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Wheels: An Introduction
by Cotsell, Michael


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I. INTRODUCTION

Wheels as Seen by Critics

Wheels: An Anthology of Verse came out annually between 1916 and 1921, a total of six “cycles” as they were called. It was published by Blackwell's of Oxford (until 1919) and edited by Edith Sitwell. The meaning of the title, which is obscure, is discussed in the notes to the First Cycle (below).

Wheels is what it says it is, an anthology of verse. It carried no fiction or prose of any kind. Thus there were no essays on the tendencies of literature or the arts, no manifestos or the like. However, when the First Cycle was reprinted in 1917, Sitwell included extracts from reviews, both favorable and unfavorable. It is clear from the inclusion of these reviews that Wheels was intended to attract attention in the popular press as well as magazines. In later volumes Sitwell provoked further controversy by including retorts to the more hostile comments, “jovial and insulting annotations” which “lambasted uncomplimentary reviewers” as Frank Swinnerton puts it (263).

The first Wheels prompted these comments in the Morning Post:

Some of the poetical new births are certain to arouse the wrath of the mechanic, Victorian critics who have not learnt that poetry is not a sort of block cosmos but a living, growing creature. For example, “Wheels,” which is an anthology of verse by a group of poets with a common confidence in the illuminated word and a common contempt for the look-see of the complacent academic, has aroused a little storm of obloquy. “Precious,” “macabre,” “Baudelairian” are some of the epithets hurled at them, for there is nothing which irritates the hack-critic so much as the appearance of a new “school” of poetry engaged in quietly working out its own conception of the art. In the work presented there is much achievement and more promise, and we have no doubt whatever that, fifty years hence, the publication of Wheels will be remembered as a notable event in the inner history of English literature. (Wheels 1: 90) [1]

From the beginning, then, Wheels was seen as a challenge to the establishment, and, in particular, to Georgian poetry:

It mocked explicitly or implicitly the standards of poetic decorum and middle-class romanticism associated with Marsh and his Georgians; it undermined the dignified postures of academic men of letters; its tone was anti-militaristic, sophisticated and cynical. Not surprisingly, it evoked abusive hostility and delighted applause.

writes John Press in A Map of Modern English Verse (156).

Robert H. Ross, in his The Georgian Revolt, 1910-1922, sees Wheels as anticipating the post-World War I mood:

The first sally against Georgianism from the Leftist camp was mounted by the anthology Wheels. In its beginnings it was not, in fact, a postwar publication, but though three of its numbers appeared in wartime, it was the first harbinger of the postwar spirit. Six annual numbers of Wheels were published, the first in late 1916, the last in 1922. Featuring the contributions of such young poets as Osbert and Edith Sitwell, Aldous Huxley, Herbert Read [2], Nancy Cunard, Arnold James and Iris Tree, Wheels was self-consciously avant-garde. Like BLAST and several other prewar little magazines, a part of the aim was surely épater le bourgeoisie; and to do it moreover, with as much insolence as possible.
But in tone Wheels belonged unmistakably to the postwar world: it was brilliant on the surface, but underneath there lurked a dominant mood of bitterness, cynicism, and flippance. The Wheels coterie threw over poetic convention with a fine and studied insolence. (171)

John Gross, in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, agrees:

The end of the First World War saw a new crop of little magazines, flauntingly experimental and aggressively anti-traditionalist. By the time of the Armistices, literary hostilities had already broken out with the appearance of the Sitwells' yearbook Wheels (1916-20) and Frank Rutter and Herbert Read's periodical Art and Letters (1917-20). (239)

Contemporary reviews saw the early volumes of Wheels as the product of the broad effects of the war: “'Wheels' must be read by all who are studying the way English literature is 'reacting' to the historic storm without” observed The Morning Post (1: 91), and The Lancet reviewer thoughtfully connected Wheels with the wave of war poetry:

The camps and the trenches during the past two years have produced many copies of verses having claim to notice as beautiful poetry, and Wheels, though little of its contents may have been written in the circumstances of war, has an origin similar to that of the rapidly increasing war anthology. (1: 92-93)

The First Cycle of Wheels appeared only a few months after the Battle of the Somme. Paul Fussell writes that “the innocent army fully attained the knowledge of good and evil on July 1, 1916,” the day 60,000 soldiers were killed or wounded (29). Osbert Sitwell called Edward Wyndham Tennant, who was killed on September 22 and whose poetry appears posthumously in the First Cycle of Wheels, “my most intimate friend” (Holt 87). Sacheverell Sitwell's friend Yvo Charteris was killed on October 17, 1915. The year 1917 would see the still more gory Passchendaele. Though it may have anticipated the post-war mood, Wheels was born out of the darkest years of the War, when the absurdity of civilian complacency and the irony of the contrasting conditions of the men at the front and civilians at home were cruelly obvious.

Anti-Georgianism has to be seen in this context. As Fussell remarks, today that pre-Modernist “literary scene is hard to imagine. There was no Waste Land, with its rats' alleys, dull canals, and dead men who have lost their bones: it would take four years of trench warfare to bring these to consciousness” (23). Patricia Clements however observes that the Baudelairean “corpse, planted in the English garden in the 1860s, sprouts vigorously in some of the war poems in Wheels” (245). Though David Daiches made a different estimate (“For the most part, Wheels presents the Waste Land in cap and bells,” 87), contributors to Wheels can be seen reaching towards a poetics for the War. Both Osbert and Edith Sitwell, to take leading examples from among Wheels contributors, attempt a poetry that breaks with the tranquil face of the English countryside and English life, instead opening up to garish violences, dark horrors and grotesque ironies. Similarly both Nancy Cunard and Iris Tree attempt to suggest the emotional void or anxiety behind normalcy. Wilfred Owen's poems, a selection of which appeared in the Fourth Cycle, were not out of place in Wheels.

The reviewers cited by Edith Sitwell, whatever their judgments, made two orders of observation about Wheels. First was that its overall tone was not happy or optimistic but rather uniformly cynical, dark, even apocalyptic. Wheels attracted epithets such as “gloomy” and “sombre” (3: 100). The New Age reviewer wrote of a poetry of the “nerves” (3: 100). The Times Literary Supplement commented on Osbert Sitwell's “darkling images” and Nancy Cunard's “dark and boding phantoms”; Wheels was “on the whole, dour and morose; they see nothing bright in the present, and no bright hopes in the future” (1: 89). The collection exhibited “a dolorous morbid hopelessness” and employed, according to The Weekly Despatch, “a good deal of dark and sinister language” (94). The Oxford Chronicle complained, “This verse does not dance with joy, but shivers with fear, creaks with menace, droops with despair” (91). In the context of these remarks, it is interesting to note that Daiches, in Poetry and the Modern World (1940), uses the word “hysteria” to characterize Wheels, as in the comment “Beneath it all lay a subdued hysteria” (86).

Second, partly in reaction to this perceived somber tone, reviewers remarked that Wheels nevertheless spoke with the voice of youth: “It is the work for the most part of very young people, and it is quite unbearably old” (The Oxford Chronicle); “these young poets” (The Lancet); “very young and cultured amateurs” (The Weekly Despatch); “most of them show their youth by taking a most sad and dismal view of this dim spot which men call earth” (Country Life) (1: 91, 91, 94, 96).

Beyond the reference to Baudelaire in the Morning Post, none of the reviews included by Edith in the second printing of the First Cycle cites either the age of Wilde and The Yellow Book or the “decadent” French school of poets from Baudelaire to Rimbaud and Laforgue as sources or influences. (Osbert Sitwell believed that to the English “Mammon of Righteousness” the France of the nineteenth century did not suggest the work of Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Laforgue, and so on, but “the Paris of the Commune,” Who Killed Cock Robin? 17n.) Reviewing the Second Cycle in The Egoist, however, T. S. Eliot wrote, “The authors are certainly conscious of the fact that literature exists in other languages than their own. . . . they have extracted the juice from Verlaine and Laforgue” (“Verse Pleasant and Unpleasant” 44). Eliot then compared Wheels to Georgian Poetry, 1916-17, remarking that “Wheels is a more serious book.” A reviewer in The Globe likened the Second Cycle of Wheels to The Yellow Book (3: 100), and these influences were again noticed by Eliot in a review in The Athenaeum though with less approval:

The new fashion was not in all respects so very new, but the most unexpected, and therefore the newest mode is to take the last but one and remake it. So the daffodil and the rainbow and the cuckoo were to be put away, and the Harlequinades of the harlotry players and the Columbines of Verlaine and Symons to be had out again. (qtd. in Press 161)

Two years later, in his essay “The Lesson of Baudelaire,” Eliot was a good deal more tart in this respect: “the poets who consider themselves most opposed to Georgianism, and who know a little French, are mostly such as could imagine the Last Judgment only as a lavish display of Bengal lights, Roman candles, catherine-wheels, and inflammable fire-balloons. Vous, hypocrite lecteur. . . . ” (The Tyro 1: 4).

Wheels does not seem today as important as it seemed to some reviewers in 1916, if only because on the whole the quality of the poetry it contains is not generally high. Beyond promoting the Sitwells, the greatest success of Wheels was the publication of a selection of Owen's poems. Otherwise Wheels attracted no important work. Eliot, who was personally on good terms with the Sitwells (despite employing the term “Shitwell” in a letter to Pound), was concerned that Louis Untermeyer planned to review his poetry alongside Osbert's, since “any poems of his which appear to have any affinity with any of mine were published subsequent to mine” (Letters, 31 October 1917: 206, 26 March 1920: 378). “Would I think of contributing to Wheels? And so give the S[itwells] a lift and the right to sneer at me?” (Letters 16 April 1921: 446). Yet Eliot and John Middleton Murry both thought Wheels significant enough to review various cycles and to take seriously its attack on Georgianism. Wheels was a significant phenomenon in its day, contributing to the poetic attack on the war, to the milieu of the little magazines and their relationship with the press as a whole, and to emerging formulations of literary Modernism.

The Origin of Wheels

The birthplace of Wheels may be said to be the Eiffel Tower, a fashionable restaurant located on the border of Bloomsbury and Soho, which was, according to John Pearson, the Sitwells's biographer, “a unique place in the cultural archeology of the twentieth century” (99). Though the food was expensive and not especially good, the Eiffel Tower became an artistic center, a home of “High Bohemia” (Bradford 72) after it was “discovered” by Augustus John. A room upstairs called the Vorticist Room bore a mural by Wyndham Lewis, and there was also a Vorticist Anteroom decorated by William Roberts. “One could still find absinthe there and, if one wanted—like Arthur Symons, still in his 1890s dress, his long Inverness cape and wide-brimmed high black felt hat—recapture the decadence of Paris in the 1890s” (Gordon 28). Pearson observes that

in 1915 the Eiffel Tower had just been discovered by a number of the more intelligent and adventurous “artistic” children of the rich whom Osbert had already met in the parents' houses during his socialite-Guardee period. . . . The world of the grand artistic drawing-rooms . . . was hit by the war, and the Eiffel Tower was offering a foretaste of the freer, racier café society which would largely take its place as the common ground between society and art when the war was over. (100)

The Eiffel Tower was also frequented by Nancy Cunard and rebellious Iris Tree, fashionable and daring young women who were leading members of a “Corrupt Coterie” of artists and writers which included Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell, Alvaro “Chile” Guevara, Robert Nichols, Evan Morgan, Edward “Bimbo” Wyndham Tennant, and Tommy Earp (Gordon 28-29). Described by Cunard as “our carnal-spiritual home,” the Eiffel Tower “became a centre for the flusher members of [the] so-called 'Higher Bohemia'” (Cunard, Sublunary 93-95, qtd. in Pearson 100; Pearson 99).

Pearson writes that “the idea” of Wheels “almost certainly originated from the energetic Nancy Cunard” (106). Yet it was Edith Sitwell who became the editor and who made the arrangements for publication with Blackwell's. As well, a number of the early contributors to Wheels were Sitwell connections: Helen Rootham, Edith's former governess and present flat-mate, and, from Osbert's circle, Arnold James and Victor Perowne, “a literary young man” whom Osbert had met at Eton (Pearson 106).

II. THE SITWELLS

Wheels was the gaudy vessel in which the Sitwells launched themselves on their long disputatious voyage” writes John Press (157). Whatever Cunard's early role, Wheels immediately became a vehicle for the Sitwell siblings who together provide something like two fifths of the total contributions. As John Pearson writes, “with total single-mindedness—and total loyalty to one another” the Sitwells “created what was almost an artistic movement of their own” (16). The characteristics of Wheels, therefore, are not fully apparent unless they are seen in the context of the Sitwells's efforts to promote their work and influence. In turn, their campaign was part of the larger literary scene of the time.

As Osbert put it, there existed “to the highest degree a sense of mutual confidence and interdependence among my brother, my sister and myself. . . . We formed a closed corporation” (qtd. in Pearson 55). Pearson writes that “the war became a time of furious activity for all three Sitwells as they pursued the serious business of establishing their name and their credentials. Indeed, Osbert writes of the 'fury' with which he 'applied myself to life'” (111).

This may be seen as mere ambition and certainly the Sitwells were ambitious; as F. R. Leavis remarks, “the Sitwells belong to the history of publicity rather than poetry” (73) and this view persists, for instance in Aaaron Jaffe's recent study, Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity (2005). Yet the Sitwells stood for a certain kind of poetry as well as a certain attitude. Wheels would not have had the same impact if this were not true.

The Sitwell Family

With the Sitwells it seems to be impossible to escape the subject of the family. This is partly because they all, in later years, provided so much in the way of autobiographical writing and had so much to say about each other. As well, they have attracted a substantial amount of biography, to which this introduction is indebted, particularly John Pearson's Facades: Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell.

The Sitwell family had been wealthy landowners and ironmasters for centuries. Their father, Sir George Reresby Sitwell (1860-1943), was the fourth baronet. A sometime MP, he was an antiquarian and, after 1909, owner of the vast Castello di Montegufoni near Florence. In 1886 he married Lady Ida Denison, daughter of the first Earl of Londesborough. Lady Ida claimed descent from the Plantagenets. The children were brought up in Renishaw Hall, the family's country house in Derbyshire. Their social position did the Sitwells no harm in their pursuit of artistic recognition.

Yet the children were not happy. Osbert saw a “terrible duality” in their family life: “the apparently prosperous, traditional life stretched over and disguising the frenetic disputes, the rages and cold hardness” (Great Morning! 167). Sir George was eccentric, at times dominating, at times hypochondriac. Lady Ida was unhappy and frequently in debt. Edith would later write:

My mother was a young woman of great beauty. . . . In later years, after she had fallen among thieves, her appearance still retained vestiges of that summer beauty, but as though a black veil had been thrown over it. . . . “I live from day to day,” she would reply in answer to enquiries as to her mode of life. She might have added, “and for small distractions of the hour.” Her rages were the only reality in her life. (Taken Care Of 20-21, qtd. in Salter and Harper 41-42)

Edith's phrase “fallen among thieves” was exact. In 1913 Sir George refused to pay off Ida's many debts, which led to her being jailed for three months in Holloway Prison for her part in a money-lending ring, a public scandal that made the front pages of the newspapers. The incident appears to have thrown the siblings even closer together and fueled their desire to make names for themselves; according to Sacheverell, the effect of the scandal “was to tie the three of us together, two brothers and a sister, in our determination to live and leave a mark of some sort or kind” (Pearson 97). Closing ranks, the children set out to reclaim the Sitwell name from their parents.

Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) appears to have felt neglected and outraged by her upbringing to a greater degree than her brothers. Osbert writes, “her personality was too strong, her mind too imaginative, her heart too easily touched, to make her a comfortable companion for the conventional. Besides, my mother saw in her a living embodiment of some unhappiness of her own” (Scarlet Tree, qtd. in Salter and Harper 42). Edith's relationship with her parents was stormy at best, not least because her father made her undertake a “cure” for a spinal deformation which involved locking her into an iron frame. A similar device was applied to her nose: "Alas, my sister's nose was still not of the shape for which my father had bargained, so the reign of iron and manacles began."

Edith early took refuge in poetry (her later poems have a kind of disturbed, sophisticated nursery rhyme effect). By adolescence poetry had become for her a “secret cause” (Pearson 53). Sacheverell writes that “my earliest memories evoke the figure of a young girl, thirteen or fourteen years old, tall and thin, and already copying out reams of poetry into her notebooks” (Lehmann 45). She discovered Pope and memorized The Rape of the Lock, visited Swinburne's grave, made a pilgrimage to Yeats's house, and developed an enthusiasm for Wilde.

An important moment in Edith's childhood which has considerable relevance to Wheels was the arrival of Helen Rootham in 1903 as her governess. Rootham was herself to become a contributor to Wheels:

Helen Rootham was far better educated than was expected of an ordinary Edwardian governess. She was intensely musical: her uncle, Dr Rootham, had taught her music at Cambridge, and Osbert said that she was “perhaps the finest woman pianist it has ever been my good fortune to hear.” She had lived for several years in France, where she became a passionate admirer of Verlaine and Baudelaire, and that most enthralling of poetic prodigies, Rimbaud. She had already started to translate his poems (her translation of Les Illuminations, published with Edith's help, would finally be set to music by Benjamin Britten) and inevitably introduced Edith to the world of French symbolist poetry. (Pearson 54-55)

Osbert later said Rootham “was the first person we had ever met who had an artist's respect for the arts, that particular way of regarding them as all-important—much more important than wars or cataclysms, or even the joys of humanity” (Scarlet Tree 145-46). He also remarked on the transformation in Edith:

In six months, I found my sister a changed person . . . I noticed an alteration in her way of looking at things, for her absence from home—and as a result, the discontinuance of the perpetual nagging to which for years she had been obliged to submit—had lifted the whole range of her spirits. . . . In the peace she now obtained for the first time, no longer fearing every moment she would be found fault with, able to attend concerts and go to galleries with her governess, and come back home without having to face scenes, all her interests had blossomed in the short interval that had elapsed, and music and poetry burned in her blood like fire. (Scarlet Tree, qtd. in Salter and Harper 72-73)

Sachie, in yet another memoir, pictures Edith reading Swinburne or William Morris:

But, as well, the Fleurs du Mal darken this paradise, as though with lines of rain. It is poetry of the blood's decline. And her own images begin to form. Metaphors of a bony personality, of hard dry brilliance, nothing soft nor milky, of dogskin leaves and furry buds, of landscapes and persons that have never been before. (qtd. in Salter and Harper 64)

In Bright Morning Constance Sitwell, a cousin, remembered Edith “reading D'Annunzio to us” (qtd. in Salter and Harper 63).

In the spring of 1913, thanks to the enterprising literary editor, Richard Jennings, Edith's first published poem, “Drowned Suns,” appeared in the Daily Mirror. In the summer of that year she and Rootham moved into a flat in Pembridge Mansions, Bayswater. It was a meagre way of life—“they had little money . . . and sustained themselves on soup and beans and buns”—but they had independence and London (Pearson 69-70). More poems appeared in the Daily Mirror, five in 1913, two in 1914, four in 1915. Edith's small collection The Mother was published at her own expense by Blackwell's in October 1915. In June of the following year Twentieth-Century Harlequinade, twenty-eight pages of poems by Edith and Osbert, was also published at their expense by Blackwell's. Blackwell's then published Edith's Clown's Houses in 1918, by which time Wheels was under way.

Allanah Harper describes a visit to Pembridge Mansions:

Climbing flight after flight of bare stone stairs, I waited at the door, before having the courage to knock. Edith Sitwell opened the door herself, teapot in hand.
“How splendid,” she said, “we meet at last. I am making tea.”
So she made tea herself in a brown kitchen pot. Indian tea, too. I had expected a Queen Anne tea service with a Chinese design. I did not know that Edith Sitwell, having escaped to London from the tyranny of her parents, was very poor . . .
There was a noise of cross voices on the stairs. “That must be Tom,” Edith said. In walked T. S. Eliot and his first wife. I remembered his lines “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” He looked like a curate who would later become a Bishop . . .
I listened, with awe, to the two most creative of contemporary poets discussing the evolution of poetry, rooted as it is in the great tradition, yet an essentially living and developing organism . . .
They spoke of the loosening of tradition in order to admit new dimensions and deeper questioning . . . They spoke of the fruitful unrest which is life itself and from which all creative art is born.
(Salter and Harper 97)

Osbert Sitwell (1892-1969) was five years younger than Edith.

I was fortunate in being [my mother's] favourite child, and in thus obtaining much of the love of which my sister was deprived. And though I saw the sufferings of this young creature, it was difficult for me to realise the extent of them; for I was privileged to the degree that she was penalised. (Scarlet Tree, qtd. in Salter and Harper 42)

Osbert was an unhappy schoolboy: "My heart did not beat with the heart of the herd"; "I liked Eton except in the following respects: for work and games, for boys and masters" (Ziegler 19, 25). He defined the "omnipresent enemy" as "the Golden Horde" (Pearson 52). He loved travel and early fell in love with Italy. Once Osbert had completed his schooling, Sir George placed him in a cavalry regiment (Osbert disliked horses) where he was miserable. He experienced a kind of breakdown, went to Italy, begged his father for release, and was transferred to the Brigade of Guards which led to a life of leisure and the freedom of London's drawing rooms. In 1916, his anti-war poem “Babel” was placed in the Times, again thanks to Richard Jennings. Though Edith edited Wheels, it was Osbert whose work set the tone of the journal and who led the general Sitwell campaign.

Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1988) had an easier time at home and was more popular at school. He developed an early interest in painting from his father and in opera and ballet from Osbert. Edith read poems aloud to Sachie when he was nine or ten; he was the “perfect pupil and disciple for her poetry” (Pearson 55). He later remarked, “In those days Edith would have made anyone a poet,” adding “perhaps in my case I was as much a pupil of my sister as any poet ever has been of another” (55, 99). After remarking on Edith's enthusiasm for the French decadents, he describes their effect on himself:

And then, Ah! then, my world begins to grow. This wood leads on into infinity. I wander in the orange grove and feel the red-gold globes. I hear a barrel organ, and know they dance to it. Then, Actæon, stag antlered, comes out through the trees; we hear the horn of Orion: Krishna dances with the milkmaids: Midas and his men pick cherries, standing on long ladders: Cupid and Campaspe play their game of cards for kisses. Fantasies of the hot South come like tunes from the mind that made them. For, now, it is another world. And we must have the whole earth before it sinks, or burns. (qtd. in Salter and Harper 64)

“At sixteen he was excited by the work of Sickert, of Augustus John, of Epstein and of Wyndham Lewis” and started a correspondence with Marinetti, whose “violent manifesto 'Art and Literature'” he read with enthusiasm (Pearson 74). Once in London he was much under the influence of Osbert. Sacheverell was only nineteen when Wheels first appeared.

“Then came the Russian ballet . . .”

London's artistic world was now open to the young Sitwells. For them, and particularly for Osbert, the single most defining influence of this time was Diaghilev's Russian Ballet. Osbert first encountered the company in 1912-1914, and the Sitwells again experienced its magic in 1918.

In 1912, Osbert saw the Diaghilev company's performance of Stravinsky's Firebird. The effect was to produce in him a powerful identification with art and the life of the artist. “'Now I knew where I stood,' he wrote, 'I would be, for as long as I lived, on the side of the arts'” (Great Morning! 141, qtd. in Pearson 81). The artist appeared to him like a “priest, prophet and law-giver, as well as interpreter: the being who enabled men to see and feel and pointed out to them the way” (Laughter 118, qtd. in Pearson 80). Sacheverell, coming down from Eton, was introduced by Osbert to the Ballet Russes and to Diaghilev himself. In 1918, after spending most of the war in Spain, Diaghilev returned to London, dining with the Sitwells on Armistice night. Pearson writes, “Now with Massine and Lydia Lopokova as principal dancers, and with completely new productions like Le Tricorne, La Boutique Fantasque, and Cocteau's Parade, the great impresario had once again become the midwife to the rebirth of his ballet as it achieved what Osbert called its 'second Golden Age'” (Laughter 14; qtd. in Pearson 123).

In Taken Care Of, Edith writes: “speaking of my earliest poems, it was suggested by some critics that I was greatly influenced by Diaghileff's Russian Ballet. This was not so though all artists, in all mediums, were, of course, influenced by it to a certain degree. . . . I was influenced, rather, by the outer surroundings of my childhood” (44). Yet her poetry reminded Yeats of “the Russian Ballet and Aubrey Beardsley's final phase” (Oxford Book of Modern Verse xviii-xix). Edith was deeply moved by the Ballet Russes, as a passage from her preface to Children's Tales from the Russian Ballet (1920) indicates. The Russian Ballet served to define for her some of what she disliked and satirized about England and evoked the joyous and tragic poetry of Rimbaud and Laforgue:

Before the arrival of the first company of the Russian ballet in England, the average person had never dreamt that the movement could convey a philosophy of life as complete and rounded as any world could be. We had been galvanised by the vitality of the music-hall stage, but this is often a mechanical life, animating a slightly masked world; or rather, let us say, it is not so much life itself as a distorting mirror of life, in which we see our faces and our natures broadened into a grin—sometimes merely sardonic, sometimes tragic. . . .
Then came the Russian ballet, and with it, our clearer philosophy. These movements, and the bright shrilling of the colour which is part of their speech, are an interpretation, not of mood alone, but often of life itself. Seen with the clearness of a dream, these bright magical movements have, now the intense vitality of the heart of life, now the rigidity of death; and for speech they have the more universal and larger language of music, interpreting still more clearly these strange beings whose life is so intense, yet to whom living, seen from the outside, is but a brief and tragic happiness upon the greenest grass, in some unknown flashing summer weather. “Dames qui tournaient sur les terasses voisines de la mer, enefantes et géantes, superbes, noires dans la mousse vert-de-gris, bijoux debout sur le sol gras des bosquets et des jardinets dégéles, jeune mères et soeurs aux regards pleins de pèlerinages, sultanes, princesses de démarche et des costumes tyranniques, petites étrangères et personnes doucement malheureuses,” all these pass before our eyes, sometimes building sandcastles upon the shores of eternity, sometimes chasing the music like butterflies in the ephemeral life of the stage. For indeed, their tragedies seem but the tragedy of two painted butterflies who, intent upon their play, have floated all unawares into the courts of Hell. Strange eyes may stare at them, 'simian faces, green flowers streaked with encre de chine' look askance at them chattering in an unknown tongue; they may float through jeweled green gardens for ever—but they scarcely care, and we care not at all. Life is so ephemeral. Their tragedies pierce us, yet leave no scar, for we understand them only as children understand; we are protected by our own individuality—so unalterably different from theirs; and all the while we are as remote from the world in which these alien beings move as are the children dressed in mourning of whom Arthur Rimbaud writes in his prose poem, “Après le Deluge”; like these, “from our great glass house we look at the marvelous pictures.” So we sit, in the loneliness of identity, watching the movements growing and ripening like fruit, or curling with the fantastic inevitability of waves seen by a Chinese painter; and thought is never absent from these ballets. In Petrouchka we see mirrored for us, in those clear sharp outlines and movements, all the philosophy of Laforgue, as the puppets move somnambulently through the dark of our hearts. For this ballet, alone among them all, shatters our glass house about our ears and leaves us terrified, haunted by its tragedy. The music, harsh, crackling rags of laughter, shrieks at us like some brightly-painted Punch and Judy show, upon grass as shrill as anger, as dulled as hate. Sometimes it jangles thin as the wires on which those half-human puppets move; or a little hurdy-gurdy valse sounds hollow, with the emptiness of the hearts of passing people, “vivant de can-cans de clochers, disant: 'Quel temps fera-t-il demain,' ' Voici l'hiver qui vient,' 'Nous n'avons pas eu des prunes cette année.'” (117-19)

The England of Music Hall, with its distorted humor, hidden violence and general tawdriness, is contrasted with a world of high imagination, “the clearness of a dream,” the vivid denizens of which enact ephemeral lives of beauty and sorrow. Petrouchka creates a world of harsh ironies haunted by tragedy, “our own tragedy,” “our own poor wisp of a soul,” while Parade creates “the world [as] a pitiful catchpenny.” In these contrasting visions, much of the ambition and range of the Sitwells's lyric poetry is suggested.

The Sitwells and the War

“For Osbert and Edith and Sacheverell the Great War would always be the Great Catastrophe, lying 'across the years like a wound that never heals'; and in many ways their lives and work would always stand as an affirmation against the horror and the deprivation of the war” (Pearson 88). In 1935, in an article titled “It Is Fear that Breeds War,” Edith declared:

Nothing will ever make me believe that war is either a good thing, or a wise thing, or that there can be any possible justification for sending out some millions of men for the avowed purpose of killing each other.
The hypocritical talk about the “virtues” which are produced by war, sickens me. (Sunday Referee, 7 April 1935, qtd. in Salter and Harper 80)

Philip Ziegler summarizes Osbert Sitwell's war:

Second Lieutenant Sitwell joined the 1st Battalion of the Grenadier Guards in the trenches near Fleurbaix in December 1914, three days after a brigade attack in which the battalion had suffered severely. . . . On 3 March the battalion was relieved and Osbert shortly afterwards sent on leave to London. He thus missed the battle of Neuve Chapelle, in which four out of the eleven Second Lieutenants were killed. He rejoined the 2nd Battalion, Grenadier Guards, . . . in the summer of 1915 and took part in the battle of Loos. There were 45,000 British casualties and at the end of the day nearly all the German territory taken in the first push had been recaptured. . . . Osbert's battalion had been in reserve during the battle, but they occupied the German front line a few days later and were attacked fiercely. (55)

Osbert subsequently suffered an “accidental cut which was to end his fighting life” (56). As Ziegler remarks, “Osbert's fighting war was not particularly dramatic.”

Osbert wrote his poem “Babel” outside Ypres. Richard Jennings saw that it was published in The Times. The poem was reprinted in the first volume of Wheels under the title “Therefore Is the Name of It Called Babel.” Yet, in contrast to the war poems of Blunden, Graves, Sassoon, and Owen, there is little appearance of war as “a first-hand vision of . . . holocaust” in his poetry (Pearson 103-04).

Nevertheless, “by the middle of 1916 Osbert [was] consumed by the bitter resentment at the waste and futility of war which suffused most of his early poetry. When a young man was shot dead a foot or so away from where he was standing he felt, not fear, but 'sick with sorrow, with a sense of pathos'” (Ziegler 57). Satire was to become his main weapon. Osbert, under the influence of Siegfried Sassoon, whom he had gotten to know, published anti-war poetry in the Spectator and the Nation as well as in Wheels. A series of satirical poems attacking Winston Churchill for advocating the war against the Bolsheviks, two of which appeared in the Daily Herald, were brought out together in The Winstonburg Line.

Osbert's mood and his desire to make prominent poetic statements at the end of the war are indicated by two satires he wrote to mark the Armistice:

“How Shall We Rise to Greet the Dawn?”

How shall we rise to greet the dawn,
Not timidly,
With a hand before our eyes?
. . .
We must create and fashion a new God—
A God of power, of beauty, and of strength—
Created painfully, cruelly,
Labouring from the revulsion of men's minds.
. . .
Let us prune the tree of language
Of its dead fruit.
Let us melt up the clichés
Into molten metal;
Fashion weapons that will scald and flay. . . . (Collected Satires 36-38)

“The Next War”

The long war had ended.
Its miseries had grown faded.
Deaf men became difficult to talk to,
Heroes became bores.
Those alchemists,
Who had converted blood into gold,
Had grown elderly.
But they held a meeting,
Saying,
"We think perhaps we ought
To put up tombs
Or erect altars
To those brave lads
Who were so willingly burnt,
Or blinded,
Or maimed,
Who lost all likeness to a living thing,
Or were blown to bleeding patches of flesh
For our sakes.
It would look well.
Or we might even educate the children."
But the richest of these wizards
Coughed gently;
And he said,
"I have always been to the front
—In private enterprise—
I yield in public spirit
To no man.
I think yours is a very good idea
—A capital idea—
And not too costly. . . .
But it seems to me
That the cause for which we fought
Is again endangered.
What more fitting memorial for the fallen
Than that their children's
Should fall for the same cause?" . . .
* * * *
And the children
Went. . . . (Collected Satires 34-35)

Frank Swinnerton sees the Sitwells playing a major part in the post-war attack on English society:

it was they [the Sitwells] who first revived a quasi-Augustan temper after the First World War, and first made scathingly merry with those over whom Siegfried Sassoon loosed his indignation. It was Osbert Sitwell who called his poem “War-Horses,” and thus attacked aged fashionables who had been a little subdued in the War years:
How they come out
—These Septuagenarian Butterflies—
After resting
For four years!
(264)

Daiches, however, calls Osbert's work “a type of satire where the emotion comes first and then seeks a victim on which to vent it” (88).

As the selections from the individual cycles below demonstrate, the anti-war ethos was shared by a number of the Wheels poets. Iris Tree, for instance, “was to produce some of her most haunting works during, and shortly after, the war,” as Deborah Tyler-Bennet has observed in an essay that remarks on the relative lack of attention to female war poets, and Edith Sitwell's poems of this time are “saturated with war imagery, containing as they do repeated references to dead youth, stifled parental grief and the image . . . of blinds being drawn” (73, 68).

The “Enemy” at Home and the Campaign

The war was only part of what the Sitwells disliked. They had always had enemies: “even among children of their own kind they felt isolated and ill at ease” Ziegler remarks, adding that “the Sitwell children existed in a remote half-world of their own” (9).

Edith called Wheels “the Ultimatum” (Bradford 77). The Sitwell animus certainly included Georgian poetry of an inferior kind (they did not attack major poets like W. H. Davies, Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves or Walter de la Mare who featured in Marsh's collections), especially those who had prettified the war. Osbert labeled some of his contemporaries “Mammon Poets” (Pearson 151) and made fun of “Simple Simon” poetry, “simplicity,” the “simple and sincere” (Cock Robin 23). In this criticism he had the support of T. S. Eliot in The Athenaeum: “Great simplicity is only won by an intense moment or by years of intelligent effort, or by both. . . . Simplicity was not hard won by the Georgians, it was given them by the fairy” (“Post-Georgians” 171; qtd. in Press 161). In 1925 in her Poetry and Criticism Edith argued that the modernists, including the Sitwells, were “leaving the tradition that leads from Wordsworth” which had gone too far in the direction of “ordinary speech” and “the actions of common life” (Glendinning 48).

The Sitwell animus went beyond Georgian poetry and the war. The Sitwells aimed at something more general and imprecise: the stupidity of Edwardianism, “Edwardian absurdities,” “the Golden Horde” (Osbert's phrase), the “Philistine,” “the herd-instinct,” even family grievances (Pearson 104). At the war's end, Osbert writes, “I acknowledged no claim but that of the artist”: “the rest, the Golden Horde, now stiff-jointed, and unable to hunt more than four days a week, the Fun Brigade, its laughter stifled or wheezy, the Bevy, all of these I endeavoured to shun” (Three Lions 37). Wheels was also routinely hostile to the aged, who are depicted as sacrificing or oppressing the young, and to religion, or at least Christianity as it was practiced in England. Christ bled on the Somme while the pious at home complacently worshiped.

The Sitwlls were masters of what Jaffe has called the “promotional networking” of Modernism (137f). In support of their literary efforts, they cultivated connections with the older generation, including Oscar Wilde's champion Robert Ross, Edmund Gosse, and Arnold Bennett whom Osbert quotes as saying, “The trouble with Osbert is that he has seven professions not one, and a life devoted to each!” (Three Lions 28). Though never close to Bloomsbury, they were on friendly and respectful terms with T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, and other of the genuine avant-garde. Edith assiduously cultivated promising or successful poets for Wheels, including Aldous Huxley, Robert Nichols, and lesser talents.

Frank Swinnerton points to the less edifying aspects of their self-promotion:

They indulged in japes, such as their successive entries in "Who's Who," advertisements in the Personal columns of The Times and so on. . . . They were more in the fashionable world than any other writers. . . . The talent was theirs. It must be acknowledged. It must be acclaimed. Those who did not acclaim it were traitors, who must die the death. (263)

However, the Sitwells were also significant patrons of the arts, organizing a successful exhibition of contemporary French Art in London in 1919. Edith had begun to become a subject for painters: there are portraits by Roger Fry (1918) and Alvaro Guevara (c. 1919) in the period, the latter titled “The Editress of Wheels.”

Their chief literary opponent was John Collings Squire (1884-1958), a genial writer who had translated Baudelaire as a young man but, as Richard Aldington remarked, had then discovered that “Britishism and moral disapprobation of 'the Gallic' went better with the multitude” (qtd. in Pearson 146). Squire became the leader of the enemies of the avant-garde and was as disliked by Bloomsbury—he thought The Waste Land should never have been published—as by the Sitwells. He had built up “a network of contacts which gave them a considerable say in the review pages of at least half a dozen papers, including the Observer and the New Statesman” (Gross 239). Inevitably he and his fellows, who included W. J. Turner and Edward Shanks, became known as the “Squirearchy.”

Squire founded The London Mercury in 1919, a journal John Middleton Murry regarded as a rival to The Athenaeum, and from there attacked the fourth Wheels. Edith was dismissed in this fashion: “Miss Edith Sitwell's verses, though incomprehensible, contain a good deal of vivid detail, pleasant because it reminds us of bright pictures” (qtd. in Pearson 147). The best that could be said for Owen was that “Strange Meeting” had a “powerful, sombre beginning.” An attack by Louis McQuilland, describing Wheels as “The Asylum School of Poets,” followed in Lord Beaverbrook's Daily Express. Osbert summarized the gist of it:

“The Asylum School of Poetry” (which is as yet in its kindergarten stage) screams to the public that it is the heir of all ages. . . . The amazing thing is that quite a number of Londoners do read the absurdities of―, the chittering lyrics of―, the clever gibberish of—, the clotted nonsense of―, whose work has scant rhyme and no reason. It may be that these 'poets' are playing off an elaborate joke on a benighted public. But that, I fear, is too charitable an assumption. . . . The effects of the Asylum School are obtained by the most violent means. (Cock Robin 27)

Osbert calmly replied in the Daily Express, managing to include long selections from Edith's and Sacheverell's poetry in his article. He also shrewdly argued that the Squirearchy controlled the major literary prizes. In response the Sitwells staged rival presentations including a prize for the dullest literary work of the season.

Osbert was led to publish a pamphlet manifesto against the Squirearchy, Who Killed Cock Robin? (1921), which functions as a kind of Wheels manifesto. Influenced by the self-promotion as well as style and language of Cocteau (Pearson 150-51), Osbert also echoes the provocations of Whistler and Wilde: “The colour of a thrush's egg, for instance, may be of interest to the Naturalist . . . but it is of little use to poetry as an observation” (6-7). Complaining about bird poetry, as Edith would in Aspects of Modern Poetry (1970), he remarks, “One swallow does not make a poem” (12).

Much of Who Killed Cock Robin? is made up of facile slogans:

Poetry cannot be entirely the work of the poet.
It must be, or should be, in part the conception of the reader.
Every poem should give its reader's imagination a little much-needed exercise. (5)

Squire is targeted:

Poetry is not, as our “man-in-the-street” reviewers imagine, a football to be kicked down any mean, squat street by any fool who passes.
Whistle! A kick! A rush, a scramble, a 'scrum'
And now I'll go home, and open a bottle of port.
―J. C. Squire, in the London Mercury

Osbert calls for a poetry that is not confined to “dreary catalogues of natural phenomena”:

A poem is not a hard, thin, coarse, brittle substance, like a slate, with a few sentimental observations scrawled on it, about that very cruel, matter-of-fact old hag, Nature. . . .
Poetry is more like a crystal globe, with Truth imprisoned in it, like a fly in amber.
The poet is the magician who fashions the crystal globe.
But the reader is the magician who can find its scintillating flaws or translucent depths, a strong music made manifest, a rolling echo of Gargantuan laughter, or some new undiscovered land
where folk flaunt parrot-bright
with rags and tags of noisy light.
(6-7)

He is confident that he can speak for his poetic generation:

We Modern Poets have brought poetry into touch with the other modern arts, and with other modern countries. . . .
We have brought to poetry, too, a new psychology.
We still see beauty in natural objects and can express it. . . .
But we can also perceive the beauty in a clock-work bird, when men for a moment assume the miraculous mantle of the gods, and make a flashing, chirruping creature to open its wings and sing a song of unimaginable pathos, until, with a last flutter and a final strangled note, it falls limply back into its black box; falls back, like its Creators, into the darkness whence it came—the whole story of a civilization. (13-14)

The echo of Yeats is obvious. Besides attacking Squire in Cock Robin, Osbert also published a pamphlet titled “The Jolly Old Squire, or, Way Down in Georgia” (Satires and Poems 92-103) in 1922.

A Note on Art and Letters

Begun by Frank Rutter and Herbert Read, Art and Letters ran from July 1917 to Spring 1920. Since contributors included Eliot, Pound, Sassoon, Picasso, and Modigliani, Art and Letters was in “a different league from Wheels” (Skipwith and Bent 66). In 1919 Read was in favor of his co-editor's suggestion that they sell the title to the Sitwells. Read’s meeting with the Sitwell brothers just before the Armistice is recorded in his diary:

Osbert and Sachie turned up. They are sons of Sir George Sitwell. . . . But also furious socialists, good poets (Sachie very good) and very young (about my own age). They are crammed full of enthusiasm for the future and it is with them that I can imagine myself being associated a good deal in the future. They are wanting to buy Art and Letters. (Read 139)

Read later thought that “the Sitwells are rather too comfortable and perhaps there is a lot of pose in their revolt” (141). Nevertheless he went ahead: “I met [Osbert] Sitwell . . . and had a talk. He is very keen to co-operate with me in after-the-war plans and we discussed details. We are to issue manifestoes and generally to make ourselves heard in the land” (143). He noted in November 1918 that “Sitwell has come into Art and Letters as 1/3 (third) shareholder and partner and there is every hope for the future.” Read again mentions a “manifesto” (146). The Summer 1919 edition edited by Rutter and Osbert included Eliot's “Burbank with a Baedecker” and “Sweeney Erect.” Osbert contributed a satire and Edith and Sacheverell a poem each to the magazine.

The Sitwells's Success

The Sitwells’s success at the time of Wheels was considerable. Certainly they had made themselves known. They were the patrons of that journal; Osbert served as one of the literary editors of another exciting little magazine; and they published individual volumes of verse in these years. Edith's volumes Clown's Houses (1918) and The Wooden Pegasus (1920) contained a number of poems from Wheels as did Osbert's The Winstonburg Line (1919). He also brought out Argonaut and Juggernaut (1919) and the satirical At the House of Mrs. Kinfoot (1921). Sachie published The People's Palace (1918), which came out when he was only nineteen, and The Hundred and One Harlequins (1922). Susan Hanna remarks that by 1921 Wheels was no longer necessary to the Sitwells: “Wheels was not a sign of their failure but a casualty of their success” (495).

III. OTHER CONTRIBUTORS

Nancy Cunard (1896-1965), an heiress to the Cunard Line shipping business, was in 1916 one of the wilder spirits who frequented the Eiffel Tower restaurant and a founding spirit of Wheels (see Gordon 26-30). She was briefly married during World War I. Her lover Peter Broughton Adderley was killed in action in France less than a month before the Armistice. Her poems published in Wheels, which appear only in the First Cycle, are discussed by her biographer Lois Gordon in Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist (47-50).

Brian Howard (1905-1958) was a sixteen year old Eton pupil whom Edith Sitwell wooed for Wheels (Glendinning 63-64). As the following passage indicates, he was far from grateful:

I went to see Edith and was very disappointed indeed. . . . I got one penny bun, and three quarters of a cup of rancid tea in a dirty cottage mug. Also I don't like her apartments, or rather, room. It is small, dark and I suspect, dirty. The only interesting things in the room are an etching by Augustus John and her library, which is most entertaining. The remainder seems to consist of one lustre ball and a quantity of bad draperies. Miss Helen Rootham, whom she lives with, is one of those terrifyingly forceful women—she proffered me a picture by Kandinsky—an incoherent smudge of colour, and murmured with great vim into my ear, “Isn't that pure beauty?” I replied in the affirmative. I always do that when I meet muscle. (Salter and Harper 96-97)

One of Howard's poems appears in the sixth volume of Wheels under the pseudonym Charles Orange. His life story is told in Marie-Jacqueline Lancaster's Brian Howard: Portrait of a Failure (1968).

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963). Huxley's poor eyesight kept him out of the war. In 1917 he took a clerical job at the Air Board and subsequently taught at Eton, apparently badly. He reviewed for the Athenaeum, marrying in 1919.

Huxley's first collection of verse was The Burning Wheel (1916), the second The Defeat of Youth (1918). He “read Baudelaire early” (Clements 225) and found the “verbal ingenuities” of Laforgue “irresistible,” writing a “Hommage to Laforgue” (Bedford 84). Edith pursued Huxley as she did others:

Then I rush to meet yet another figure—the editress of Wheels, Miss Edith Sitwell, who is passionately anxious for me to contribute to her horrible production. These Wheelites take themselves seriously: I never believed it possible! (qtd. in Pearson 112)

Huxley was not impressed by the Sitwells in their role as artistic rebels:

I am also contributing to the well-known Society Anthology, Wheels, in company of illustrious young persons like Miss Nancy Cunard, Miss Iris Tree and the kindred spirits who figure in the gossip page of the Daily Mirror. This year, containing as it does, selections from me and Mr Sherard Vines, it should be quite a bright production. The folk who run it are a family called Sitwell, alias Shufflebottom, one sister, and two brothers, Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell—isn't that superb—each of them larger and whiter than the other. I like Edith, but Ozzy and Sachy are still rather large to swallow. Their great object is to REBEL, which sounds quite charming; only one finds that the steps they are prepared to take, the lengths they will go are so small as to be hardly perceptible to the naked eye. But they are so earnest and humble . . . these dear solid people who have suddenly discovered intellect and begin to get drunk on it . . . it is a charming type. (Letters, 3 August 1917, 132)

Later he was more enthusiastic

Meanwhile I have just received the proofs of some prose poems of mine which I am printing in the Sitwells' Wheels, together with “Zoo Celeste” from Jonah—all of which looked, I thought, very satisfactory in print, and all, I flatter myself, bearing a somewhat inimitable cachet, hall-marked A. L. H. I rather like the notion of Wheels with its toreador attitude towards the bloody-bloodies of this world. (Letters, 12 August 1918, 160)

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918). Osbert met Owen in 1917 through Robert Ross and Sassoon (Owen, Collected Letters 552, 597). On June 15 of that year Owen wrote in a letter:

lo! an urgent request from the Sitwells in London for more of my poems for their 1918 Anthology which is coming out immediately. This is on the strength of “The Deranged” [“Mental Cases”], which S. Moncrieff showed them the other day. I know not what to do. For one thing I want to see the Sitwells' etc. works before I decide to co-appear in a book! (559)

Osbert sent him an epigram about Clemenceau, the premier of France, being “fully satisfied” with the Crucifixion (newspapers often reported that Clemenceau was “fully satisfied” with news from the front). Owen wrote back describing himself “hoping to find an hour in which to copy out and generally denebulize a few poems acceptable to you either as Editor or—may I not say—friend” (561-62). His letter includes the famous passage:

For 14 hours yesterday I was at work—teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he [sic] thirst till after the last halt; I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet to see that they be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb and stands to attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha. (562)

Owen reports that he had ordered the 1917 Wheels anthology, though he jokes about finding it difficult to get hold of. He asks, “Is the 1918 vol. designed to go on the caterpillar wheels of Siegfried's Music Hall Tank? If so I might help with the ammunition.” Dominic Hibberd writes that “Owen read Wheels with interest”; indeed he suggests that Owen briefly experimented with the Wheels style (133).

Owen seems not to have sent the Sitwells anything “until he met Osbert again in August. During his last few days in Scarborough, at the end of that month, he said he was hurriedly assembling poems for Wheels; it was presumably then that he drew up a shortlist of about eight titles and sent Osbert the eight manuscripts which remain in the Sitwell family collection” (Hibberd 135).

Osbert wrote to Owen's mother, Susan, after his death (Ziegler 77). Edith also wrote a number of letters to Susan in which she effusively praised Owen's work:

For my part, I am most anxious, if you will allow me, to publish some in the next number of Wheels (the anthology I edit). . . . I am particularly anxious to have the honor of producing some of the war poems; if you do not mind my saying so, I consider them among the very finest poems of the war. (Selected Letters, 14 March 1919, 13)

She discussed the choice of poems for Wheels:

I am so very sorry for the delay in writing, which was caused partly by illness, and the fact that the poems are (without exaggeration) so magnificent that it has been almost impossible to choose. But I have at length, after infinite thought and care, decided to ask you if Wheels may have the great privilege and sacred honour of producing “The Shoe,” “Terre á terre,” “Strange Meeting,” “The Sentry,” “Disabled,” “The Dead-Beat,” “The Chances.” These poems should overwhelm anybody who really cares about poetry. . . . I am telling everyone I know about these wonderful and terrible poems. . . . I can't tell you what it has been like—copying out these poems of his for Wheels. They get home so hard that one finds oneself crying. . . . It has been sometimes impossible to go on. (21 June 1919, 16)

She then asked for a photograph of Owen and permission to dedicate the volume to him (30 July 1919). Receiving the photo, she responded: “What a wonderful face he has—the noble head and eyes of a visionary; one would know the face for a poet's anywhere” (August 1919, 17-18).

Once it became clear that Sassoon would bring out the collected poems, she wrote again, “I have only one comfort; at least some of his most wonderful work is coming out in Wheels; and I have worked heart and soul at getting his work ready for publication” (3 October 1919, 20). Edith continued to write to Mrs. Owen. In December 1919, she drew attention to Middleton Murry's review “The Condition of English Poetry” in The Athenaeum (December 5, 1919) and later reported Murry had said “reading 'Strange Meeting' was a memorable experience; I have read no modern poem which moved me more profoundly” (late January 1920, 24). Edith continued to write to Mrs. Owen into 1921.

Alan Porter. Hanna notes that Porter, who contributed to the Fourth and Fifth Cycles of Wheels, and William Kean Seymour, who contributed to the Fourth, “became well-known, conservative poets” (492). Porter was subsequently anthologized by Squire.

Augustine Rivers was probably a pen-name for Osbert Sitwell (Clements 244).

Helen Rootham (1875-1938) had a significant impact on the life of Edith Sitwell. The two lived together until Rootham's death from cancer. Rootham was both a translator of Rimbaud and a talented pianist. Rootham's Prose Poems from 'The Illuminations' of Arthur Rimbaud appeared in 1932 with an introduction by Edith. Her work appears only in the first two volumes of Wheels.

Paul Selver (1888-1970) had a distinguished career as a translator from the Slavic, translating Karel Čapek among others. He contributed regularly to New Age.

William Kean Seymour (1887-1975). See Alan Porter above.

E. Wyndham Tennant (1897-1916). Lieutenant Edward Wyndham Tennant was an English war poet who served in the Grenadier Guards and was killed at the Battle of the Somme. His mother was one of the Wyndham Sisters whom Sargent depicted in the painting “The Three Graces.” His father was the brother of Margot Asquith, becoming Lord Glenconner in 1911. Tennant, one of the Eiffel Tower set, was known to friends and family as “Bim.” His Worple Flit, and Other Poems appeared in 1916.

Iris Tree (1897–1968), the daughter of actor and manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, was a poet, artist (she studied at the Slade School of Art), and actress who was notorious at this time for eccentricity, wildness and wit. She was much in demand as an artists' model and was painted by Augustus John, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, and Roger Fry, and sculpted by Jacob Epstein. She and Nancy Cunard were among the more notorious members of the Eiffel Tower set.

It was, Tree thought, a time of “romantic discovery in which the strictures and sentimentalities of Victorian and Edwardian England were rejected. . . . Transition and danger were in the air” (qtd. in Gordon 27). Writing about herself and Nancy Cunard, a friend since childhood, she recalled those heady days:

We responded to every changing color, turning from Meredith to Proust to Dostoevsky, slightly tinged by the Yellow Book, an occasional absinthe left by Baudelaire and Wilde, flushed by Liberalism, sombered by nihilistic pessimism, challenged by Shaw, inspired by young Rupert Brooke, T. S. Eliot, Yeats, D. H. Lawrence; jolted by Wyndham Lewis's BLAST into cubism and the Modern French Masters, Epstein's sculptures, Stravinsky's music (booed and cheered); the first Russian ballets and American jazz; nightlong dancing; dawn-long walks; exultant, longing, laughs unspotted by respectable sin. (qtd. in Garland 27)

Tree published Poems (1919) and The Traveler and Other Poems (1927). She is represented in the first four Wheels anthologies.

Walter Sherard Vines (1890–1974), “fresh from editing the Oxford Review” (Hanna 492), taught at Queen's University, Belfast, in 1914. He served in the army until 1917, when he was invalided out. Like Osbert Sitwell, he published in The Nation. Two of his volumes of poetry date from the years of Wheels, The Two Worlds (1916) and The Kaleidoscope: Poems for the People (1920).

IV. NOTES ON THE INDIVIDUAL CYCLES OF WHEELS

The following notes are not intended to provide exhaustive commentary. However, whilst Wheels has been frequently discussed in terms of publicity, criticism has to date paid little attention to the poetry it contains. These notes take a step towards correcting this situation with the hope that the online publication of Wheels will lead to further discussion. Thus samples of verse by frequent contributors are provided here, especially those of a controversial character, as are some of the more significant reviews and comments from the anthologies's “Press Notices” and elsewhere. As well, the vivid art work in Wheels is identified and its contribution assessed.

Wheels Cycle One (1916, reprint 1917)

Five hundred copies of the First Cycle of Wheels were printed in December 1916, and the response was good enough for a second printing of a further five hundred copies. The price of the first three cycles was 2s 6d (or two-and-a-half shillings). The first Wheels has on its cover a drawing of a woman with perambulator out of which a baby looks. The artist was Phyllis Boyd, a friend of Edith. Pound liked the “pleasingly satiric cover, bright yellow displaying a scraggy nursemaid and a makeshift perambulator . . . the proper sort of ink-pot to hurl itself in the face of senile pomposity” (qtd. in Jaffe 155). James D. Brophy suggests that the yellow background may be an allusion to The Yellow Book of the 1890s ( Edith Sitwell 106-10). The cover of the second issue of the 1916 anthology is black. Brophy also suggests that the perambulator may be connected to Edith's poem “Pedagogues” in Twentieth-Century Harlequinade (1916) which concludes

And slowly we perambulate
With spectacles that concentrate
On one short hour, Eternity,
In one small lens, Infinity.
With children, our primeval curse,
We overrun the universe—
Beneath the giddy lights of noon,
White as a tired August moon.
The air is like a jarring bell
That jangles words it cannot spell,
And, black as Fate, the iron trees
Stretch thirstily to catch the breeze. (Salter and Harper 82-83)

The copy of this cycle of Wheels that the Modernist Journals Project has reproduced is signed by the contributors and dedicated to E. B. Osborn “with gratitude from the authors of Wheels.” Osborn edited The New Elizabethans: A First Selection of the Lives of Young Men Who Have Fallen in the Great War (1919). The collection was reviewed by T. S. Eliot in “The New Elizabethans and the Old” (Athenaeum 4640, 4 April 1919, 134-36).

On page iii of the First Cycle, a wheel is depicted bearing the name of the anthology and its publisher (along the rim of the tire), the names of the nine contributors (on the spokes), and the date of publication (on the hub). This visual motif of the wheel is continued in the next three cycles. The device suggests that each contributor be thought of as a spoke in the Wheels enterprise. The reviewer for The Southport Guardian remarked, “It is not easy to find the axle―'1916'―into which the several spokes of this wheel of verse fit; indeed personal friendship rather than poetic kinship would seem to have been the sole condition for admission” (qtd. in Jaffe 156).

Among the reviews included at the end of the cycle, the Oxford Chronicle remarks that “the anthology derives its title from . . . Miss Nancy Cunard, whose symbolism is further elaborated in the work of Mr. Osbert Sitwell” (92). Cunard's poem “Wheels” begins

I sometimes think that all our thoughts are wheels
Rolling forever through the painted world,
Moved by the cunning of a thousand clowns
Dressed paper-wise, with blatant rounded masks. . . . (9)

John Press, somewhat unkindly, remarks that these lines catch the atmosphere of the whole series, “the world of the opulent Edwardian nursery into which have been smuggled the ballet designs of [Leon] Bakst and the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley” (156). As Cunard continues, the clowns strut as the people “stare”:

And some have sober faces white with chalk,
And roll the heavy wheels all through the streets
Of sleeping hearts, with ponderance and noise
Like weary armies on a solemn march.

“Our words are turned to spokes that thoughts may roll” (10). The world itself is “a fabulous wheel controlled by Time”, so dreams and prayers

Are in the great revolving of the spheres
Under the trampling of their chariot wheels.

Placed before the Contents pages in the second edition of the cycle is the anonymous satire “In Bad Taste,” in fact by Osbert Sitwell, which attacks the “platitudinous multitude” who “roar out biblical abuse” and recommend “sweet simplicity” (v-vi). “We read our 'Country Life' and worship 'Punch',” the masses proudly declare (vi). “Simplicity” is the offending word here, as it is in Osbert's later satire, Who Killed Cock Robin? “Ah well!” Osbert writes, with an echo of Matthew Arnold,

A mere two thousand years have slipped away
And left us simple, sweet Barbarity

while the Church has unsuccessfully pursued its “mission of Repentant Hope.”

. . . Meanwhile
The World's giant wheels revolve and flatten out
The road for Fate—the path for Destiny.
A myriad lives are but a grain of dust
To mark a turning—or the thought of one.
Along this royal straight avenue of Time
From the dim splendour of the ages past,—
Deck'd out in golden plumes, and wreathed with flowers,
On a triumphal car, and with a cavlcade,
Rides Moloch, God of blood:
And in his hand a fingered treatise on Simplicity.

It is not difficult to see why reviewers found the First Cycle gloomy, but Osbert's contributions also celebrate fierce Nietzschean cosmic creative/destructive energies. “The Beginning,” in which “strange elemental sprites / Exult[ ] in the chaos of creation” (11-12), celebrates an apocalyptic spectacle:

Broad as the arch of space, a myriad moons
Sail slowly by the sea. . . .
. . .
The din grows greater from the universe. (12)

Such huge energies are “Cheerful, of good intent, and full of life.” However, “The Beginning” is followed by the companion piece “The End,” which depicts “A world that now is past all agony!” (14). Osbert's next poem, “Progress,” is of course ironic: “The tall / Black houses crush the creeping beggars down” (15). “Pierrot Old” is in the vein of the Wheels protest against senility's grip on the world. The poem “Night” releases “dim terrors dwelling far below,” “something that is outside Nature's pale” (20):

The unheard sounds that haunt an ancient house:―
The feel of one who listens in the dark. . . .

The apocalyptic continues in “20th Century Harlequinade,” reprinted from the Sitwells's collection of that title. Fate is a “malign dotard . . . / Too old for memory” (21):

This dotard now decides to end the earth
(Wrecked by its own and his futility). (22)

“The pantomime of life is near its close,” revealing “twisted, tortured, mortifying men.” In “'Therefore Is the Name of It Called Babel,'” a reprint of his poem “Babel” which appeared in The Times, city walls “jest unto the dead who fought . . . / Foundation for futurity” (23). The world “Deep sunk in sin” is a “tragic star” that “wages war / Against itself” (24)

―And we are left to drink the lees
Of Babel's direful prophecy.

If not the poetry, then the themes of this piece anticipate The Waste Land. Similarly the depiction in “Black Mass” of irrational terrors, “The fear of moonlight falling on a face” (27), the sense that we are

Like dusty atoms blown by wayward winds
About the world;―shadows that sway and swing
And sigh and talk, as if themselves alive (28)

has elements that anticipate the greater poet. By contrast, “The Lament of the Mole Catcher” would go well in a Georgian anthology.

Jaffe notes that of the nine poets in the First Cycle, four were women (154). Nancy Cunard's contribution is largely made up of sonnets. In “The Carnivals of Peace,” she regrets her powers are not sufficient to assuage grief:

Had I but a clearer brain, imagination,
. . .
I'd write a song to conquer all our tears. (31)

It is the War she has in mind, for “Destruction” opens with

I saw the people climbing up the street
Maddened with war and strength and thought to kill. (32)

Soldiers “mock Death—laughing at their bitter pain.” As “Sonnet” makes clear, religion is irrelevant: “This is no time for prayers” (33); instead,

With folded hands we sit and slowly stare.
The world's old wheels go round. . . .

“Uneasiness,” in Cunard's poem by that title, derives from

Undreamèd horrors . . .
Armies of corpses hid behind the wall (35)

while the poet “wait[s] in terror for their hour that's near.”

The Weekly Despatch accused Cunard of snobbery that pervaded the First Cycle:

Nancy Cunard's boldest conspiratorial stroke . . . is the eight lines headed “From the Train”:
Smoke-stacks, coal-stacks, hay-stacks, slack,
Colourless, scentless, pointless, dull;
Railways, highways, roadways, black,
Grantham, Birmingham, Leeds and Hull.
Steamers, passengers, convoys, trains,
Merchandise travelling over the sea;
Smut-filled streets and factory lanes,
What can these ever mean to me?
The answer, of course (judging from the form in which the thesis is presented) is “Nothing.” (95)

But Cunard had a deeper failure of meaning in mind.

Edith Sitwell's contributions combine Baudelairean imagery with snappy nursery rhythms. In “Processions,”

The negress Night, within her house of glass
Watched the processions pass (37)

while in “Gaeity”, “Time beats his empty drum” (38). Sitwell sees the facade of hypocrisy:

A crumpled paper mask hides every face―
Creased to a smile of grace . . .
The candles, living things to dance and pry.
Out! hard Reality! (38-39)

She includes sinister and gothic poems, notably “Thaïs in Heaven,” “The Drunkard” and “The Mother,” from her 1915 collection The Mother. War and a seedy urbanism combine in lines like these:

And is there still the clinging mud?
I think it drowned your soul like wine.
And do the stars like street-lamps shine
Gilding the gutters where you stood
. . .
Your body had become your soul. (“Thaïs in Heaven” 40)

The Eliot of Poems (1920) comes to mind. Edith, too, can be apocalyptic: “The world's vast walls reel blindly,―then collapse” (“A Lamentation” 42). “The Mother” provides a Poe-like Gothic:

The little wicked thoughts that fed
Upon the weary, helpless Dead . . .
They whispered o'er my broken heart,
They stuck their fangs deep in the smart.
"The child she bore with bloody sweat
And agony has paid his debt.
Through that bleak face the stark winds play;
The crows have chased his soul away.
"His body is a blackened rag
Upon the tree—a monstrous flag."
Thus one Worm to the other saith.
Those slow mean servitors of Death. (50)

The Times Literary Supplement reviewer remarked on “the pitiless strength with which she probes human suffering or fashions nightmare shapes and fancies” (89).

Iris Tree, in her poems, depicts a world of worn-out hope, without meaning or life:

The long road unto nothing I will sing,
Sing on one note, monotonous and dry,
Of sameness, calmness, and the years that bring
No more emotion than the fear to die. (“I.” 59)

Though Tree is a more conventional poet than the Sitwells, her metaphors also startle:

Lovers still kissing, feverish to drain
The last juice from the shrivelled fruit of lust:
A black umbrella held up in the rain,
The raindrops making patterns in the dust.

Her alienation in this poem is interrupted by an angry outburst, an attack on conformity, which, as with Osbert, includes an attack on the church:

The dullard masses that no god can save!
If I were God, to rise and strike you down
And break your churches in an angry wave
And make a furious bonfire of your town! (60)

As to God's concern for man, “all your rage / Is but a thin smoke wafted in His face” ("II." 62).

The hostile reviewer in The Weekly Despatch objected to these lines:

Iris Tree (the daughter of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree) considers “there are songs enough of love, of joy, of grief,” so she sings contemptuously:
The dullard masses that no god can save!
If I were God, to rise and strike you down. . . . (94)

Among Tree's other contributions is the war poem “Zeppelins” which picks up the metaphor of wheels:

The startling thunder bursting from a gun:
How swift runs Fear, quicksilver that is freed!
. . .
An omnibus from sudden corner reels:
Silence lies mangled underneath the wheels. (66-67)

Helen Rootham, too, contributes war poems to the First Cycle, in addition to her translations of Rimbaud. In “Envious Youth (1916)” a young soldier tells how

. . . wise age has held the world,
And turned it round and round,
Until the sudden death that age avoids with anxious care
Lurks in its every corner, and claims
Not age, but me. (80)

In “The Great Adventure” (dedicated to E. Wyndham Tennant), a soldier ironically remarks that whilst dying “is a great adventure” (81), he would, like Emily Dickinson, prefer that Death had not stopped for him.

Tennant and Victor Tait Perowne's contributions are Georgian in character, as in these lines from Tennant's “Song”:

How shall I tell you of the freedom of the Downs?
You who love the dusty life and durance of great towns,
And think the only flowers that please embroider ladies' gowns,
How shall I tell you? (70)

Hence the Times Literary Supplement reviewer commented on the “rippling charm” of Tennant (89), adding “He and Mr. Victor Perowne are certainly the truest poets in the old sense—seekers after simple fragrant beauty” (90). Tennant's ironic nature poem “Home Thoughts in Laventie” (in the Pas-de-Calais and now the site of a war cemetry) is, however, a soldier's song:

Green gardens in Laventie!
Soliders only know the street
Where the mud is churned and splashed about
By battle-wending feet. (68)

Tennant mentions the famous battlefield image of

. . . the Church whose pitted spire
Seems balanced on a strand
Of swaying stone

that in the context of Wheels suggests hostility to religion.

Sacheverell Sitwell's only contribution to the cycle, “'Li-Taï-Pé Drinks and Drowns,'” was his first published poem.

These samples explain why there were substantial and appreciative reviews of Wheels that took the new journal seriously. On the other hand, Country Life laughed at the dark mood of the contributors, The Aberdeen Journal called it “unwholesome,” and The Pall Mall Gazette remarked that “the foetidness of the whole clings to the nostrils” (96)―all quoted with evident relish by Edith.

Wheels Cycle Two (1917)

The Second Cycle of Wheels appeared in December 1917; 750 copies were printed. The cover of the second Wheels is an abstract design employing the wheels motif by C. W. Beaumont, who is presumably Cyril W. Beaumont, a bookshop owner and balletomane who later collaborated with Osbert.

The Second Cycle continued the mix of dark lyrics and protest. The Preface, “Armchair,” subtitled “In Bad Taste, 2,” is an anti-war satire by Osbert on the aged Squirearchy who approve the war:

If I were old, or only seventy,
Then should I be a great man in his prime.
I should rule army-corps: at my command
Men would rise up, salute me, and attack
—And die. . . .
. . .
"Gentlemen, we will never end this war
Till all the younger men with martial mien
Have entered capitals; never make peace
Till they are cripples, on one leg, or dead!" (v.-vi.)

Osbert's “Prospect Road” creates a sinister, leering cityscape:

Gigantic houses . . .
. . .
In one unending universal street,
Against a strange and sullen yellow sky
—Like sunset trickling through into the sea—
Down to the depths. . . .
Blind windows face the interminable road:—
. . .
All smeared and stained and stamped with time and blood,
—Stains that seem faces,—horrid twitching masks.
. . .
Behind the walls sound voices whispering
Of dire and hidden, carefully hidden, thoughts
Cruel, wicked and unfathomable things
That lie behind this infamy of stone.
. . .
And then the music sounded. Ah, that sound! (12-13)

—which is the music of the apocalypse, so that—

. . . the sky comes down.
Down with the splintering stars. (13)

“Rag-Time” also has a sinister urban opening:

The lamps glow here and there, then echo down
The vast deserted vistas of the town:—
Each light the echo'd note of some refrain
Repeated in the city's fevered brain (14)

and then becomes another anti-war poem:

. . . We know
Men sang these words in many a deadly fight
And threw them—laughing—to a solemn foe:
Sang them where tattered houses stand up tall and stark
And bullets whistle through the ruined street,
And live men tread on dead men in the dark,
And skulls are sown in fields once sown with wheat.

Osbert's “London” is an example of the urbanism of Wheels poetry. Though it degenerates into a facile travelogue, the poem recognizes “the cruel contrasts of the city”:

I love the palaces of iron and stone
That proudly lift their heads to look upon
The havoc and the evil they have wrought
. . .
This is the crushing of the old ideals,
The end of what our fathers dreamt so fair.
. . .
And tall black lamp-posts that stand far apart
—As tall and black and proud as the police.
The uniform monotony is spoilt
By churches with queer ugly spires of stone
That offer future joy for present pain. (18-19)

In his review of the Second Cycle, Eliot commented in great detail on Osbert's poems:

“Fountains,” with the exception of a few adjectives, is a success. “Promenades” is not tight enough, the best point unfortunately occurs in the middle (“rich retired provincial mayors”—the “rich” is superfluous). “Prospect Road” tends to dissolve into its constituent adjectives and substantives, and “gigantic” should not be followed by “immense” in the next line. “The Return of the Prodigal” is good in conception, but is kept up by artificial respiration; and perhaps this sort of thing may be left to John Rodker. “London” shows Mr. Sitwell in risk of becoming descriptive. “Promenades,” however, indicates a real speciality for him. (“Verse Pleasant and Unpleasant” 44)

“Promenades” is set in Brighton:

Long promenades against the sea,
Kaleidoscopic, chattering!
Pavilions rising from the sea,
On which a fawning flattering
Hot crush of orientals move,
And sell their cheap and tawdry wares,
To other Jews, and aldermen,
And rich retired provincial mayors.
Oh! many colours in the sun;
Copper and gold predominate!
Parasols held 'gainst the sun
Throw down their shadows inchoate
On leering faces looking sly—
And shining with the heat of June.
The shifting masses move and talk
And whistle tunes all out of tune.
* * *
Long promenades against the sea,
And oranges and mandolines!
Pavilions rising from the sea
And penny-in-the-slot machines! (11)

Eliot is surprisingly complimentary to Iris Tree:

The most mature of the lot; on a much smaller scale than [Sacheverell Sitwell], but established. She does not need to be told what her line is. “Ballad” is very good, and really light. “Black Velvet” is very good. (“Verse Pleasant” 44)

Perhaps these lines from “Black Velvet” are what Eliot admired:

. . . the train
Of Queens that go to scaffold for a sin—
Or splash of blackness manifest of pain,
Hamlet among his court, a Harlequin
Of tragedies . . . Mysterious. . . . And again
Venetian masks against a milky skin. (54)

Eliot does not mention Tree's longer contribution to Wheels' urban sinister vein, “Myself in the City,” or her cynical “Optimism”:

What will happen to the starving, and the rebel run from drilling,
Cowardly, afraid of fighting, and the child who stole a shilling?
. . .
They shall walk in rows and praise the Lord,
And one or two shall hang upon a cord (61)

or her “Question,” which asks,

In victory will you have conquered Hate,
And stuck old Folly with a bayonet
And battered down the hideous prison gate? (62)

Of all the poets in this cycle, Eliot had the most praise for Sacheverell:

The most important and most difficult poet in the volume. In fact, the best that has appeared for several years. “The Feathered Hat” is a very unusual poem—we are apparently the first review intelligent enough to perceive this. . . . He has an idiom which at first sight looks like rhetoric, and one finds with a shock that the words have values. He tends in his weaker moments to fly off like a beautiful but ineffectual aeroplane, beating its propeller vainly in a tree, but when he has definite concrete sensation, as in “The Feathered Hat,” he is all right. (“Verse Pleasant” 44)

Eliot again praised Sacheverell in a subsequent review: “We have attributed more to Mr. Sitwell than to any poet of his generation,” though he added, “we require of him only ten years of toil” (“Contemporanea” 85). In a letter to Jack Gardener, Eliot observed that Sachie's work had “unusual poetic merit” (Letters, 7 November 1918, 251). Aldous Huxley likewise thought Sachie's poetry promising, labeling him le Rimbaud de nos jours while remarking that that his work was “interesting and with potentialities; but he is not grown up yet” (Letters, 28 June 1918, 156).

Huxley made his first contributions to Wheels in Cycle Two, his selection mostly ironic light verse. Eliot remarked, “[Huxley] has come down with a serious attack of Laforgue” (“Verse Pleasant” 44). Perhaps he was struck by these Prufrockian lines from “Retrospect”:

I act my present tour de force
Of tragi-comedy, what view
Will my ripe and fate-endoctrined wisdom take
Of all the odd grimaces that now I make?
. . .
Shall I resist
Snug forty then . . . (29-30)

or these from “Valedictory”:

I had remarked—how sharply one observes
When life is disappearing round the curves
Of yet another corner! . . .
. . .
And life recedes, recedes; the curve is bare,
My handkerchief flutters blankly in the air;
And the question rumbles in the void,
Was she aware, was she after all aware? (31-32)

Eliot is interesting on Edith:

Does several sorts of thing. “From the Balcony” is overloaded, and conveys no clear image. “Saul” gets a large slow-moving finale which is effective. . . . I think that her speciality should be mordant, as in “Messalina at Margate”—
steam of food
Goes upward like the rich man's soul to God.
(“Verse Pleasant” 44)

Edith's poem “The County Calls” catches both what the Sitwells disliked and an underlying sensitivity:

They came upon us like a train:
A rush, a scream,—then gone again.
With bodies like a continent
Encased in silken seas, they went,
And came, and called, and took their tea
And patronised the Deity
Who copies their munificence
With creditable heart and sense.
Each face, a plaster monument
Of some belovèd aliment
Whose everlasting sleep they deign
To cradle in the Great Inane;
Each tongue, a noisy clockwork bell
To toll the passing hour that fell,
Each hat, an architect's device
For building churches, cheap and nice.
I saw the County Families
Advance, and sit, and take their teas:
I saw the County gaze askance
At my thin insignificance,
While little thoughts like fishes glide
Beneath their eyes' pale glassy tide:
They said: “Poor thing! we must be nice!”
They said: “We know your father!” twice. (89-90)

The Second Cycle includes the war poem “The Mad Soldier” by E. Wyndham Tennant, who is identified as “Killed in Action” (91). A note reads, “This poem, written three months before the author's death in action,” was “not intended for publication. The editor, however, deems this example of his versatility too valuable to be lost.”

Sherard Vines's “The Soldiers” remarks that the fate of soldiers has become commonplace:

. . . They, still unwhipped,
Plod on obediently to death
Without the cheering and the praise
Hysteric meed of yesterday;
A soldier's such a common thing,
Besides two years of war have taught
The people it's the soldiers' job
To stop a bullet: why then spoil
With praise for what must needs be done? (65)

His “Carry On” is a satire of a mindless jolly England going about its way in wartime:

Carry on! lash the gold flag of high holiday sound
To the masthead, and laugh at the throb and the sting of the wound.
We are that island folk, glorious makers of war,
Frivolous, wasteful, the jesters at death.
. . .
To hell with the bomb or the bullet that brings you to dust!
Let us know joy while we can, and sorrow as soon as we must:
Live every man of us, drink of the froth and the fun,
Bring the torch down the last lap! carry on! carry on! (73, 75)

Helen Rootham also contributes a war poem, “Aetat 19 (1917)”:

Now I lie with my fellows,
We hear the tramp o'erhead
Of men in thousands marching
As once we marched, the dead. (96)

Eliot remarked that Rootham's “last two poems are quite worth a place” (“Verse Pleasant” 44).

Wheels Cycle Three (1918)

The Third Cycle of Wheels, though dated 1918, appeared in January 1919. Edith, in a letter to Robert Nichols, remarked, “Wheels is very bad this year, for the reason that most of us have had books, all our better work was exhausted” (Selected Letters 15).

The cover of this cycle is by Laurence Atkinson (1873-1931), an artist, musician and poet who studied in Paris but returned to London, painting landscapes influenced by Matisse and the Fauves. His style changed radically when he encountered the work of Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists. In 1915 he published a collection of poems titled Aura. The end papers in Cycle Two, depicting people on bicycles, are by Alvaro de Guevara, a Chilean painter associated with Bloomsbury, who, having attended the Bradford College of Art, went on to the Slade from 1913 to 1916. Guevara's portrait of Edith is in the Tate. Guevara also contributed translations of poems from the Spanish to this and the subsequent volume. In this volume, what appears to be blood flows from beneath the wheel motif.

T. S. Eliot in “The Post-Georgians,” his review of the Third Cycle in The Athenaeum (April 11, 1919), remarked that “Wheels . . . has stood on the side of intelligence. It recognized that there are some pretty complicated feelings in life, which are worth a little pain to express” (171).

Osbert's “This Generation” is about the war dead and “Youth and Age” another anti-war satire. Eliot observed, “Mr. Osbert Sitwell is best when he is himself, and worst when he is most cyclical. 'Clavichords' is a cyclical failure, but his 'Youth and Age' and 'This Generation' . . . are much better stuff than that of the war poets.”

Sherard Vines's selection ends with a poem attacking war-time strikes. According to Eliot, “Mr. James and Mr. Vines are negligible” (“Post-Georgians” 171).

Huxley contributed a poem in French, “Zoo Celeste,” and a number of prose poems including the long and ambitious “Beauty.” Eliot was not convinced:

Mr. Huxley is one of the few younger poets who have written a few interesting poems, which express very well feelings characteristic of adolescence. But his exhibits in the Wheels threaten him—if not with the grave—at least with the Bloomsburial of his genius. . . . In his prose poems . . . he has made the mistake of going for a model to Laforgue instead of to Rimbaud.

Daiches would see the combination of “commedia dell'arte” and “hysteria” of Wheels in Huxley's “tortured yet sophisticated” prose poems, citing a passage from “The Merry-Go-Round”:

But I happened to look inwards among the machinery of our roundabout, and there I saw a slobbering cretin grinding at a wheel and sweating as he ground and grinding eternally. And when I perceived that he was the author of all our speed and that the music was of his making, that everything depended on his grinding wheel, I thought I would like to get off. But we were going too fast. (qtd. in Daiches 87)

Eliot also discussed Sachie and Edith: “Mr. Sacheverell Sitwell . . . is tortured with verbiage, but out of the midst of it he suddenly hauls a good Elizabethan line. . . . He is capable of something exceptional, to be won by infinite labour” (“Post-Georgians” 171). Edith fared quite well:

In a smaller way, Miss Edith Sitwell has arrived at more nearly perfect accomplishment than her brother. She is the only writer on whom the cyclical garments look well. She has, of course, her own vices. She has looked too long on modern painting: her colours are crude and exaggerated. The sun is very bright; the grass is very green, and dotted with red parasols and negroes. Her bird is the parrot, or perhaps macaw. . . . Yet her coloured furniture is so cleverly done, at times, that we wonder whether she is not fully justified in doing nothing else,
Flames, bright singing birds that pass,
Whistled wares as shrill as grass
(Landscapes clear as glittering glass).
Whistled all together:
Papagei, oh Papagei,
Buy our greenest fruits, oh buy
Melons misty from the gloom. . . .
Sharp each bird tongue shrills and hisses,
Parrot-voices shrieking bane;—
Down comes every spangled shutter
With a sudden noise like rain.
This is much better done than “Goblin Market.” Miss Sitwell can be depended upon, in work like this, never to be ridiculous.

Huxley also commented on Edith's poetry in a review, “The Subject-Matter of Poetry”:

By thinking about it hard enough, you can make the sunshine dance and sing, you can cause the whole landscape to crepitate and twitch galvanically as it does in the poetry of Miss Sitwell. Brilliantly accomplished and exquisite as the poetry of this talented writer often is, one is always painfully conscious of its limitations. It is difficult to see how it can advance. Obviously, you cannot carry the process of dissociation beyond a certain point. (The Chapbook 2, 9 March 1920, 15; qtd. in Press 161)

Edith dedicated “Myself on the Merry-Go-Round” to the war poet Robert Nichols, whom she unsuccessfully wooed for Wheels.

Wheels Cycle Four (1919)

The price of Wheels rose to 6s. for the 1919 and 1920 volumes. The art work in the Fourth Cycle, including the cover, titled “Gun Drill,” is by William Roberts (1895-1980), a distinguished British artist whose paintings hang in galleries around the world. At this time he produced brightly colored semi-cubist work. Roberts's work appears in both numbers of Wyndham Lewis's BLAST. During World War I Roberts joined the Royal Field Artillery as a gunner, earning the nickname 'Howitzer Roberts,' and saw action on the Flanders battlefields. His war paintings include “The First German Gas Attack at Ypres, 1918” (National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa) and “A Shell Dump” (Imperial War Museum). Roberts painted the famous “The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel, Spring 1915” (1962). Jaffe remarks that the “jarringly avant-garde” cover art of Wheels is in the vein of the “aggressive, oppositional spirit of futurism” (155). The wheel motif in this cycle has sprouted a halo of flame or vegetation.

The dedication of this cycle to the memory of “Wilfred Owen, M.C.” (v) is, according to Jaffe, “studiously modeled on Marsh's framing of Rupert Brooke in Georgian Poetry: 1913-1915” (158). The poems by Owen are of course war poems. The extended metaphor of “The Show” in a degree fits the Wheels style. To “Strange Meeting” Edith appended this comment: “EDITOR'S NOTE—This poem was found among the author's papers. It ends on this strange note” (55).

John Middleton Murry reviewed the fourth Wheels in The Athenaeum alongside Georgian Poetry 1918-1919 under the heading of “The Condition of English Poetry,” remarking that “'Georgian Poetry' is like the Coalition Government; 'Wheels' is like the Radical opposition” (1283). Turning from the Georgian poetry of reminiscence, he observes:

Reminiscences are no danger to a real poet. He is the splendid borrower who lends a new significance to that which he takes. He incorporates his borrowing in the new thing which he creates; it has its being there and there alone. One can see the process in the one fine poem in Wheels, Mr. Wilfred Owen's “Strange Meeting.” (1284)

Murry identifies Keats as the source of the reminiscence in Owen's poem. He continues:

We are persuaded that this poem by a boy with the certainty of death in his heart, like his great forerunner, is the most magnificent expression of the emotional significance of the war that has yet been achieved by English poetry.

By comparison, he remarks, “the rest of the contents of [Wheels 4] become irrelevant” (1285). However, a recent critic, James D. Brophy, has compared Osbert's war poems with those of Owen:

The comparison of Owen and Sitwell illuminates Owen's solemn mixture of idealism, romance and reality as distinctly different from Sitwell's irreverent satire unencumbered by pathos. Each has its merits: Owen's poetry covers a greater range of experience, but Sitwell's satire is demonstrably more effective in denouncing war. (“War Poetry” 28)

The opening poem in Cycle Four, “Corpse-Day,” is bitter anti-war satire by Osbert depicting Jesus looking down from heaven on the carnage on the European continent. Osbert's “English Gothic” is another anti-church poem; Murry contrasted it with the success of Eliot's “Sweeney” (1285).

Despite his dismissal of the remainder of the contributors, Murry does briefly comment on the work of Iris Tree:

In the poems of Miss Iris Tree a perplexed emotion manages to make its way through a chaotic technique. She represents the solid impulse which lies behind the opposition in general. This impulse she describes, though she is very, very far from making poetry of it, in these not uninteresting verses [from “The Complex Life”]:
But since we are mere children of this age,
And must in curious ways discover salvation
I will not quit my muddled generation,
But ever plead for Beauty in this rage.
Although I know that Nature's bounty yields
Unto simplicity a beautiful content,
Only when battle breaks me and my strength is spent
Will I give back my body to the fields.
(1285)

Huxley's selection of poems in the Fourth Cycle includes the jazzy “Frascati's”:

What negroid holiday makes free
With such priapic revelry?
. . .
What blasts of Bantu melody?
Ragtime . . . but when the wearied band
Swoons to a waltz, I take her hand
And there we sit in blissful calm,
Quietly sweating palm to palm. (19)

In contrast, his “Topiary” questions God, asking “Why there are men without any legs, / Whizzing along on little trollies” (21). “The Reef,” reprinted from The Defeat of Youth, is praised by Donald Watt as one of Huxley's better meditative poems: “Here, metaphor and meaning blend smoothly to present a firm and provocative account of the poet's meditative journey from despair to aspiration” (118).

Sherard Vines's “Elan Vital” is another poem protesting an unsatisfactory Creator:

I lay in the tepid mud
Grey-drab, bubbling here and there with steam,
A cell
Rebellious, derisive of my creator's
Incoherent gropings.
I would be the sport no longer
Of his bovine essays in creation! (65)

Vines's “The Soldier's Last Love” depicts a common war tragedy:

Dear, I cannot let you see
How the night is almost gone
Sliding back inexorably;
Our communion
Limb from limb, and bone from bone
Rend; and rest your tired body
All to-day, while I put on
Death's appalling chastity. (70)

And Vines provides yet another poem that attacks religion as practiced in England, “A Dark Church”:

Lords spiritual, in your state
Of black copes and mitres great,
What do you keep your church within? (76)

Edith contributed a sequence of nine “Bucolic Poems” to this cycle. The first, “What the Goosegirl Said about the Dean,” dedicated to W. T. Walton, who would compose the music for her Façade, puts her particular spin on the theme of dotard and hypocritical age. “Queen Venus and the Choir-Boy” is dedicated to the novelist Naomi Royde-Smith. Murry comments that “Miss Edith Sitwell's deliberate painted toys are a great deal better than painted canvas trees and fields, masquerading as real ones” (1285). The New Statesman singled out her work for discussion:

Miss Edith Sitwell relies less on the varying lengths of her lines or the violence of her expressions and more on tropes and metaphors which at least have not been thought of before:
Bright wooden waves of people creak
From houses built with coloured straws
Of heat; Dean Pappus' long nose snores
Harsh as a hautbois, marshy-weak.
The wooden waves of people creak
Through the fields all water-sleek . . .
What does it mean? you ask. We answer that we do not know. . . . if her method does at times make her appear meaningless it can also produce such a charming picture as “Queen Venus and the Choir-boy.” (“Recent Verse” 716)

A similar view of Edith's poetry appears about this time in The Athenaeum's February 1919 review of her Clown's Houses, which contains poems from earlier cycles of Wheels:

Miss Edith Sitwell is in danger of being, as they say in the nursery, “too clever by half.” She huddles her images so closely on top of one another that they become cramped and confused. Some of them seem to us, indeed, les images than examples of the sort of word association with which the psycho-analysts make experiments. . . . Often one has to guess Miss Sitwell's meaning. . . . Her particular gift is for the making of a kind of nonsense rhyme that is as gay and pretty and inconsequent as the lights of a fair. (“Six Poets” 66)

Wheels Cycle Five (1920)

This Cycle was published by Duckworth, London. The cover and end papers are by Gino Severini (1883-1966) an Italian Futurist who was at this time returning to a more conservative style. Severini did further work on Sitwell publications and painted frescoes at Montegufoni, the castle in Tuscany owned by Sir George Sitwell.

The Fifth Cycle is dedicated to Mrs. Arnold Bennett (Madamoiselle Hebrard), “poetry's greatest interpretative artist” (v). The Anglo-French Poetry Society came about when Arnold Bennett's young wife, Marguerite, who was a diseuse, a reciter of poetry, gave a number of successful readings of French poetry among friends. Osbert was effusive in his praise. Lytton Strachey was not: “Mrs Arnold Bennett recited, with waving arms and chanting voice, Baudelaire and Verlaine till everyone was ready to vomit” (Pearson 166). Edith, who had involved herself in the organization, quickly fell out with Mrs. Bennett, and the society collapsed.

Huxley's contribution is “Theatre of Varieties,” a long satiric medley:

Infinite in resource, each week from now till doomsday,
The Theatre of Varieties offers something new. (38)

Osbert's selection includes two satires on Christianity, “Church Parade” (“For nothing that's of Nature born / Should seem so on the Sabbath morn,” 12) and “Sunday Afternoon” (“The Director of the Bank is God,” 17), as well as “At the House of Mrs. Kinfoot” (“'The world was made for the British bourgeoisie,'” 23).

The critic who reviewed Osbert's Argonaut and Juggernaught in The Athenaeum also mentions the first poem in Wheels 5, his “Cornucopia.” He praises Osbert for reviving satire in “admirably witty verses,” but faults his “'poetical' poems” for an “absence . . . of precision, point, and critical certainty. . . . [The poet] drifts in an aimless sort of way from the vague lusciousness of, say, 'Cornucopia' to the vague horror of 'Round the great ruins crawl those things of slime'” [from Osbert's “The End” in Wheels 1] (“Satire and Native Woodnotes” 1255).

There are a number of new but not very distinguished contributors in this cycle: John J. Adams, William Kean Seymour, Geoffrey Cookson, Alan Porter, and Leah McTavish Cohen. Like Cycles Two through Four, this volume contains a bibliography of contributors' collections of verse with snippets from reviews.

Wheels Cycle Six (1921)

“Owing to the persistent attacks made on us by various people,” Edith complained, Blackwell's had refused to go on publishing Wheels (Glendinning 64). With difficulty, a much briefer Sixth Cycle (64 pages, 3s. 6d) was brought out by C. W. Daniel, Ltd. No reviews were included.

The vivid cover is again by William Roberts.

Osbert contributed two odd “Mexican Pieces,” Huxley a pair of dark revelries. Sherard Vines included the anti-Georgian “Quadrant”:

The policewomen stand under the Georgian arcade
On the lookout for poor polls who stop to adjust a garter or have a joke. (18)

There are poems by new minor contributors, H. R. Barbor, Paul Selver, and “Charles Orange,” a pseudonym for Brian Howard.

Wheels concludes with a satire by Augustine Rivers that attacks Squire and the London Mercury:

Dullness, the Deity, in conclave sat
With Mediocrity, whose pork-pie hat
Now flaunts, with intermingled asphodel,
The homelier herbs that “Georgians” love so well
—No Baudelaire flowers now shed exotic scent
But parsley, garlic sweet, and peppermint. (57)

____________________

V. ENDNOTES

  1. Unless otherwise stated, the reviews quoted in this essay come from the “Press Notices” sections of various cycles of the anthology and will hereafter be identifed merely by cycle and page number: e.g., (1: 90).
  2. In fact, Read did not publish in Wheels.

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