Conrad Potter Aiken was the oldest of three sons and one daughter. His father was a surgeon, and the Aikens were well off, but the family was fractured by strife. In “Obiturary in Bitcherel,” the last of his Collected Poems (1970), and in Ushant: An Essay (1952), Aiken records the crescendo of violence that tore his family apart. In “Obituary in Bitcherel,” Aiken gives himself a very good beginning, with a distinguished father who was not only a physician and surgeon but also a writer and painter and with a mother, a New England beauty, whose father, William James Potter, a Congregational minister, was a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Two Mayflower passengers and six generations of the Delanos ran in Aiken’s veins. His parents reared him to appreciate literature and writing, and he had happy hours of play besides. Then the parents seemed to turn against each other. The atmosphere of the house became strained. Aiken was beaten, barebacked, for reasons unknown. In Ushant, he tells of the argument flaring up between his parents early one morning, of his mother’s half-smothered cry, of his father’s voice counting to three, of the handgun exploding twice, and of the two still bodies lying separately in the dim daylight of the room. Aiken was only eleven years old, and ever after the murder-suicide, he was in search of a literary consciousness that would do his parents credit.
Sent to live with a great-great aunt in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Aiken entered Harvard University in 1907, but in protest at being placed on probation for irregular class attendance, he went on a six-month tour of Europe; he did receive his Harvard degree in 1912. His marriage, the first of three, took place a few days later. After a year of honeymooning in Europe (where he was to return many times), he settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, devoting full time to writing on a small but independent income.
In 1914, with the publication of Earth Triumphant, and Other Tales in Verse, Aiken began a search for poetic monuments to his parents’ memory. Although he argued that there was no other possible judge of a poet’s excellence than the consciousness of the poet himself, he did reach out to people. There were, for example, his onetime mentor, John Gould Fletcher; his Harvard classmate, T. S. Eliot; and his three children by his first wife. Wherever he took up residence, however, it was the “evolution” of his artistic consciousness, the legacy of his parents, that held first place in his thoughts. Living in England from 1922 to 1925, in Massachusetts, New York City, and again in Georgia, and living as a traveler, Aiken sang with a unique and solitary voice.
His single-minded purpose gained him early recognition. From 1910 to 1911, he published many pieces in the Harvard Monthly and the Harvard Advocate, of which he served as president. From 1916 to 1922, he was a critic, mainly of contemporary poets, for The Poetry Journal, The New Republic, and The Dial, to which he was one of the contributing editors from 1917 to 1918. He also contributed to Poetry and the Chicago Daily News, among other periodicals. In the London Mercury and the London Atheneum, he published “Letters from America.” He also published several volumes of poems during these years, and nearly thirty more thereafter.
There were interesting side excursions from Aiken’s main road of poetry and criticism. He spent a year as an English tutor at Harvard (1927-1928) and wrote his play Fear No More, based on his short story “Mr. Arcularis.” The play was performed in London in 1946, and in Washington, D.C., in 1951. In the 1930’s, he conducted a summer school in painting and writing. In spite of his interludes, Aiken spent the last two decades of his life almost exclusively writing and revising his poems.
When Conrad Aiken was eleven, his father killed his mother and then committed suicide. This incident could very well have influenced the subject matter of a great number of his stories, where one...
(The entire section is 2,050 words.)