My book, City of Verse: A London Poetry Trail, is now available on the Amazon store. Editions for other ebook formats will be available soon. As a sampler, here’s the entry on TE Hulme:
TE Hulme on the Embankment
Victoria Embankment WC2
Underground station: Embankment
GPS coordinates: 51.504044, -0.123173
Walk from Stop 21:
Retrace your steps back along Victoria Embankment, passing Embankment Pier, and then continue straight ahead, under two bridges, until you reach the building site for the Thames Tideway Tunnel, aka the ‘Super-Sewer’ (the works are due to complete in 2023), where you will need to take a quick detour at the traffic lights back to the other side of Victoria Embankment. Once you have passed the site, cross back to the riverside. Continue straight ahead for 150 metres, passing the Tattershall Castle floating pub, and then pause by the Royal Air Force Memorial, with its golden eagle.
The history of London is in part a history of containing and controlling the River Thames. Westminster was once an island, known as Thorney Island due to the thorn bushes that grew there, amid the marshes and rivulets of the river’s north side. Before the construction of the Victoria Embankment the waters of the Thames lapped where Whitehall Gardens stand today. Christopher Wren had proposed a scheme for an embankment on this stretch of the river after the Great Fire but it was never realised. It was Sir Jospeh Bazalgette, one of the great Victorian civil engineers, who designed and oversaw the construction of Victoria Embankment (and similar ones at Chelsea and Lambeth). Thirty-seven acres were reclaimed from the river and a wall capable of dealing with high tides was built. The new embankment, running from Blackfriars to Westminster, was named for Queen Victoria and opened in 1870. The iron lamp posts and benches with their resting camels contribute to one of central London’s best riverside walkways (if you can block out the noise of the road traffic) and there are plenty of places for the fallen gentleman of our next poem to rest his weary bones.
Our second stop on the Embankment takes us from the imagined heat and dust of Egypt to the reality of a cold night by the Thames. TE Hulme had a short and brilliant life, and of all the neglected poets we have met on this walk, is perhaps the one who has most to say to our age. Thomas Ernest Hulme was born at Gratton in Staffordshire in 1883, He attended Cambridge University but was sent down (expelled) for idleness and pranking. Hulme referred to himself as a ‘philosophic amateur’ and began keeping notebooks of his ideas on epistemology, language and literature. Initially a disciple of the philosopher Henri Bergson, Hulme ended up rejecting Bergson’s ideas as being infected with the progressivism he deplored, identifying himself as a classicist and a Tory. He was readmitted to Cambridge in 1912 but soon afterwards fled to Germany to escape prosecution after he was discovered writing letters to the underage daughter of a don. Just six of Hulme’s poems were published in his lifetime and little of his prose work. In 1914 he enlisted as a private in the British Army and was killed in action at Flanders in 1917. Despite his short life and small output Hulme was a significant influence on several contemporaries, including TS Eliot, who viewed him as ‘the forerunner of a new attitude of mind, which should be the twentieth-century mind, if the twentieth century is to have a mind of its own’.
Hulme’s poem, ‘the Embankment’ is a beautiful miniature, its seven lines reaching from the pavement to the stars. While some poems take time to fall in love with, who could not be instantly smitten with ‘The Embankment’? Hulme’s skill is apparent in the economy and compressed imagery of the verse: not a word is wasted. Through this single scene of a ‘fallen gentlemen’ by the Thames the reader enters a world of music, poetry, ecstasy and transcendent yearning. As TS Eliot said, ‘This is a complete poem’.
(The fantasia of a fallen gentleman on a cold, bitter night)
Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy,
In the flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.
Now see I
That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.
Oh, God, make small
The old star-eaten blanket of the sky,
That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.