Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1571
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...
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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,Darkens the darkness that was already darkness.The mind too has its snows, its slippery paths,Walls bayoneted with ice, leaves ice-encased.
As the poem continues, Aiken introduces other motifs, which recur repeatedly at random places throughout the collection: the void; chaos; memory, which here appears as a juggler balancing the colored balls of inconsequential human action and thoughts; the distorting mirror; silence. Aiken ends by describing the angelic and demoniac wings that conjure the echo of the abyss, of death. With the poem’s final line, Aiken reminds his reader, “And this is you.”
This prelude provides no simple picture; it is, rather, part of Aiken’s attempt to define the complex and shifting realities in human identity. Because Aiken believed that identity lies within human consciousness, his poetry explores that world. It is a place of ever-changing focuses, new ideas, contradictory thoughts. Paradox is central to many of the preludes. Aiken presents the contrasts between growth and dying, birth and death, winter and summer, silence and sound. Understanding these contrasts provides the only way to establish identity or, indeed, to protect the soul in a changing, impermanent universe.
Critics often turn to Aiken’s own life to explain his fascination with identity and paradox. In Ushant (1952), his autobiographical essay, Aiken recalls the tragic event that shaped his life and psyche forever. When he was eleven years old, his father had killed his mother and then shot himself; having heard the shot, Aiken had gone to their room and discovered them. With this tragedy, he wrote later, he lost his parents physically but found himself tied to them forever. After their death, his brothers were sent to live with family in Georgia, while he was sent alone to be raised by relatives in New England.
Aiken became interested in Freud and his theories, feeling he must continually search for self-understanding, balance, and harmony. He always remained aware of the dark side of existence, in both humans and nature; yet he also saw hope, and his poems examine these differing aspects of human nature, together and separately.
A major theme, symbol, and controlling device in Aiken’s poetry is music. The idea of a prelude or introduction provides a key to the poems as individual examinations of meaning that resemble Memnon’s morning greetings to his mother. Music imposes order on sound, and Aiken uses the imagery of music in many ways. Prelude 4 begins with the image of music springing out of silence to bring delight. Such joy does not always last, and prelude 5 describes symbols of despair, things broken and spilled while “the string snaps, and the music stops.” Prelude 9 equates beauty and music, and prelude 21 compares human lives to a series of notes: Daily, people rise to the first simple note and by evening the chord breaks and is silent.
Time, too, is the subject of many preludes. Prelude 28, for example, begins with the clock announcing that time has come, and it continues to remind of the passage of time, of days coming and going; in conclusion, the heart ticks like the clock. Prelude 19 is a reminder that, if one were to watch long enough, the cycle of existence could be seen to repeat itself over and over again.
Many poems face directly the paradox in human beings and nature. Prelude 13 introduces a question Aiken poses several times: How is it possible to find a beginning or an ending, when no such thing exists in nature? In the continuum of time, what enables an individual to point to a moment and say with certainty, yes, this is where something started or ended. Prelude 27 provides another study in the contrast and flux that exists in the world. Nothing remains; even love turns to other emotions. Still, Aiken presents the reverse: Out of decay, a daffodil will grow. Aiken frequently reverses ideas to express paradox, as in prelude 50: “The world is intricate, and we are nothing./ The world is nothing: we are intricate./ Alas, how simple to invert the world/ Inverting phrases.” The poem goes on to explore the ambiguous nature of human beings, capable of believing two disparate ideas, feeling two contradictory emotions at the same time. Prelude 49 reinforces the conflicts in human nature: People kill both what they hate and what they love; what distinguishes the two is that they kill what they love slowly and with far more subtlety.
In many poems, language, even poetry itself, is the subject. Aiken, whose choice of words is thoughtful and precise, laments the failure of language. Prelude 5 discusses symbol and its imperfect ability to convey thought. For him, each symbol is both more and less than it appears on the page. A symbol, he declares, is as transient as the ghost of a thought. Prelude 28 reinforces the imprecision of words that seem precise, requesting the reader to take someone else’s words and change the meaning that person intended the words to have. This poem centers on the effect of inherited words. When people accept foreign definitions, they become slaves to meanings from other people’s consciousness. Parents and ancestors hand down words that reflect their identity, which may be quite different from the reality that their descendants experienced.
Ultimately, Aiken’s poetry deals with the human need to deal with the contradictions and despair of the world. Individuals must use their own words, find an identity, discover balance. This is an ongoing task, a cycle without end; human beings must, as prelude 42 states, be forever vigilant, exploring their consciousness, redefining themselves, renewing their identity, “Then say: I was a part of nature’s plan:/ Knew her cold heart, for I was consciousness:/ Came first to hate her, and at last to bless;/ Believed in her; doubted; believed again.”