The Room Summary
by Conrad Aiken

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(Poetry for Students)

Conrad Aiken's "The Room," collected in John Deth and Other Poems and published in 1930, symbolically remembers and transforms Aiken's parents' deaths. It focuses on the dark and troubled struggle between chaos and order that was, for Aiken, the source of his creativity, and it proclaims his conviction (as quoted by Catharine F. Seigel in her article for Literature and Medicine) that "death and birth [are] inseparably interlocked." The poem also reflects the intellectual currents of its time. It presents aspects of psychological phenomena described in Freudian literature, like repression and displacement, and it uses mythic, or archetypal, imagery and a theory of recurrent cycles like those that were explored by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. Aiken represents emotional states and psychic phenomena using images that suggest those states. "The Room" is available in Aiken's Collected Poems (1953; 2nd ed., 1970), published by Oxford University Press.


(Poetry for Students)

Lines 1-5

"The Room" begins with the speaker telling of a past struggle, which took place in a particular but unidentified room. As if pointing, he says, "Through that window … I saw the struggle"—a "struggle / Of darkness against darkness" in which the darkness "turned and turned" and "dived down-ward." Everything besides the speaker and the window now is gone, "all else being extinct / Except itself [the window] and me." No reason is given for the struggle or its origin, history, or circumstances.

The insight the speaker gains from seeing the struggle is that he "saw / How order might—if chaos wished—become"—that is, how order can come into being out of chaos. Chaos is depicted as having potential: order might come into existence "if chaos wished."

Lines 6-11

In this section, the speaker traces the way chaos is transformed into order. He "saw the darkness crush upon itself, / Contracting powerfully." The energy that had been diffuse in struggle draws in upon itself and by contraction becomes concentrated. Contraction is a kind of suicide filled with pain: "It was as if / It killed itself, slowly: and with much pain. / Pain. The scene was pain, and nothing but pain." Only pain is left to the speaker from the struggle. Then comes the insight and a miraculous gift: "What else" can there be but pain "when chaos draws all forces inward / To shape a single leaf?" The leaf appears as abruptly and surprisingly in the poem as it does in the room.

Destruction is a dynamic struggle of dark forces spiraling downward and imploding; creation is presented as an image resulting from that struggle: a leaf. The potential energy of the struggle, concentrated by contraction, is converted to kinetic energy, to energy in motion, by the will of the speaker, exercised in pain, and bursts into something structured: "a single leaf."

Lines 12-18

Beginning with the image of the single, unattached leaf, the speaker presents the creative process as deriving a structure from an idea or a vision. Destruction is represented by implosion; creation is described as a process of uniting parts until an encompassing and order-giving whole is achieved. The leaf does not grow on a tree rising from a seed. It appears as a free-floating vision that the speaker has to work from to create a complete structure. "After a while," from that leaf, "the twig" that connects the leaf to the bough "shot downward from it." And then "from the twig a bough; and then the trunk, / Massive and coarse; and last the one black root." Anchoring comes last: creation, the process of opening outward after implosion, is delicate and tentative. Reversing the contraction, this process of expansion breaks the...

(The entire section is 923 words.)