Thursday, September 10, 2015

Making paths in the dark

Death Refuses, Percy Smith
Thomas Ernest Hulme published only six poems before he was killed in September of 1917.  Despite the limited number of poems, however, T.E. Hulme is recognized as one of the most influential writers in the emergence of modernist literature, admired by both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. 

Hulme’s poem “Trenches: St. Eloi,” was most likely composed in May of 1915 while he was in an English hospital recovering from a bullet wound.  The shot had blasted through Hulme’s elbow, killing the soldier who was beside him.  Hulme had previously described battle trenches in his letters home: 

            I don’t think I’ve been so exasperated for years as I was in taking up my position in this trench.  It wasn’t an ordinary one but was roofed over most of the way leaving passage about 4 ft.: absolutely impossible for me to walk through.  I had to crawl along on my hands & knees, through the mud in pitch darkness & every now and then seemed to get stuck altogether.  You feel shut in and hopeless.  I wished I was about 4 ft.  This war isn’t for tall men.  I got in a part too narrow and too low to stand or sit & had to stay there from about 7 pm till just before dawn next morning, a most miserable experience.  You can’t sleep & you sit as it were at the bottom of a drain with nothing to look at but the top of the ditch slowly freezing (27 January 1915). 

“Trenches: St. Eloi” shares another impression of the front lines.  Its epigraph acknowledges the poem’s conversational origins, and it is believed that either Ezra Pound or Hulme’s fiancée, Kate Lechmere, transcribed it.  In November of 1915, the subtly crafted lines were published in Pound’s Catholic Anthology.  British poet Carol Rumens has said, “The poem is as stark as the period's cubist art.”

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.

With just a few words, the poem's opening sketches a scene that seems serene and almost domestic: men fuss with meal preparations (“pottering over small fires”) or “walk as on Piccadilly” (one of London’s streets, famous for its shops and theatres).  Only the solitary, foreboding word “Night” gives a hint of the horrors that hide just outside the fire’s light. Casually, without warning, the poem pivots at its midway point: “Making paths in the dark.”  In the sightless night, men stumble over dead animals and human corpses, their boots walking over the remains of dead men.  Writing home from Flanders just days before he was shot, Hulme recorded, “One of our snipers walking about in the daylight discovered that one of these paths that we walk over led right over the chest of a dead peasant (Belgian).”

Flatly and without emotion, the hopeless situation is catalogued:  the Germans are using their artillery to shell the British troops mercilessly, while the British cannon are silent, “hidden, lying back miles.”  The men have been ordered to the Front; the guns remain ineffectively in the rear.  The men who survive the shelling in the trenches will be ordered over the top into the “chaos” that lies beyond the line.  They are helpless to control what is happening to them and powerless to resist the illogical way the war is being fought. 

In the last chilling image of the poem, the soldiers’ minds are likened to corridors -- narrow, tunnel-like hallways that stretch the lengths of hospitals and asylums.  Trapped as if in a maze, the men’s thoughts have nowhere to escape, but can only “keep on,” funneled forward into the madness ahead. 

T.E. Hulme
Hulme recovered from his wound and was sent back to Flanders in March of 1917.  Biographer Robert Ferguson writes that on September 28th, “Hulme suffered a direct hit from a large shell which literally blew him to pieces. Apparently absorbed in some thought of his own he had failed to hear it coming and remained standing while those around threw themselves flat on the ground. What was left of him was buried in the Military Cemetery at Koksijde, West-Vlaanderen, in Belgium.”

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