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Conrad Aiken was principally successful as a poet. He is generally considered to have significantly influenced the development of modern poetry, though his short stories, novels, and criticism were also highly regarded. A modernist, Aiken was greatly influenced by psychoanalytic thought and the theories of Sigmund Freud and George Santayana. In his writings, Aiken blended spiritual, philosophical, and psychological elements to explore facets of modern existence and the evolution of human consciousness. He was interested in conscious and unconscious reality and explored these themes in his works using physical details and psychological drama. The result was complex works of literature that are significant on several levels.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Aiken was born on August 5, 1889, in Savannah, Georgia, the son of William Ford and Anna Aiken Potter. His wealthy parents were cousins of well-respected Puritan stock. They had moved to Georgia from New England. His father became a highly respected physician and surgeon. As a boy growing up in Savannah, Aiken enjoyed reading the horror stories of Edgar Allan Poe at a former burial ground, Colonial Park.
Aiken’s young life was radically changed in February 1901 when his father became mentally unbalanced and killed his wife, and then himself. Not only did the young Aiken suffer the trauma of losing both parents at the age of eleven; he actually heard the gunshots and was the one who discovered their bodies. The violent deaths of his parents overshadowed the rest of his life and writings. From that point forward, he feared he would one day go insane like his father.
Educated in New England
After his parents’ death, Aiken was sent to live with an aunt in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he spent the rest of his childhood. After graduating from the Middlesex School—where he edited the school paper—he entered Harvard University in 1907. There, he studied literature and wrote for the Harvard Advocate. Aiken also studied with and was deeply influenced by Santayana, a renowned philosopher and poet. Aiken also made a lifelong friend in classmate T. S. Eliot, who would become a major poet in his own right.
A Burgeoning Poet
By the time he graduated from Harvard in 1912, Aiken was already working as a free lance writer and spending much time writing his own prose. He published his first book in 1914, Earth Triumphant and Other Tales in Verse. In his early poetry— which he wrote while living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and during travels abroad—Aiken experimented with adapting musical forms to poetry and using common individuals as central characters in his poems.
His interest in combining music and poetry peaked with a unified series of six long poems written between 1915 and 1920. He dubbed these poems “symphonies”. These poems expressed a theme of personal identity and struggle to understand one’s self. The most successful of Aiken’s symphonies was Senlin: A Biography (1918).
Writing Through World War I
Aiken wrote these works—as well as his important narrative poem Punch: The Immortal Liar, Documents in His History (1921)—as World War I raged. World War I began in 1914 after Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated, setting off a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Because of entangled alliances, the whole of Europe was soon engulfed in the conflict. After being provoked by Germany in 1917, the United States joined the war on the side of France Great Britain, and Russia. Aiken was granted an exemption from service because of his claim that he was in an ”essential industry” as a poet.
In 1921, several years after the war ended, Aiken moved his family to England. (He had married Jessie McDonald in 1912, and had three children with her.)
They first lived in London before settling in Rye, Sussex. There, Aiken began to contribute reviews and commentaries on contemporary poetry to such periodicals as the London Athenaeum, while branching out into fiction. Among his first experiments with fiction was Priapus and the Pool (1922). Aiken also published significant collections of short stories, such as Bring! Bring! and Other Stories (1925) and Costumes by Eros (1928), as well as his first semi-autobiographical novel, Blue Voyage (1927).
Personal Turmoil, Literary Triumph
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Aiken experienced a period of intense personal suffering that coincided with an extra-ordinarily productive literary phase in which he produced some of his most significant work. In 1930, Aiken both divorced his first wife and married Clarice Lorenz. He then attempted suicide in 1932. Amidst all this turmoil, he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1930 for his poetry compilation Selected Poems (1929), and published his novel Great Circle (1933), which the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, considered a masterpiece.
Aiken also began to publish verse that examined the self in relation to the greater world. Such books included Time in the Rock: Preludes to Definition (1936), which explored themes like the nature of love and betrayal as well as the attainment of understanding and transcendence. From 1934 to 1936, Aiken also continued his journalistic career by serving as a London correspondent for the New Yorker under the pseudonym Samuel Jeake Jr. His personal life continued to be tumultuous; he divorced his second wife in 1937, and married his third, the painter Mary Augusta Hoover, that same year.
More War, More Poems
Aiken returned to Massachusetts in 1939 as World War II was beginning in Europe. The war began when Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland in September 1939. Eng land and France declared war on Germany, but Germany’s powerful army soon controlled much of the European continent. The United States entered the war in 1941 after its Hawaiian naval base was bombed by Japan. The war was fought in a number of theaters in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific, involving 61 countries and leaving 55 million people dead. But in Massachusetts, Aiken was far from the violence and bloodshed, and his poetry throughout the 1940s focused instead on his experiences in New England. Such collections as Brownstone Eclogues and Other Poems (1942) and The Soldier (1944) feature various stanzaic, rhythmic, and rhyme patterns, and concentrated Aiken’s interest in cultural and ancestral heritage. Aiken’s novels of this period were also New England-centered, including A Heart for the Gods of Mexico (1939) and Conversation; or, Pilgrims’ Progress (1940).
From 1950 to 1952, Aiken served as a consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress. In 1952, he published his autobiographical novel, Ushant: An Essay, in which he wrote candidly about his marriages and affairs, his suicide attempt, and friendships with accomplished writers like Eliot and Ezra Pound. Aiken continued to publish challenging poetry, though at a slower pace than earlier in his life. Among these collections were Sheepfold Hill: Fifteen Poems (1958) and Thee (1967). In the early 1960s, Aiken returned to his native city, Savannah, Georgia, and remained there for the rest of his life. In 1973 he was appointed the Poet Laureate of Georgia, and died in Savannah on August 17 of that year.
Works in Literary Context
A Range of Influences
As a writer, Aiken was greatly influenced by his Harvard mentor, George Santayana. In Santayana’s view, the world exists as a tactile and luminescent reality, full of beauty that serves as the framework of all vital, self-conscious existence. This aesthetic reaction to the world is found in Aiken’s own poetry and fiction. However, because of the great pain and loss he personally experienced, Aiken did not view life naively or optimistically. Indeed, the murder-suicide of his parents also greatly informed his works and contributed to his interest in psychoanalytic thought. Aiken was further influenced by such authors as John Masefeld, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, Henry James, William James, Edgar Lee Masters, the Symbolists, and English Romanticists, as well as the composer Richard Strauss. For Aiken, music and poetry were undeniably linked, as he made clear in his poetic symphonies.
Aiken readily admitted that the influence of Sigmund Freud could be found throughout his work. In both his poetry and fiction, Aiken tried to expose motivations buried in the subconscious. He believed that if such motivations were left there, unspoken and unacknowledged, they could have as disastrous an effect as they had on his own father’s life. In the novel Great Circle (1933), for example, the central character has to learn to accept his past—with the help of a psychoanalyst. Blue Voyage (1927) is ostensibly about a voyage to England, but the real voyage in this stream-of-consciousness novel is in the mind. Finally, the highly regarded short story ”Silent Snow, Secret Snow” (1934) is a psychoanalytic portrait of a disturbed boy.
Between 1915 and 1920, Aiken com posed a unified sequence of six poems that he called ”symphonies”. This set included The Jig of Forslin: A Symphony (1916) and The Pilgrimage of Festus (1923). The six long pieces strived to achieve the contrapuntal effects of music by juxtaposing patterns of narrative repetition and variation. In the poems, words are regularly repeated. The opening and closing sections of The House of Dust: A Symphony (1920) feature the repetition of whole lines. Words and phrases are also repeated or echoed in multiple or varied situations, such as in the opening passages of parts one and two of The House of Dust. Though there is verbal repetition, situations are varied, such as in the morning, noon, and evening songs of Senlin. Interestingly, while the origins of the symphonies came from Aiken’s passion for Richard Strauss, Aiken favored a more modern symphonic tradition. Aiken’s poems feature abrupt transitions and elements of cacophony similar to the works of composer Igor Stravinsky.
Works in Critical Context
Aiken received many prestigious literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, and he earned the critical acclaim of some of the most respected writers and critics of his time. However, he was never truly popular among critics and readers. The central problem for many critics is that his poetry seems to lack intensity. It conveys feelings of indefiniteness, and emotion seems dispersed or passive. Other critics feel that Aiken fails to speak with the intensity and precision of other poets because his poems dealt with aspects of man’s psychology that are, by their very nature, indefinite, and indefinable in any precise way. Aiken was also praised for his ability to suggest through sound, image, and rhythm the things that would otherwise remain unknown to readers. Many critics concluded that his fiction was merely a prosaic version of his poetry.
Punch: The Immortal Liar, Documents In His History
Of Aiken’s earlier works, the narrative poem Punch: The Immortal Liar, Documents In His History was one of the best critically received of the time. Based on the figure from the Punch and Judy puppet shows, Aiken’s protagonist is presented from several points of view that alternatively depict life as mysterious, ironic, and deterministic. Critics embraced this book more readily than Aiken’s other works, with critics like Maxwell Anderson calling the second part of Punch ”one of the most poignant lyrics ever written.” In the New Republic, Amy Lowell commented that Punch was ”one of the most significant books of the poetry renaissance.”
”Silent Snow, Secret Snow”
”Silent Snow, Secret Snow” is another highly regarded piece by Aiken. Published in 1934, this short story focuses on a boy who is losing contact with reality and becoming schizophrenic. Aiken once admitted this story was an exploration of his own tendency towards insanity. Many critics regarded it as a Poe-like horror story in that it explored the tapping of unconscious fears. Critics praised how Aiken explored psyches, with Jesse G. Swan noting in a commentary on both the story and Senlin: A Biography in The Southern Literary Journal that, In both pieces, the central figures experience something to which no one else seems to be sensitive. As this experience is uncommon, it demands uncommon material. Aiken succeeds in presenting these nebulous experiences by carefully casting silences into his work.”
- Butscher, Edward. Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
- Denney, Reuel. Conrad Aiken. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1964.
- Killorin, Joseph, ed. Selected Letters of Conrad Aiken. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978.
- Martin, Jay. Conrad Aiken, A Life of His Art. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962.
- Spivey, Ted Ray. Time’s Stop in Savannah: Conrad Aiken’s Inner Journey. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1997.
- Anderson, Maxwell. Review of Punch: The Immortal Liar, Documents In His History. Measure (May 1921).
- Lowell, Amy. Review of Punch: The Immortal Liar, Documents In His History. New Republic (September 1921).
- Swan, Jesse G. At the Edge of Sound and Silence: Conrad Aiken’s Senlin: A Biography and Silent Snow, Secret Snow’.” Southern Literary Journal (Fall 1989): 41-49.
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