Above the Dock by Thomas Ernest Hulme

Poetry has a unique artistic capacity to invoke thought and feeling in the reader, regardless of length, shape, or size (ordinarily a redundant thought, but poems really can come in all shapes and sizes!). A poem of a single verse can be just as powerful as a Renaissance epic, of it is written right. Short poetry, in its own unique way, can say a lot. All it really takes is one line to invoke a stunning metaphor that has the reader thinking for days. More often than not, that one line is the best part of any poem.

When Thomas Ernest Hulme wrote Above the Dock, he was not certainly striving to create an epic, but was very successful in conveying a single, well-considered thought. The idea that drives this poem is augmented strongly by its use of poetic devices and careful word choice, but is, at its core, the expression of one single idea that needs to carry the entire work on its shoulders. Fortunately, it is not a very long poem to carry; also fortunately, this is a strength for the work as a whole.

 

Above the Dock Poem

Above the quiet dock in midnight,

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.

 

Above the Dock Analysis

In order to make up for its length, Hulme chooses each word in the poem carefully, to convey particular meaning in each line. The poem itself is a quatrain, following a fairly simplistic AABB rhyming scheme. Each of the first three lines follows a pattern with syllable count as well, which the final line breaks, being much longer than the previous three.

Above the quiet dock in midnight,

Tangled in the tall mast’s corded height,

The first line of the poem is largely introductory, but Hulme intentionally uses words that establish immediate ambience. The word “above” serves to remove the reader from the setting, suggesting an observer-like relationship, one that creates calm by imagining a bird’s-eye kind of view of the scene. The word “quiet” has a fairly self-explanatory purpose, and makes the already immediate calm more concrete for the reader. Lastly, the poem references that the dock is “in” midnight; midnight is not the time (“quiet dock at midnight”), but rather an integral part of the scenery. The entire first line is dedicated to this setting up a calming, quiet atmosphere.

The second line begins with the word “tangled,” which immediately puts to mind the image of something trapped and trying to break free. The “tall mast,” which serves to alliterate the word “tangled,” restoring a bit of calm to the line (by adding fluidity) is described very well in three words: “mast,” “corded,” and “height.” Through these words alone, we can imagine there is a mast at the dock, likely attached to a ship, and that it displays various lines and ropes across the sky, likely causing the aforementioned tangling.

Hangs the moon. What seemed so far away

Is but a child’s balloon, forgotten after play.

The poem continues by revealing that it is moonlight that is “tangled” in the dock, suggesting that what is actually meant is that the light is cut off by the masts and lines, which are creating shadows. The moon is then compared to a balloon, a memory that many will probably relate to — no matter how long you held onto that balloon as a child, eventually, it floated away forever. The moon appears just as inaccessible, and just as strange. It feels closer than it used to though; the speaker seems to be suggesting that, on this dock consumed by midnight, the moon feels close, and safe. It is a source of light, and it completes the ambience of the first lines.

Hulme’s choice of word continues to heavily inform the poem in powerful and simplistic ways. The moon “hangs” in the sky, for instance; rather contrary to the metaphor of the balloon that flies away. It is unlike the balloon in the sense that it stays in the sky and its light hangs off of it, but similar in the sense that it is forgotten shortly after it is let go. No one really considers the moon as a source of ambience or light, but its contribution to this poem is integral, and its contribution to the scene being described is paramount. It is forgotten, but it is crucial, beautiful, and powerful regardless.

Also of interest is the metaphor of the balloon being forgotten “after play.” It works with the ambience of the poem, where daytime could be an allusion to the playtime, where nighttime is the period afterwards, where everything slows down and the speaker is alone. These themes and images, while subtle, heavily inform the poem and give it meaning and depth beyond its simple four lines.

 

Historical Analysis

Above the Dock was one of only twenty-five poems written and published by Thomas Ernest Hulme during his life (“The Complete Poetical Words of T.E. Hulme” was published in 1912 with only seven poems included). Hulme was born in 1883, but didn’t develop an interest in poetry until some time after 1907, at the age of 24. Around this time, he was attending lectures at Cambridge University to develop his interest in philosophy. He became a critical writer, contributing articles where they would be accepted, and would later become the secretary of the Poets’ Club, which he helped to found. There, he met, influenced, and was influenced by such poets as Ezra Pound, F.S. Flint, and Robert Frost.

Hulme also holds the distinction of writing what are considered to be the first two Imagist poems (“Autumn” and “City”), as well as being a strong influence to a very wide number of poets. In the midst of all of this academic and poetic stimuli, it is hardly surprising that he might be experimenting with poetic form, trying to maximize the meaning of every word he allowed himself to use. Above the Dock was likely written between 1908 and 1912, along with most of Hulme’s works.

Hulme’s writings demonstrated enormous potential, and his contributions to the world of poetry are unmistakable. What might have come from his mind is a tragic mystery, as Hulme was killed in action during the First World War, on September 28th, 1917, only a few days after his thirty-fourth birthday. His legacy, in which Above the Dock is included, is a collection of intelligent and unique poetry that inspired both in its own time, and in the present day as well.

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