Hulme And Bergson

On 11 February 1909 the poet F.S. Flint reviewed Hulme's poetry in a journal called The New Age. Hulme had published two poems in a collection of verse by the Poets' Club, a group of well-respected members of London's literary establishment. Flint compared this collection with some recent work by the French symbolists, but it was not a favourable comparison. While Flint praised the symbolists as 'pioneers' and 'craftsmen', he poured scorn on the members of the Poets' Club as a band of 'rhymesters' more interested in dining than writing poetry. Flint did, however, pick out a small number of contributions as noteworthy, including Hulme's 'Autumn' (1909: 327). Hulme promptly left the Poets' Club to found a new poetry group with Flint where, according to Flint, the focus of discussion and poetic experimentation was French free verse, Japanese poetry (then very much in vogue) and 'what we called the "Image"' (1915: 71). Pound joined this group on 22 April 1909.

To understand what Hulme and Flint's 'Secession Club', as it has come to be known, understood by the Image and its relation to poetry, we need to look more broadly at Hulme's activities in 1909. In July, Hulme followed Flint into The New Age's pages, but rather than writing on poetry, he became the journal's commentator on contemporary philosophy. In particular, his articles promoted the theories of Henri Bergson (1859-1941), who, like Hulme, had had a mathematical background, but had come to believe that, while mathematics and its related sciences could make useful statements about the external world, its procedures were unable to reveal anything about the essential nature of reality, especially the reality of human consciousness. His philosophy addressed that topic.

In his first two books, Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (translated as Time and Free Will) (1889) and Matière et mémoire (Matter and Memory) (1896), Bergson argued that positivist science was not only limited in its ability to describe human consciousness, its influence had actually hindered our understanding of it. He claimed that the method of perceiving and understanding the physical world by breaking it down into analysable units could not be applied to consciousness without falsifying its real character. One of the analogies he used to explain this complex idea was the analogy of a bell striking. We can listen to the bell's strokes in two distinct ways, explained Bergson: we can either count the chimes as distinct, comparable elements in a series, or we can attend to the series as a whole, as if it were a musical piece. The first approach involves separating out the sounds and classifying them as sound elements of the same kind, repressing any difference between the sounds or our impression of them. This approach only records the quantity of the chimes. The second approach registers the way in which the sound of each chime is carried over to combine and modify the sound of the successive ones, creating a unified overall effect. This approach records the quality of the chimes. Bergson argues that, while we tend to think of our consciousness in the first way, as a series of discrete moments, it would be more accurate to describe it in the second way, as a succession of moments that interpenetrate each other and form an indivisible whole. Our memory of each moment, our experience of each state of our consciousness, is carried forward and colours future experiences. In this sense, we can never see even an everyday physical object — a chair, a table, a vase — in the same way twice, because our memory of our first impression of it modifies the second impression. Bergson calls this continuity that characterizes our consciousness 'real duration' (Bergson 2002: 53—54; Schwartz 1992: 282-83).

In his next work, an essay entitled 'Introduction a la métaphysique' ('An Introduction to Metaphysics') (1903), which Hulme translated, Bergson extended his concept of 'real duration' from consciousness to the external world. The key opposition in this work is no longer between the external world of stable objects and the internal flux of consciousness, but rather between the faculties by which we perceive reality. The intellect, argues Bergson, is a practical tool that enables us to understand reality by dividing it up and ordering it. The intuition, however, enables us to grasp reality in its actual state of flux. But how can we register our intuitions without imposing the structure of the intellect upon them? In Time and Free Will, Bergson had noted the inability of language to apprehend consciousness: 'the rough and ready word, which stores up the stable, common, and consequently impersonal element in the impressions of mankind, overwhelms or at least covers over the delicate

Positivism. Strictly, the philosophical school deriving from the work of the French philosopher, Auguste Comte (1798-1857). More generally used to describe the philosophical belief that knowledge is confined to the 'positive' data of sensory experience, and that all speculations about reality not based on such evidence must be rejected. It therefore privileges the knowledge produced by science and mathematics. In its emphasis on human, rather than religious, experience positivism is closely related to utilitarianism.

and fugitive impressions of our individual consciousness' (2002: 74). In 'An Introduction to Metaphysics' he introduces the idea that language can more effectively express duration if abstract concepts are replaced with 'images': 'no image can replace the intuition of duration', Bergson writes, 'but many diverse images, borrowed from very different orders of things, may, by the convergence of their action, direct consciousness to the precise point where there is a certain intuition to be seized' (1913: 14). For Bergson, poets are especially adept at conveying this process (1910: 15).

In this last quotation from Bergson we might notice a correspondence with the way the symbolists used the symbol to evoke a reality they believed language could not represent directly. Certainly, this correspondence struck Bergson's French critics, who frequently related his philosophy to symbolist poetry, and Hulme himself remarked that 'the spirit which finds expression in the Symboliste movement in poetry is the same as that represented by Bergson in philosophy' (1994: 58). For Hulme, Bergson's philosophy justified his own belief that poetry could access reality more precisely and powerfully than other forms of writing, and in his third essay for The New Age he described the difference between poetry and prose in very Bergsonian terms. 'Poetry', he wrote:

is not a counter language, but a visual concrete one, It is a compromise for a language of intuition which would hand over sensations bodily, It always endeavours to arrest you and to make you continuously see a physical thing, to prevent you gliding through an abstract process, It chooses fresh epithets and fresh metaphors, not so much because they are new and we are tired of the old, but because the old cease to convey a physical thing and become abstract counters, Nowadays, when one sees the hill is 'clothed' with trees, the word suggests no physical comparison, To get the original visual effect one would have to say 'ruffed', or use some new metaphor [,, ,], Images in verse are not mere decoration, but the very essence of an intuitive language,

We can see Hulme's Bergsonian ideas about poetry in practice if we turn to his poem 'Above the Dock' (1912):

Above the quiet dock in mid night, Tangled in the tall mast's corded height,

Hangs the moon. What seemed so far away Is but a child's balloon, forgotten after play.

Like 'Autumn', the poem has a very traditional subject: the moon in the night sky. But Hulme departs from traditional treatments of the subject, such as those that muse on female beauty or love. Hulme's interest here is not in the associations the moon has for us, the moon as 'an abstract counter' that means beauty or love. Instead, Hulme wants us to see the moon itself as if for the first time, to get the 'original visual effect'. To achieve this he finds a 'fresh metaphor', that of the child's balloon. This everyday reference has the effect of undercutting the romantic, poetic associations of the moon: it helps us to focus on the moon as a 'physical thing'. Hulme's use of the poetic image is a specifically Bergsonian attempt to convey intuitions of reality.

Hulme published only six poems in his lifetime; a handful more were published after his death. Though Eliot considered him 'a really great poet' (1988: 311), his significance as a writer rests less on his poetic achievement than on his reputation as the inspiration behind the imagist movement.

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