The Defeat of Youth and Other Poems

By Emily Petermann

After the publication of his first book of poetry, The Burning Wheel, in 1916, Aldous Huxley’s second book,[1]  The Defeat of Youth and Other Poems, appeared in August 1918 with Blackwell.  This little volume begins with the eponymous poem, actually a sequence of twenty-two sonnets, which Jerome Meckier called “the century’s most successful sonnet sequence, better than Auden’s or Edna St. Vincent Millay’s.”[2]   Among the thirty-five other poems are several more sonnets, as well as other forms ranging from 8 to 112 lines.  Nearly all use quatrains or rhyming couplets and make use of traditional meters such as iambic pentameter or tetrameter, with only two examples written in blank verse.

As in The Burning Wheel, the mode alternates between lyrical romanticism and the voice of an ironic modern commentator who is able to laugh at his own sentimentality.  Examples of the former include strongly visual poems on nature such as “The Elms,” “Summer Stillness,” “Inspiration,” “Out of the Window,” and the lovely “Song of Poplars,” which exhorts a shepherd “to yon tall poplars tune your flute,” seeking a union of art and nature.  The poem does in fact fuse art and nature, as exemplified in the trees of the title, as the rustling of their leaves takes the form of “twin-hued scales,” a “music” which the shepherd/artist imitates.  His questioning of the trees and wish to know their thoughts and desires is reminiscent of Keats’s narrator in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”  Here, nature is every bit as ambiguous and mysterious as the work of art in that romantic poem, and its final word is silence.  This is not nature itself, however, but “airy leafage of the mind.”  Nature serves as inspiration for imaginative work by the poet or musician, and the voices, murmurs, and cries are finally his own creation.  As art, these sounds “fade not nor grow old,” though the poplar trees themselves are part of a cycle of growth and rebirth in spring.

Though there are some traditional love poems (c.f. “A Little Memory,” which sees the beloved as both mother and child), the overall approach to love is less romantic than that toward nature, as the majority of the love poems deal with the tensions between the romantic ideal and the vulgar reality of lust.

“Love Song” is spoken by a rejected lover and addressed to a hedonist whose soul is made “for pleasure, not for use.” She is associated with a cat, as her soul  “rubs its sleek self and utters purr and snore,” and with an infant, still trapped within the realm of the sensual.  There is something diabolical about this child, however, as its eyes are “daubed [with] juice / Of peaches that flush bloody at the core,” and the succession of lovers will conclude with “death.”  This is no Baroque memento mori, but is characterized by the recognition of the absurd throughout – the word “absurd” actually occurs in the first and second-to-last lines of the poem.  “Love Song” is thus an indictment of the attitude toward love as something purely pleasurable, sensual, and fickle (“You taste and smile, then this for the next pass over”); such an attitude is both threatening and patently “absurd.”

In “The Alien” the lovers’ solitude is broken when “another / bent o’er you with lips of flame, / Unknown, without a name, / Hated, and yet my brother.”  The poet’s physical passion for the beloved is personified as “the alien” and “the devil,” and yet comes from within himself, as his “brother.”

The irreconcilability of the ideal and the disappointing real is most dramatically explored in the sonnet sequence “The Defeat of Youth.”  As in “The Alien,” the young man of the poem discovers his love for the girl to be rotten at the core, infected by the specter of lust.  His idealization of the girl is disrupted when she takes the initiative and kisses him.  His disgust at finding this vulgar desire within himself leads to a general loss of innocence and rejection of all idealism.  In sonnet XV the young man calls his rising passion “a hoofed obscenity,” asking in XVI “Was lust the end of what so pure had seemed?”  In his excellent essay on this sonnet sequence Jerome Meckier sees this line as also reflecting disappointment in World War I, “having betrayed the high ideals with which it started.”[3]   Meckier explores the way this defeat of youth is more than the tragedy of a particular youth but of a generation disillusioned by war.  In a typically modern approach Huxley subverts the romantic ideal of love to reveal only frustration and despair.   In terms of content, the poem demonstrates “… the rapid collapse under stress of his protagonist’s romantic philosophy.  Huxley’s young man experiences a breakdown of the past.  He ends as a modern, thoroughly alienated, plagued by self-doubt.  Inevitable disillusionment, given the nature of the world and divisions within the self, becomes the poem’s real theme, not love’s splendor as a verification of man’s aspiring spirit.”[4]

Likewise, the form of the sonnet sequence places “The Defeat of Youth” within a tradition that it will undermine completely.  Unlike the traditional Italian sonnet, where the sestet resolves a problem posed in the octet, Huxley’s modern sonnets here present the opposite trajectory, both in the individual poems and in the sequence as a whole, as they progress from a false sense of security and calm to increasing dissolution.  As Meckier elaborates: “‘The Defeat of Youth’ is both sonnet sequence and a highly original subversion of that traditional form. Paradoxically, only parody, Huxley argues, can still confer vitality when old value systems and the formats sacred to them no longer function; satire prolongs the lives of both temporarily, even as it deals the coup de’grace.  In this way, art continues in spite of itself as the poet makes art at art’s expense.”[5]

Huxley’s use of contrasts throughout the poem – light/dark, interior/exterior spaces, thought/action – emphasizes the lack of unity in the protagonist’s psyche, as well as between his views and those of the girl.  The juxtaposition of disparate images, registers, and views, as well as the mode of satire itself, is typical of Huxley’s writing and will become more pronounced in the novels.   Indeed, the method of looking at a single event from various perspectives – such as the treatment of the plague from the point of view of the elite storytellers and the suffering victims in “The Decameron” – foreshadows the “multiplicity of eyes and of aspects seen” as outlined by the character Philip Quarles in Point Counter Point in 1928.[6]

Another marker of Huxley’s writing is the prominence of metaphors of vision[7]  and blindness.[8]   Already in The Burning Wheel he had dealt with the subject of his poor eyesight in the excellent poem “Mole,” and The Defeat of Youth offers several further examples of the recurring use of this figure, as for example in “The Reef.”  The poem charts a metaphorical progression from the confined space of an aquarium to an open sea or ocean, illustrating the poet’s search for insight and passion.  In his inaction, the first-person narrator complains he has

grown less
Than human, listless, aimless as the green
Idiot fishes of my aquarium,
Who loiter down their dim tunnels and come
And look at me and drift away, nought seen

Or understood, but only glazedly

From that place where “nought [is] seen or understood” he longs for escape, but this is paradoxically both an upward motion and towards depth.  The “fins” of the fish with which the narrator has associated himself become “winged” and images of air and water seem to merge “on roads of music and air,” which lead him to the towering reef of the title:

Yes, I shall seek that reef, which is beyond
All isles however magically sleeping
In tideless seas, uncharted and unconned
Save by blind eyes; beyond the laughter and weeping

That brood like a cloud over the lands of men.
Movement, passion of colour and pure wings,
Curving to cut like knives – these are the things
I search for:

Clearly, different kinds of vision are at work here.  Only the blind can map the reef, while the gulfs he seeks are “too deep for sight.”  The poet, “goggling” like the unseeing fish in the aquarium, can thus hope to find – or perhaps has already imaginatively found – the reef.  There waits a union of color and sound, motion and rhyme, and a passion that is unearthly or inhuman: “passion beyond the ken / Of our foiled violences, and, more swift / Than any blow which man aims against time.”   This union of the arts represents less an escape from life than a triumph.  Despite some hesitation – “and shall I dare to try?” –, the poet here is optimistic, as in “Mole,” that he will overcome circumstances to produce lasting art, in which will, body, and soul form a kind of trinity, crowned by an ideal love – “till now never yet tasted, but ever ceaselessly thirsted for.”

The collection concludes with two translations of French poems, Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1876 poem “L’Après-midi d’un faune”[9]  and Arthur Rimbaud’s (1871) poem “Les Chercheuses de poux,” translated as “The Louse Hunters.”  Though these are the most obvious examples of the influence of French poetry,[10]  echoes of these and other French poets can be detected throughout Huxley’s work.  Within The Defeat of Youth and Other Poems, examples include the line “la langueur goûtée à ce mal d’être deux” from “L’Après-midi d’un faune,” which appears in slightly different form in the poem “A Little Memory”: “we have known the languor of being two.”   The image of the million golden birds and their connection to vigor in Rimbaud’s “Bâteau ivre” recur frequently in Huxley’s poetry and essays, as here the “wheeling galaxies of birds” in “Italy” or the lines from “The Reef”:

[…] and all the air shall be
Full of a million wings that swift and free
Laugh in the sun, all power and strong elation.[11]

More generally, the French Symbolist interest in correspondences between the arts, as expressed by Baudelaire: “Les parfums, les couleurs, et les sons se répondent,”[12]  inform passages such as these connections between color and sound in “Song of Poplars”: “The slow blue rumour of the hill … cry with an anguish of evening gold.”

  1. ↑ Between these two books Aldous Huxley published twelve poems in a small edition of 16 pages called Jonah in 1917, the 50 copies of which were mainly sent as Christmas cards to family and friends that year. Several of the poems from Jonah were reprinted in Selected Poems in 1925. Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography. Volume One: 1894-1939. London 1973, 90.
  2. ↑ Jerome Meckier, “Aldous Huxley, Satiric Sonneteer: ‘The Defeat of Youth.’” Contemporary Literature, Winter 1988 (29:4) 582-605. Here 589.
  3. ↑ Meckier, 597.
  4. ↑ Meckier, 590.
  5. ↑ Meckier, 589.
  6. ↑ As cited in Meckier, 582.
  7. ↑ The focus on visual imagery mentioned above in connection with the nature poetry should also be seen in this context.
  8. ↑ Blindness in “The Defeat of Youth” signifies innocence, “the blissful ignorance of romantic idealism,” Meckier, 600. The meaning of blindness is also complicated by associations of light with truth and darkness with despair: “Imagery of light-darkness concludes in paradox: the youth sees ‘truth’ clearly but it is synonymous with ‘darkness.’ Formerly naïve, sightless, unaware, the youth now perceives that life itself is ‘blind’ to ‘love’ and ‘goodness,’ indifferent to ideals.” ibid 601.
  9. ↑ It is uncertain to what extent Debussy’s tone poem for orchestra Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) might have had in influence on Huxley’s version of the poem, as the overt references to music are traceable to Mallarmé’s original. It is possible, however, that Huxley might also have had Debussy’s interpretation in mind, as he later wrote in praise of the piece, calling it: “so perfect and coherent a work of art” Weekly Westminster Gazette, November 18, 1922. Likewise, the ballet version with choreography by Nijinsky dates to 1912 and Huxley certainly admired the Ballets Russe, so that it is possible that he might have had a performance in mind.
  10. ↑ For a survey of the influence of French literature on Huxley’s oeuvre, see Derek P. Scales, Aldous Huxley and French Literature. Sydney 1969.
  11. ↑ Scales 50-1.
  12. ↑ Cited in Thomas Munro, “‘The Afternoon of a Faun’ and the Interrelation of the Arts,” in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Dec 1951 (10:2) 95-111. Here, 96. “The symbolists spoke of music as ‘colored hearing,’ and as ‘orchestrated verse.” Ibid.