Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Conrad Aiken produced a remarkable variety of works, encompassing many different literary genres, among them short stories, novels, literary criticism, and a fascinating stream-of-conscious autobiographical essay. Any one of these works would mark him an important literary figure in the twentieth century. His greatest literary accomplishment, however, emerges in his poetry.
For many reasons, Aiken has been largely neglected by the academic and critical establishments. A quiet individual and extremely personal writer, he never fit conveniently into any particular poetic movement. Unlike such poets of his time as E. E. Cummings, he was not interested in challenging poetic form and line; he did not use poetry as a means of social comment, as did W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender, nor was he a Symbolist in the tradition of T. S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats. Aiken is a more traditional poet; in many ways, he is a descendant of the Romantic movement. He built on the traditional form, using elements from a variety of styles to form his personal poetic search for meaning.
Aiken’s poetry challenges the imagination by presenting complex images and ideas that are not always readily accessible to the reader. Although his language is elegant and expressive, he seldom uses sustained descriptions to illustrate a theme. For the most part, his poetry is reflective rather than dramatic. Metaphors appear, are dropped, and reappear almost at random. This is particularly true in Preludes for Memnon. This series of sixty-three poems, taken together with its companion work Time in the Rock (1936), forms the core of Aiken’s most mature work and contains the central themes and ideas in his writing. It is a series of meditations, images to greet the day. None of the individual poems is given an individual title, and there is no theme that builds from one poem to another. Instead, each poem deals with a separate song or search for attitude. Each explores a new theme or presents a different reflection on an old theme.
The title figure, Memnon, is the son of Tithonus, a mortal, grandson of the king of Troy and Eos, the goddess of the dawn. After the death of Hector, Troy’s greatest warrior, Memnon attempts to avenge him but is slain by Achilles. Eos’s grief at the loss of her son is so great that Zeus, moved to pity, makes Memnon immortal. The name Memnon is also connected with a seventy-foot column in Alexandria dedicated to Amenhotep III. In 27 b.c.e., the column was partly destroyed by an earthquake; it remained standing, but the earthquake had produced an unusual phenomenon in the column: When the sun’s rays first touched it each dawn, musical sounds resembling harp strings could be heard. These were interpreted as Memnon greeting his mother, the dawn.
Aiken’s concern is with the individual’s search for identity. In a preface, written in 1965, to the joint publication of Preludes for Memnon and Time in the Rock, Aiken states the dilemma that inspired the poems. At a time when Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, and Friedrich Nietzsche had redefined the world and the old religions, philosophy, ethics, language, and poetry were no longer able to answer the questions raised by science and mathematics, Aiken wanted to explore ways in which human beings could search for belief. For Aiken, it was vital that people search both inside the self and outside, in the world. The first prelude begins with a discussion of winter, the reality in nature, and the symbolic meaning of winter in the soul.
Winter is there, outside, is here in me:Drapes the planets with snow, deepens the ice on the moon,
(The entire section is 1571 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Aiken, Conrad. Ushant: An Essay. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Aiken’s autobiographical essay of more than three hundred pages provides enormous insight into his perspectives on writing and on life in general. An important introductory source to help readers understand the complex imagery in Aiken’s poetry. Originally published in 1952.
Butscher, Edward. Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988. A psychobiography that covers Aiken’s childhood in Georgia and Massachusetts, his years at Harvard University, and his friendships and involvements with other poets, including T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Amy Lowell. Also analyzes and traces the development of Aiken’s literary works.
Cowley, Malcolm. “Conrad Aiken: From Savannah to Emerson.” In New England Writers and Writing, edited by Donald W. Faulkner. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1996. This essay discussing Aiken’s work and its relation to New England is part of a collection that analyzes nineteenth and twentieth centuries authors from the New England region.
Marten, Harry. The Art of Knowing: The Poetry and Prose of Conrad Aiken. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988. Discusses the organization of the Preludes for Memnon, including Aiken’s views on consciousness, identity, and the change and flow in the life cycle. Analyzes poetic line and style.
Martin, Jay. Conrad Aiken: A Life of His Art. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962. Traces Aiken’s critical reputation and his development as a poet. Provides clear analysis of Aiken’s style and themes, finding the Preludes for Memnon the central defining work of his career.
Spivey, Ted, and Arthur Waterman, eds. Conrad Aiken: A Priest of Consciousness. New York: AMS Press, 1989. An excellent collection of essays that provide clear insights into Aiken’s work. Individual essays examine Aiken’s views on consciousness and language; essays on the Preludes for Memnon discuss metapoetics and provide a contextual reading of several poems.