get a look at a forbidden beauty in the sultan’s harem. This is a great image, because it not only continues the inventive and somewhat humorous metaphor of the eunuch, and it not only further codes the speaker as a pagan, but the sack also suggests the sackcloths worn by religious penitents. The speaker then figuratively floats into the Bosphorus, which is appropriate given the Turkish setting, but which also parodies the Yeatsian image of sailing into Byzantium, a metaphor for spiritual awakening. Finally, we note that just as in any good Christian conversion, the speaker has been thoroughly baptized in the process. One could dwell further on this incredibly rich nine-line lyric, but I will leave it at that. 

Despite the mild orientalism of this piece, Hulme’s work is not characterized by any particular desire to exoticize experience. As more writers hopped on the Imagist train however, that began to change. Hulme’s Bergsonian command to bypass the intellect and reach for the intuitive image meshed well with the Primitivism that was in the air at the time, and many writers saw in Imagism an opportunity to not only discard traditional prosody, but return to the unsophisticated, wholesomely naïve thought patterns of bygone ages, particularly Archaic Greece and Ancient China. It is to these Primitivist, pseudo-Classical poets, the first to actually call themselves Imagists, that we shall turn next time.