A variety of qualities accounts for the complexity of Conrad Aiken’s poetry: eclecticism, mysticism, prolixity, diffusiveness, suggestiveness by implication, and, above all, a sophisticated philosophical and psychological concern. His purview may at times seem paradoxical, for he is romantic as well as classical, stoic and epicurean, optimistic and doom-stricken, joyous and despairing, assertive and diffident. Whatever his mood, his humane regard for man’s fate, along with his refusal to shrink from harsh reality, is impressive. Through all these qualities flicker the familiar gleams of his poetic inspirations. Aiken has freely and admittedly been influenced by Shakespeare, Joyce, Pound, Poe, Masters, Robinson, Eliot, Blake, Keats, and the nineteenth century Transcendentalists, to say nothing of Freud, Jung, and Krafft-Ebing.
Technically speaking, insofar as it is possible to divorce technique and substance, Aiken is usually unexceptional. By far his favorite prosodic form is blank verse, befitting of course his epic intents; this form is punctuated by cacophonies, metric irregularities, and free rhythms which provide variety of movement and counterpoint. His use of tetrameter couplets is frequent and he imitates the Shakespeare sonnet form in two sequences, “Sonnets,” and “And in the Human Heart.” He is not noteworthy for metrical experimentation save in his moving homage to Garcia Lorca, “The Poet in Granada,” the choral ode sections of “The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones,” and “The Soldier.” Though no more original, his rhetoric is more interesting because of his frequent archaisms. Floridity and excessive abstractness abound, particularly in his early work, but all his poetry is singular for its use of such romantic or classical words as gildling, lamia, perpend, cerulean, coruscation, sureate, and empyrean. What at first may seem a precious use of language is justified to some extent in descriptions of quasi-mythological kingdoms Aiken often envisions in his verse—worlds inhabited by such a real or imagined Everyman as Heliogabalus, Senlin, Festus, Forslin, and King Borborigimi. (His creation of personae, incidentally, a device he may have borrowed from Pound or Browning, is a perfect method for conveying his psychological delineations and projections.) Stylized metrics and rhetoric are only two of the features which cause some readers of Aiken’s work to describe it, and not without some reason, as vague, sentimental, prolix, and blurred by a certain romantic “softness.”
One of the most pleasing features of the Aiken style is its musicality. His phrasing, balance of lines, and alternation of rhythms prove his genius in manipulation of verbal sounds, and he employs such musicality to its greatest effect in the depiction of highly charged emotional experiences. Musical forms and instruments are constantly recurring synaesthetic images, symbols, and analogues. Aiken’s fascination with music has affected the creation of his verse in an even more basic way. In structuring his poetry, he utilizes musical forms and techniques in the hopes of attaining special effects. He writes that one of his aims is to achieve effects of contrast in both...
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