A poet and artist of the second American Renaissance, Conrad Aiken pursued the theme of the poet alone, whose only true friends appear to be the characters of his writings. Technically, his poetry extends from the rhymes and measures of couplet and quatrain and blank and free verse to the more richly concentrated forms of the commemorative ode and “symphony”; the sonnet (“little song”) and its sequence, such as “And in the Human Heart”; and the aubade (“morning song”), among a variety of experimental forms.
Aiken’s experiments constantly remind readers of the tradition of meter, and especially of rhyme. Even his free verse uses enough rhyme to let one know that Aiken’s sense of poetic tradition is important. Aiken is perhaps most admired for his exploration of music within poetic forms as he mixes iambs with polysyllables, ranging from five- to three-stress meters.
Aiken is part of a Romantic humanist tradition that seeks to heal the hurt of human bereavement and the failure of social revolution by substituting the idea of the creator God for the godly creator. The poet-hero shows that it is possible to achieve solitary pleasure in the “resurrected” imagination, and in spite of social failures and inadequacies, there is a type of poetry, a wry music of spiritual revolution, in which lyric narrative and dialogue resist social distress. Aiken creates the enduring mock- or antihero, seen best in Punch in his early writings and in the later figures of the Kid and of Lord Zero.
Aiken’s monistic, dreamlike view of life and art is expressed in his protagonists, who range from ironic middle-class types—Forslin and Senlin—to mock- and antihero types—Punch, John Deth, the Kid, and Lord Zero. In Aiken’s mythology, death is a regulation, a point of genesis, perhaps because of the traumatic context of the deaths of Aiken’s parents. Aiken’s ironic rejoinder to death, the binding regulation on life, is the apotheosis of humankind through unity with godhead and nature in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, a pantheistic form of resurrection, as seen, for example, in Aiken’s use of the phoenix in The Morning Song of Lord Zero and in another late poem, “Thee.”
Aiken is a personal Romanticist. In his vaudeville poems, for example, which he wrote off and on well into his seventies, he tells of the sordid lives of the performers whose passions and violence catch the tonal quality of his own terrified childhood recollections. The sad, wry music of Aiken’s poetry seems to ask, To what purpose the passion and the violence? Natural death is enough to contend with, without the horror of passion and murder.
Over the stratum of the reality of death, Aiken builds a dreamworld of resurrection in many forms, ranging from the would-be type of Christ, through middle-class “monarchs of all they survey,” a Faustian puppet, a master demon and a vampire of the cyclic dance of death, various reincarnations of the American culture hero, to, finally, the apotheosis of humankind in the form of Lord Zero.
The Divine Pilgrim
The Divine Pilgrim is a collection of six “symphonies”: The Charnel Rose, The Jig of Forslin, The House of Dust, Senlin, The Pilgrimage of Festus, all collected from earlier publications, and Changing Mind, which was added in 1925. Aiken spelled out his musical principle in “Counterpoint and Implication” (Collected Poems, “Notes”), reprinted as “Aiken, Conrad (1919),” in A Reviewer’s ABC: Collected Criticism Conrad Aiken from 1916 to the Present (1958). His principle was to build each poem out of its key to emotional masses arranged so that each massing would set an elusively particular musical tone or subtheme to the words, and each masstone, or “sub-key,” would dominate a brief movement and its contrapuntal fellows until a “movement,” a main section or part, had been stated, developed, and restated to give a general tonality out of the units and subunits of poetic composition.
The Charnel Rose
The Charnel Rose, in the traditional four-part division of the sonata and symphony, treats carnal love, idealistic or Romantic love, erotically mystical love, and finally, purely mystical love in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his resurrection, which for Aiken is the symbol of flesh crucifying...
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