The Burning Wheel


Aldous Huxley

by Emily Petermann

Though Aldous Huxley is primarily remembered for his novels and to a lesser extent his essays, he began his writing career as a poet. While a student at Balliol College at Oxford, having been exempted from military service due to extremely poor eyesight, he was involved in several student poetry magazines. In September 1916 his first book of poetry, The Burning Wheel, appeared.

The 30 poems of the collection make use of traditional forms: all but the title poem rhyme (“The Burning Wheel” is written in blank verse), all use conventional meters such as iambic pentameter and tetrameter, and eleven are sonnets (nine Petrarchan and two Shakespearean). The content, too, to a large extent harkens back to earlier models, with frequent reference to Greek mythology and romantic ideals such as those of Keats and Shelley, though often with the ironic commentary that would become a trademark of his later poetry.

Huxley was a great admirer of French symbolist poetry and an avid reader of poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud, Jules Laforgue, and Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. This collection contains poems explicitly inspired by Laforgue and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, and his other collections also include several sonnets written in French, as well as his own translations of poems by Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Baudelaire.

Huxley’s letters of 1915-6 are full of praise for Laforgue, whom he described as an impressionist. His poetry was “first class, with what astonishing originality, made obscure by compression,” and his rejection of stylized poetic language was a “corollary to his impressionism, which could not tolerate anything artificial standing between life and its expression.”[1] In Huxley’s own poetry the desire for a conversational tone and vocabulary, which became so central to his satiric works, was counterbalanced by evidence of his prodigious learning. In fact, the blending of the highly educated and even obscure or pedantic with the irreverent and familiar would become a distinguishing feature of both poetry and prose. In advising a friend on her own poetic efforts Huxley recommended using

very simple words and straightforward expressions. I should be inclined to mistrust any archaic expressions or grammatical forms and to use practically only the words of everyday speech – educated speech of course, not necessarily words of one syllable – and the grammatical constructions and verbal order, as far as possible, of prose.[2]

The majority of the poems in this first collection can be linked by their focus on sight, whether external or internal. This is most obviously apparent in poems such as “Vison,” “Quotidian Vision,” “Darkness,” “Mirror,” and “Mole,” which emphasize as well as challenge the dichotomy between light and dark. The light-dark opposition is frequently associated with life and death, and Huxley shows himself to be an optimist; light most often succeeds or emerges from darkness. “Contrary to Nature and Aristotle” depicts indecision between the social, active life of the day and the solitary, intellectual life of the night. More space – two of the three stanzas – is given to the darkness of the night, but that darkness is shown to be illuminated as well. The windows of the “little house” with its “hoard of books” “throw a friendly light [and] shine me a welcome through the night.” The lyrical “I” seeks solace in an interior solitude: instead of “the sordid strife of the arena” outdoors, he “creep[s] along the scented twilight lanes” to an inner world associated with light and knowledge.

Indeed, the desire to move towards the interior is a central theme from the first poem “The Burning Wheel,” in which the flame that billows out and creates a perpetually turning wheel yearns to return to its “adamant core.” This is the tension between the desire for a peace outside of oneself – “the infinite calm of the mother’s breast” – and the retreat into a solitary inner world. This can be read as a reaction to the destruction of the war that characterized the outside world in this period.

Though Huxley was certainly not a war poet, the war does form a backdrop to some of the poems, as here. Another example is “Quotidian Vision,” in which an overwhelming atmosphere of sadness and death prevails. The poet, however, discovers beauty as the “living core” of the “dead world” around him, and this epiphany causes the world to move again for him. The source of beauty here is also the light that breaks through the grey mist.

In “Mole,”[3] the titlular figure emerges from darkness into a light that is first bewildering and dangerous, then exhilarating, and finally becomes a new kind of solitude. As the mole adapts to the world of light, of free will, he creates his own tunnels in light, with walls “luminous and crystalline.” The mole, emerging from a dark and solitary world of foreordained paths into an open and bright space, recreates his old world in his new surroundings. His free wanderings become “fate’s tunnellings.” He has attained an epiphany and sees now with “clear eyes,” determinedly pursuing his path “on and on, till night let fall oblivion.” This is a far cry from Milton’s assertion in “On his Blindness” that “they also serve who only stand and wait.” The blind mole of Huxley’s poem does not wait, but actively continues along his path, making his own future.[4]

The longer poems “Philoclea in the Forest” (51 lines in total) and “The Walk” (138 lines) each consist of multiple sections. They are also related stylistically and thematically: both incorporate multiple voices, tending towards a staging of a scene with conversation that presages Huxley’s prose, especially novels of ideas such as Crome Yellow and Point Counter Point.

In “Philoclea” the eponymous speaker addresses her lover, Amoret, in the first section. She sees the forest as an escape from time, while he argues that they are “lost, lost, not free, though no bonds restrain.” His allusion to the “beauty of that poised moment” is reminiscent of romantic ideals of the visual arts – such as Keats’s “Urn” – yet his image is one of transience and loss. The second section juxtaposes images of the ephemerality of spring with a carved monument to the past. Significantly, even this lasting reminder of the past is a comment on transience, as the carved word “Alas” commemorates a love that is lost.  The third and final section is an attempt to avoid reminders of the past, whether through music or statuary. The lutes would “whisper of light remembered things / that happened long ago and far away,” while the statues, “ageless, mock my beauty’s fleeting pride.” Thus each stanza presents a different argument for seizing the moment, each dealing with the destructive nature of Time, who “creates what he devours.”

Music and visual art form two examples of the effects of time in this poem. Music disappears, “sweetly dreams itself away,” belonging only to the fleeting present. Yet when it plays, music can also evoke the past. Similarly, though the marble statues – or the carved word “Alas” – can survive from a past moment into the present, through contrast, they are a reminder of life’s fleeting nature, and thus evoke a future that Philoclea wishes to deny or avoid.

In “The Walk,” there is again a contrast between the views of a male and a female speaker, though this time they are prefaced in each section by a passage spoken by an unidentified, more distant narrator. It sets the stage, identifying a couple on a Sunday walk through the suburbs in section I, and through the countryside in section II, “From the Crest.”

Like “Philoclea,” this poem is permeated by music[5]: “An air all trills and runs and sudden lifts / To yearning sevenths poised … not Chopin quite, / But, oh, romantic” issues from the window of a house where someone seems to be practicing the piano, a “poor little tune.” Here again, the passage of time is detected in music. The tune that is now “far romance” might have once “fired” “our grandmother’s dull girlhood days […] with radiances of pink, / Heavenly, brighter far than she could think / anything might be.” This “ghost music” is represented as a song inserted into the poem, cynically claiming the quotidian life of “Monday send[ing] the clothes to wash / And Saturday bring[ing] them home again” can be redeemed by the tune itself: “But I’ll give you heaven / In a dominant seven, / And you shall not have lived in vain.”

The cynical opinions of the male speaker are contrasted with the much more idealistic views of the female speaker. While she sees life as poetry, echoing or rhyming with “something out of space and time,” he believes life in the suburbs “needs must flow / In journalistic prose.” This echoes Huxley’s lament in a letter of September 1916 that no one writes prose: “No young men write anything but journalism or verse. A sad fact.”[6] Though one suspects Huxley to tend towards the male view, in each section he gives the final word to the girl’s voice of hope, refuting the despair of the young man. This dialog will return in “The Defeat of Youth” (1918), though there the victory of the cynical perspective is much clearer. In “The Walk” the conclusion remains open: though the youth has “fast closed the temple gates” and believes the activity of the city below – “in Cuckoo-Land” – to be useless and God to be a creation of man, she assures him that “you do not know, you cannot know.” At age twenty-two, despite the challenges of his near-blindness, deaths in his immediate family, and the first World War raging outside, Huxley is “hopelessly romantic” (as the lyrical “I” in “The Garden” asserts) in many respects. Though his style and viewpoint will move further from the romantic in works such as Point Counter Point and Brave New World, an optimistic and determined point of view would characterize his writings throughout his lifetime.

Piece originally published at The Modernism Lab |Creative Commons License


[1] Letter to Frances Petersen, August 1915. Letters of Aldous Huxley, ed. by Grover Smith. London: Chatto & Windus 1969, 76.

[2] Letter to Juliette Balliot, June 1917. Letters of Aldous Huxley, ed. by Grover Smith. London: Chatto & Windus 1969, 127. Italics mine.

[3] “Mole” seems to have been Huxley’s favorite of these poems: “the best things in the book in my opinion are ‘Mirror’, the Horses sub fornice [‘Quotidian Vision’], ‘The Garden’, Amoret [‘Philoclea in the Forest’], ‘[The Burning] Wheel’, Mucus [‘The Two Seasons’] and last, but not least, the ever-memorable and unforgettable ‘Mole’.” Letter to Lewis Gielgud, 29 Sept. 1916. Letters of Aldous Huxley, ed. by Grover Smith. London: Chatto; Windus 1969, 114.

[4] See Richard Church, “Introduction” in The Collected Poetry of Aldous Huxley, ed. by Donald Watt. New York: Harper; Row, 8.

[5] Though in this collection music serves primarily as a means of evoking a particular atmosphere or triggering memories of the past, music will become increasingly important for Huxley’s writing in both poetry and prose, reaching a pinacle in the novel Point Counter Point (1928). From 1922-23 he was the music critic for the Westminster Weekly, and the views presented in his journalistic writings would frequently recur in discussions of music in his fiction.

[6] Letter to Julian Huxley, 7 September 1916. Letters of Aldous Huxley, ed. by Grover Smith. London: Chatto &; Windus 1969, 112.

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