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Conrad (Potter) Aiken (1889-1973)


American poet, short story writer, critic and novelist. Most of Aiken's work reflects his intense interest in psychoanalysis and the development of identity. As editor of Emily Dickinson's Selected Poems (1924) he was largely responsible for establishing that poet's posthumous literary reputation. From the 1920s Aiken divided his life between England and the United States, playing a significant role in introducing American poets to the British audience.

"All lovely things will have an ending,
All lovely things will fade and die,
And youth, that's now so bravely spending,
Will beg a penny and by."

(in 'All Lovely Things Will Have an Ending,' 1916 )

Conrad Aiken was born in Savannah, Georgia, the first of three sons born to William Ford Aiken, a surgeon, and Anna Porter Aiken, the daughter of a Unitarian minister. In his childhood Aiken experienced a profound trauma when he found the bodies of his parents - his father, brilliant but unstable, had killed his mother and committed suicide. When reaching the age of his father at the time of the tragedy, Aiken had also difficulties in keeping his depression at bay. In his "autobiographical narrative" Ushant: An Essay (1952), Aiken confessed that finding his parents dead, he "found himself possessed of them forever". This prose work dramatized the attempt of its protagonist, the author's persona, to read the palimpsest of hieroglyphs that constitutes the landscape of his soul, and mingled in between sketches of Malcolm Lowry, T.S. Eliot, and other figures he knew.

Aiken was brought up in Massachusetts from the age of eleven by a great-great-aunt. Before entering Harvard Aiken was educated at private schools and at Middlesex School, Concord. In Harvard he shared a class with T.S. Eliot, with whom he edited the Advocate and whose poetry was to influence his own. Due to poor class attendance, he was placed on academic probation. Aiken spent in Europe for half a year and eventually graduated in 1912. After receiving the degree of A.B., Aiken married Jessie McDonald, a graduate student from Canada; they had three children.

After working as a reporter, Aiken devoted himself entirely to writing, along with having a small private income. Of the many influences Aiken acknowledged, the writings of Freud, Havelock Ellis, William James, Edgar Allan Poe, and the French Symbolists are evident in his work. Freud considered Aiken's second autobiographical novel, Great Circle (1933), a masterpiece of analytical introspection.

Aiken's first collection of verse, Earth Triumphant (1914) made him known as a poet. He was a contributing editor to Dial, which led to a friendship with Ezra Pound. Aiken's essays, collected in Skepticisms (1919) and A Reviewer's ABC (1958), dealt with the questions provoked by his commitment to literature as a mode of self-understanding.

During the First World War Aiken claimed that he was in an "essential industry" because of being a poet, and was granted an exemption for this reason. Aiken's adult life was marked by trans-Atlantic journeys. In 1921 he moved from Massachusetts to England, settling in Rye, Sussex, where Jessie gave birth to their third children. At that time Aiken's marriage began to fall apart; they divorced in 1929, and Jessie married the poet's friend Martin Armstrong.

In 1927-28 Aiken was a tutor in English at Harvard. His second wife was Clarissa M. Lorenz, a musician and journalist. Blue Voyage (1927), dedicated to C.M.L. caught the attention of Malcolm Lowry, who tought that it meant himself. He wrote a letter to Aiken, who become his tutor and friend. They composed also together a poem for The Festival Theatre Review protesting the censorship of literature.

During his stay in Rye, Aiken produced his famous preludes, collected in Preludes for Memnon (1931) and Time in the Rock (1936). There was also a suicide attempt in 1932. He sailed again for Boston in 1933, and then spent two years in Rye (1934-36), writing 'London Letters' to the New Yorker. Preludes for Memnon was dedicated to Aiken's benefactor Henry A. Murray, a Harvard psychologist. A few of Aiken's many letters to Murray were published in Selected Letters of Conrad Aiken (1978). While in Boston in 1936, he met the artist Mary Augusta Hoover; in her he fond the ideal partner for the third phase of his life. After divorcing Clarissa, Aiken married Mary Hoover in Mexico. The trip, made by train, became the basis of A Heart for the Gods of Mexico (1939). Upon the outbreak of World War II, the couple moved from Rye to the United States.

"Walk with me world, upon my right hand walk,
speak to me Babel, that I may strive to assemble
of all these syllables a single word
before the purpose of speech is gone."

(in 'This image or another', 1932)

In 1930 Aiken was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Selected Poems. Most of Aiken's fiction was written between the 1920s and '30s, among others the novels Blue Voyage (1927), in which he used interior monologue, King Coffin (1934), and the short story collections Bring! Bring! (1925), and Among the Lost (1934), which contains the classic 'Silent Snow, Secret Snow,' a horror story in which the sounds of the falling snow start to haunt a young boy, and 'Mr. Arcularis,' recounting the dream voyage of an aesthete on the operating table, just before his death. The story first appeared in T.S. Eliot's Criterion. Later on Aiken adapted it into a play, published in 1957.

After staying two years in Rye, Aiken settled in 1947 in Brewster, Massachusetts. He was a consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress from 1950 to 1952. In 1953 he published Collected Poems, which included the masterworks 'Preludes to Definition' and 'Morning Song of Senlin'.

From 1962 on Aiken wintered in a Savannah house adjacent to that of his childhood. He died in Savannah on August 17, 1973. His tombstone epitaph in the Bonaventure Cemetery reads: "Cosmos Mariner, Destination Unknown." Posthumously published The Selected Letters of Conrad Aiken  (1978) contains correspondence with such literary colleagues as Wallace Stevens, Harriet Monroe, and Edmund Wilson. Besides the Pulitzer Prize, Aiken's many honors and awards include National Book Award (1954), Bollinger Prize in 1956, Gold Medal in Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1958, and National Medal for Literature in 1969.

Aiken was married three times. Two of his daughters from the first marriage became writers: Jane Aiken Hodge (born in 1917), who started to publish popular historical novels and works of romantic suspense from the 1960s, and Joan Aiken. She was born in Sussex in 1924 and educated at home before entering the school at the age of 12. A prolific writer like her sister, Aiken produced more than 30 books for adults and over 60 for children. Her first collection of short stories for children, All You've Ever Wanted, appeared in 1953. Other works include The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962), Black Hearts in Battersea (1964), The Silence of Herondale (1964), A Necklace of Raindrops (1968), Midnight is a Place (1974), The Shadow Guests (1980), The Cuckoo Tree (1981), The Way to Write for Children (1982), Mansfield Revisited (1984), Deception (1987), Blackground (1989), Jane Fairfax (1990), Morningquest (1992), Eliza's Daughter (1994), The Winter Sleepwalker (1994), Cold Shoulder Road (1995); The Cockatrice Boys (1996), The Jewel Seed (1997). Joan Aiken's works combine elements from fairy tales, history, horror, supernatural, and adventure.

For further reading: Aiken: A Life of His Art by Jay Martin (1962); From Fiction To Film: Conrad Aiken's Silent Snow, Secret Snow by Gerald R. Barrett & Thomas L. Erskine (1972); Aiken: A Bibliography (1902-1978) by F.W. and F.C. Bonnell (1982); Lorelei Two: My Life with Aiken by Clarissa M. Lorenz (1983); The Writer As Shaman: The Pilgrimages of Conrad Aiken and Walker Percy by Ted R. Spivey (1986); Conrad Aiken by Edward Butsche (1988); Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale by Edward Butscher (1988); The Art of Knowing: The Poetry and Prose of Conrad Aiken by H. Martin (1988); Conrad Aiken, Our Father by Joan Aiken and Jane Aiken Hodge (1989); Aiken: A Priest of Consciousness, ed. by Ted R. Spirey and Arthur Waterman (1989); The Fictive World of Conrad Aiken by C.F. Seigel (1993); Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale by Edward Butscher (2010) - See also: Ezra Pound

Selected works:

  • Earth Triumphant, and Other Tales in Verse, 1914
  • The Jig of Forslin: A Symphony, 1916
  • Turns and Movies and other Tales in Verse, 1916
  • Nocturne of Remembered Spring: And Other Poems, 1917
  • The Charnel Rose, Senlin: A Biography, and Other Poems, 1918
  • Scepticisms: Notes on Contemporary Poetry, 1919
  • The House of Dust: A Symphony, 1920
  • Punch: The Immortal Liar, Documents in His History, 1921
  • Modern American Poetry, 1922 (selected by Conrad Aiken, rev. 1927., rev. as Twentieth Century American Poetry, 1945, 1963)
  • Priapus and the Pool, 1922
  • The Pilgrimage of Festus, 1923
  • Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1924 (edited by Conrad Aiken)
  • Priapus and Other Pool, and Other Poems, 1925
  • Bring! Bring! and Other Stories, 1925
  • Blue Voyage, 1927
  • Poems, 1927
  • Costumes by Eros, 1928
  • Prelude, 1929
  • Selected Poems, 1929 (Pulitzer Prize)
  • John Deth, A Metaphysical Legacy, and Other Poems, 1930
  • Gehenna, 1930
  • The Melody of Chaos , 1931
  • The Coming Forth by Day of Oriris Jones, 1931
  • Preludes for Memnon, 1931
  • And in the Hanging Garden, 1933
  • Great Circle, 1933
  • Among the Lost People, 1934
  • King Coffin, 1934
  • Landscape West of Eden, 1934
  • Time in the Rock; Preludes to Definition, 1936
  • A Heart for the Gods of Mexico, 1939
  • And in the Human Heart, 1940
  • Conversation, or, Pilgrim's Progress: A Domestic Symphony, 1940
  • Brownstone Eclogues, and Other Poems, 1942
  • The Soldier: A Poem, 1944
  • An Anthology of Famous English and American Poetry, 1945 (ed. with W.R. Benét)
  • The Kid, 1947
  • The Divine Pilgrim, 1949
  • Skylight One: Fifteen Poems, 1949
  • The Short Stories of Conrad Aiken, 1950
  • Ushant: An Essay, 1952
  • Collected Poems, 1953 (The National Book Award)
  • A Letter from Li Po and Other Poems, 1955
  • The Flute Player, 1956
  • Mr. Arcularis: A Play, 1957 (play, based on a short story from Among the Lost People, 1934)
    - TV drama 1956, in Studio One, teleplay Robert Herridge, dir. Karl Genus, starring John Drainie, Bramwell Fletcher and Betty Furness, Jonathan Harris; TV play 1959, in ITV Play of the Week; TV drama 1961, in Great Ghost Tales, dir. Karl Genus, starring John Abbott, Roger C. Carmel, Dan Morgan, Lois Nettleton
  • A Reviewer's ABC; Collected Criticism of Conrad Aiken from  1916 to the Present, 1958
  • Sheepfold Hill: Fifteen Poems, 1958
  • The Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken, 1960 (pref. by Mark Schorer)
  • Selected Poems, 1961
  • The Morning Song of Lord Zero, Poems Old and New, 1963
  • A Seizure of Limericks, 1964
  • The Collected Novels of Conrad Aiken, 1964 (introd. by R. P. Blackmur)
  • Cats and Bats and Things with Wings, 1965 (drawings by Milton Glaser)
  • Tom, Sue, and the Clock, 1966 (illustrated by Julie Maas)
  • Preludes, 1966
  • Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken, 1966 (preface by Walter Allen)
  • Thee: A Poem, 1967 (drawings by Leonard Baskin)
  • Collected Criticism, 1968 (formerly A Reviewer’s ABC, introduced by Rufus A. Blanshard)
  • The Clerk's Journal, Bing the Diary of a Queer Man; an Undergraduate Poem, Together with a Brief Memoir of Harvard, Dean Briggs and T. S. Eliot , 1971
  • A Little Who's Zoo of Mild Animals, 1977 (illustrated by John Vernon Lord)
  • Selected Letters of Conrad Aiken, 1978 (edited by Joseph Killorin)
  • The Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken, 1982 (introduction by Robert Penn Warren)
  • The Letters of Conrad Aiken and Malcolm Lowry, 1929-1954, 1992 (edited by Cynthia C. Sugars)
  • Selected Poems, 2003 (with a new foreword by Harold Bloom)

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