Conrad Aiken 1889–1973
American poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and editor. See also Conrad Aiken Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 5, 10.
A prolific writer of poems as well as fictional and nonfictional prose, Aiken is regarded by some critics as having significantly influenced the development of modern poetry. He was both a contemporary and an associate of such writers as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, but he disliked literary movements and labels. Aiken's work reveals a profound interest in the theories of Sigmund Freud and George Santayana, combining as it does spiritual, philosophical, and psychological elements in its examination of modern existence and the evolution of human consciousness. Much of his poetry draws upon the language and structures of music. Aiken was fascinated with the workings of the conscious and unconscious mind, and with what he termed "that passionate sense of identity which has always been the most preciously guarded possession of the poet." His poetry received nine major literary awards, including a National Book Award, a Bollingen Prize, and a Pulitzer Prize.
Aiken was the oldest of four children—three boys and a girl—born in Savannah, Georgia, to Anna Potter Aiken and Dr. William Ford Aiken, who were both of Scottish descent. When he was eleven years old Aiken moved to Massachusetts to live with relatives after his father shot his mother and then committed suicide. Profoundly affected by this experience, Aiken later wrote that in discovering his parents' bodies he "found himself possessed of them forever." In 1907, Aiken entered Harvard University, where he studied literature and wrote for the Harvard Advocate. T. S. Eliot was one of several well-known classmates at Harvard; Eliot and Aiken developed a lasting personal and professional relationship and critics have debated over which of the two poets influenced the other's work more deeply. After missing classes to complete a translation of a work by nineteenth-century poet Théophile Gautier during his senior year, Aiken was put on probation for absenteeism. His subsequent withdrawal from the university lost him his standing as class poet, and he spent the next year in Europe, visiting Eliot in Paris. He returned to Harvard in the fall of 1911 to complete his degree and afterward pursued a career as a freelance writer. Aiken's early verse, much of which he wrote during the years following his graduation in 1912, has been characterized as reminiscent of the poetry of John Masefield and Edgar Lee Masters
while demonstrating Aiken's own initial experiments in adapting musical forms to poetry and his use of common individuals as central characters. In these poems, collected in Earth Triumphant, and Other Tales in Verse (1914), Turns and Movies, and Other Tales in Verse (1916), Nocturne of Remembered Spring, and Other Poems (1917), and the belatedly published The Clerk's Journal: Being the Diary of a Queer Man (1971), Aiken used narrative and dramatic verse forms in these collections to examine such themes as disillusionment, guilt, nostalgia, and anxiety. In 1921, Aiken moved his family to England, living at first in London, then later in Rye, Sussex. He continued to write poetry but also worked on prose fiction, and contributed reviews and commentaries on contemporary poetry to London periodicals. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Aiken experienced a period of deep personal suffering which resulted in divorce from his first wife in 1929, remarriage in 1930, and a suicide attempt in 1932. These years also initiated an extraordinarily productive literary phase during which Aiken produced much of his most enduring and significant work, such as The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones (1931) and Preludes for Memnon; or, Preludes to Attitude (1931). From 1934 to 1936, Aiken served as London correspondent to the New Yorker under the pseudonym of Samuel Jeake, Jr. In 1939, following a divorce from his second wife and his subsequent remarriage, Aiken returned to the United States. His poetry during the next decade reflects his experiences in New England. Collected in the volumes And in the Human Heart (1940), Brownstone Eclogues, and Other Poems (1942), The Soldier (1944), The Kid (1947), and Skylight One: Fifteen Poems (1949), these works display a variety of stanzaic, rhythmic, and rhyme patterns and focus on Aiken's interest in cultural and ancestral heritage. Aiken's poetry of the 1950s and 1960s is collected in four volumes: A Letter from Li Po, and Other Poems (1955), Sheepfold Hill: Fifteen Poems (1958), The Morning Song of Lord Zero: Poems Old and New (1963), and Thee: A Poem (1967). These works emphasize themes relating to language and art while displaying a renewed affirmation of life. Aiken's productive career as a poet spanned nearly sixty years, garnered him numerous awards, and included children's verse and limericks as well as his complex, musically influenced preludes.
Between 1915 and 1920, Aiken composed a unified sequence of poems that is regarded as the major work of his early career. These long pieces, which he called "symphonies," strive to achieve the contrapuntal effects of music by juxtaposing patterns of narrative repetition and variation. Aiken traced the origins of his symphonies to a "passing passion for Richard Strauss." However, he abandoned Strauss's smooth, chronological structures in favor of a more modern symphonic tradition consisting of abrupt transitions and elements of cacophony similar to the works of composers Anton Bruckner, Arnold Schoennburg, and Igor Stravinsky. Concerned with themes of personal identity, these poems focus on what has been described as the self-conscious mind's alienation from the outside world and its attempts to reconnect with that world. The Charnel Rose, first published in The Charnel Rose, Senlin: A Biography, and Other Poems (1918), is Aiken's earliest symphonic composition. Focusing on the theme of nympholepsy, which Aiken defined as a desire for the unattainable, this work features dream-like visions of lamias and death and examines the elusiveness of love. The Jig of Forslin: A Symphony (1916) presents the fantasies of an ordinary man haunted by prostitutes, vampires, and demons. Compared by some critics to Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, with allusions to the hallucinations of characters in the works of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Flaubert, this poem portrays the modern world as alienating and hostile. The House of Dust: A Symphony (1920), is considered a marked improvement in thematic development and technique over Aiken's previous symphonies. This lengthy and complicated work examines analogies between a city and the human body, centering on the narrator's quest for identity while exploring dimensions of awareness in societies and individuals. In Aiken's Senlin: A Biography (published in 1925 and generally considered his most successful symphony) the title character represents an all-encompassing consciousness that seeks individual form. Even as he assumes the physical appearances of his world in such manifestations as a forest, a desert, a city, and a house, Senlin at the same time exists independently of these appearances. The Pilgrimage of Festus (1923) adopts a more concrete image of personality and consciousness in which Festus, searching for truth and knowledge, dreams of encounters with Buddha, Confucius, Jesus Christ, and Mephistopheles. In 1921 Aiken published his narrative poem Punch: The Immortal Liar, Documents in His History (1921). It was described by poet Amy Lowell as "one of the most significant books of the poetry renaissance." Based on the figure from the Punch and Judy puppet shows, Aiken's protagonist is presented from several points of view which alternately depict life as mysterious, ironic, and deterministic. Shortly afterward, in Priapus and the Pool (1922), Aiken introduced his experiments with serial form, a musical structure based on a series of tones arranged in an arbitrary but fixed pattern in which themes are explored via incre ment and variation. Priapus and the Pool focuses on the many aspects of love as symbolized by the mythical figures Priapus and Narcissus. Aiken turned to a symbolic treatment of death in his collection John Deth: A Metaphysical Legend, and Other Poems (1930). This work deals with Freudian ideas of ritual and routine, portrayals of grotesque dream landscapes, and themes of sexuality. In the 1930s Aiken published another major sequence of music-based poems which he called "preludes." First in the cycle is The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones (1931), a funerary book of parables, myths, letters, and other documents that borrows from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and that serves as a prologue to the two volumes of preludes that follow. Preludes for Memnon (1931) furthers Aiken's experiments in serial form begun in Priapus and the Pool and addresses the problems encountered in the narrator's search for self-knowledge. Finally, Time in the Rock: Preludes to Definition (1936) looks at such themes as the transience of innocence, the nature of love and betrayal, and the attainment of understanding. Highly philosophical and lyrical, these preludes are also concerned with the ability of poetry to extend consciousness and awareness.
Critical assessment of Conrad Aiken's poetry is, as Louis Untermeyer points out, sharply divided between strong admiration and equally strong dislike. Some commentators complain that Aiken's work is too derivative of Eliot's. Others suggest that his poetry becomes bogged down in its own discussions of poetic technique. Alternatively, several critics have commended Aiken for his attempt to create a new, more accurate poetic language that incorporates music and which is sensitive to the complex workings of the individual mind and the necessary but difficult relationship between the individual mind and the rest of the world.