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Aiken, Conrad

The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature

Arnold E. Sabatelli

Aiken, Conrad 

Conrad Potter Aiken (1889–1973) epitomized the well-educated intellectual, scholar, and writer. Like his contemporary, friend, and fellow Harvard University graduate T. S. Eliot, he was one of the most admired and respected writers of his time. Given that he was so prolific in several genres (poetry, essays, critical analysis, fiction) and so popular during his life, it is surprising that he is not as well known today as he was in his time.

Life and Career

Aiken was born in Savannah, Georgia, on 5 August 1889. When he was very young, his father shot his mother and then himself while Aiken was in the house. Aiken found the bodies, and this event shaped his intellectual and artistic outlook for the rest of his life. In his experimental autobiography Ushant (1952), he discusses the link between this event and his artistic viewpoint. He was raised by a great-great-aunt in Massachusetts from the age of eleven. Even as a child, Aiken was intent on becoming a writer. His years at Harvard coincided with those of Eliot, E. E. Cummings, and Ezra Pound. He graduated from Harvard in 1912. He later worked with Pound on the journal Dial, and they became close friends. He published his first volume of poetry, Earth Triumphant, in 1914, and soon established his place as an important poet. Stating that poetry was an “essential industry,” he never served in World War I. Like Eliot, he spent a considerable amount of time in England, and during much of the 1920s and 1930s he traveled extensively, moving back and forth between New England and England and marrying three times before settling in the United States at the outbreak of World War II. (His daughter from his first marriage with Jessie McDonald is the writer Joan Aiken.)

Aiken edited Emily Dickinson's Selected Poems (1924), almost single-handedly establishing her posthumous reputation as a great poet. In 1930, Aiken was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems (1929). From 1934 to 1936, while in Rye, Sussex, Aiken wrote “London Letters” to The New Yorker. He was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (now the U.S. poet laureate) from 1950 to 1952. His other honors included the Bollingen Prize, the Gold Medal in Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a National Medal for Literature. He died in Savannah on 17 August 1973.

Intellectual and Artistic Sources

Aiken worked for a short time as a reporter but soon decided to live off a modest inheritance in order to devote his time entirely to writing and academic pursuits. He made specific reference to the works of Sigmund Freud as a major influence and was one of the first writers to openly acknowledge and self-consciously attempt to integrate Freud's theories into his body of work. Freud himself admired Aiken's work, especially the overtly psychological novel Great Circle (1933). Aiken also drew on the writings of literary figures and philosophers including Henry James, the philosopher William James, Edgar Allan Poe, and the French symbolists. Much of his poetry has been seen in a kind of dialogue with Eliot, who concurrently based a number of his more famous images and poetic structures on Aiken's work. The phrase “handful of dust,” from The Waste Land (1922), is often considered a reference to Aiken's The House of Dust (1920). He also clearly learned much from his extensive close reading and reviews of fellow poets such as Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams.


From the outset, Aiken's poetry was formal and direct, seizing hold of a theme and pursuing it at length through highly stylized forms frequently grounded in the structures of classical music. Often romantic, stemming from the works of Keats and Poe, his work is also self-consciously in step with the innovative, modern poets of his own time. While his work evolved in content and approach, he never really abandoned more traditional forms, instead trying to state the modern consciousness through the traditional. In Ushant, Aiken puts special emphasis on the term “consciousness,” suggesting that the poet's act of creation emerges hand in hand with the acquisition of knowledge. That is to say, the poet steps forth actively into the unknown hoping to shape it or to find shape in it—ordering and embedding or extracting meaning where once there was chaos. The act of poetry, for Aiken, springs both from incessant, sharp observation of the physical world and a welcome acceptance of subconsciously derived imagery and event.

Later in life, Aiken dismissed much of his early poetry as derivative or juvenile, with little intellectual substance. In his works that became known as the “symphonies”—The Jig of Forslin (1916), The Charnel Rose (1918), Senlin (1918), The House of Dust, The Pilgrimage of Festus (1923), and Changing Mind (1925)—he began a much more self-conscious attempt to merge form and content and instill his work with the depth of intellect he so admired and frequently reviewed or commented on in Eliot and Pound. Written largely between 1915 and 1920, these works were later revised and reordered in The Divine Pilgrim (1949), with some undergoing extensive changes. Although overly lavish and at times pretentious, these lengthy poems are also brilliant, ambitious, and intellectually forceful and marked a critical move toward his maturity as a poet.

In the years between publication of the “symphonies” and what would become his other most ambitious and accomplished works, known as the “preludes,” Aiken produced Punch: The Immortal Liar (1921)—one of his most popular works, written in the voice of a puppet who tells of his life and loves—and John Deth, a Metaphysical Legend (1930), light dramatic sketches that demonstrate Aiken's willingness to pursue many and varied artistic genres. He was always writing, willing to follow any and all ideas that came to him, and because of this his writing shows a remarkable range of type, quality, and seriousness.

With Preludes for Memnon (1931) and Time in the Rock: Preludes to Definition (1936), Aiken reached poetic maturity and established himself as a major poet in his time. These poems, especially Time in the Rock, bring together all of his earlier concerns—emphasis on the reflective, speculative, and philosophic; a deep desire to lay bare the dark mysteries of human consciousness and the ways in which the self both views these mysteries and is an integral part of them—but without the self-consciousness and excess of his earlier work. Although the seven volumes of poetry he produced after the “symphonies” are more understated and the poems completed after the “preludes” are competent, none are on a par with these two formidable works. Overall, then, Aiken was a prolific poet who authored two substantial masterpieces and a large number of successful but not nearly as important collections, ranging from humorous dramatic monologues to more unwieldy experiments.


Aiken published five novels and numerous short stories. A number of his contemporaries thought that he would ultimately become more known for his fiction (and criticism) than for his poetry—and this may one day prove to be true. In all his fiction there is a clarity of description, an awareness of the mundane details of ordinary life, and a wonderful ear for natural yet highly charged dialogue. Ultimately, his fiction seeks to demonstrate the theme of how the human consciousness functions. His novels and short stories are notable for their intense emotional and dramatic struggles, voyages both real and emotional, and vivid descriptions of real places, especially New England landscapes.

In his first novel, Blue Voyage (1927), the story of a man who sails from New York to England in search of a lost love, the primary dramatic quest becomes lost in the character's day-to-day life onboard. Aiken painstakingly explores the collision of the man's past with his looming future meeting and a barrage of subtle, largely internal dramas. The novel is often criticized for its lack of event, but it establishes Aiken as a master of dialogue and convincingly demonstrates the complexities of the human psyche, a theme he would pursue much more extensively, and in a more surreal and jarring manner, in Great Circle.

In A Heart for the Gods of Mexico (1939), a dying man's need to get to Mexico to be both divorced and married is almost overshadowed by the cataloging of characters and details during his long cross-country train ride. Here and elsewhere, there is a sense in Aiken's fiction that the central dramatic and emotional event is nearly subsumed by descriptions and dialogue—in other words, by the complex interplay between the human psyche and the outside world. Yet the endless descriptions and seemingly disassociated dialogue actually provide a complex and more purely metaphoric response to the central dramatic tension. In this novel, for instance, we find the narrator in the opening pages begging a friend for money to make the trip to Mexico, but the descriptions of the various eateries and bars and neighborhoods of Boston are dwelled on more than the matter at hand. Thus the trip to Mexico is in large part shown to be a more spiritual and metaphoric journey away from intense familiarity, comfort, and constancy, and the plot itself takes a back seat to Aiken's sketching out of the intricate workings of human perception and consciousness. While Aiken's fiction is sometimes overwhelmingly intense in its portrayal of the human mind—which is often engaged in the most mundane of events—there is an ease of tone in these novels that is not as apparent in his poetry.

Essays, Criticism, Letters

Aiken produced a large body of academic and nonfiction prose. First as coeditor with Eliot of Harvard's literary journal, later as a reviewer for the Dial and a correspondent for The New Yorker, and finally as an author of his own critical texts, Scepticisms (1919) and A Reviewer's ABC (1958), Aiken frequently examined his deep commitment to the literary text as a doorway to deeper self-understanding. The experimental autobiography Ushant frequently blurs together elements of autobiography, essay, fiction, and poetry and is one of his most successful works. In it he depicts his friendships with Malcolm Lowry, Eliot, and other major figures and friends, juxtaposing visions of the literary world between the wars with ad lib psychoanalytic and autobiographical wanderings. Its freedom from the constraints of both poetry and fiction allowed Aiken to give voice in complex and free-flowing fashion to many of the concepts and concerns in the whole body of his work. Here he arguably may have found the perfect form to synthesize the many and disparate forces at work in his creative consciousness. The Selected Letters of Conrad Aiken (1978) provides further understanding of Aiken's complex and varied approach to literature and life, with many letters to the major literary figures of his time.

Abundance of Work

Aiken was the consummate self-consciously forged intellect, writer, and scholar. At his best, his work transforms that intellect into art—transcending his own notions of what the work is trying to say and remaining elusive, natural, challenging, and rewarding. At its worst, his work is uneven, too overtly intellectualized and overdone. Many critics conclude that Aiken published too much. But amid all of his many volumes of poetry, short stories, novels, essays, and criticism stands a substantial body of rich and powerful work for which he is perhaps deserving of more prominence in the literary canon.


  • Earth Triumphant and Other Tales in Verse (1914)

  • Turns and Moves and Other Tales in Verse (1916)

  • The Jig of Forslin: A Symphony (1916)

  • Nocturnes 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)

  • Priapus and the Pool (1922)

  • The Pilgrimage of Festus (1923)

  • Priapus and the Pool and Other Poems (1925)

  • Changing Mind (1925)

  • Bring! Bring! and Other Stories (1925)

  • Blue Voyage (1927)

  • Selected Poems (1929)

  • John Deth, a Metaphysical Legend and Other Poems (1930)

  • The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones (1931)

  • Preludes for Memnon (1931)

  • And in the Hanging Garden (1933)

  • Great Circle (1933)

  • Landscape West of Eden (1935)

  • King Coffin (1935)

  • Time in the Rock: Preludes to Definition (1936)

  • A Heart for the Gods of Mexico (1939)

  • And in the Human Heart (1940)

  • Conversation; or, a Pilgrim's Progress (1940)

  • Brownstone Eclogues and Other Poems (1942)

  • The Soldier: A Poem (1944)

  • The Kid (1947)

  • Skylight One: Fifteen Poems (1949)

  • The Divine Pilgrim (1949)

  • Ushant: An Essay (1952)

  • Collected Poems (1953)

  • Mr. Arcularis (1953)

  • A Letter from Li Po and Other Poems (1955)

  • A Reviewer's ABC (1958)

  • Sheepfold Hill: Fifteen Poems (1958)

  • The Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken (1960)

  • Selected Poems (1961)

  • The Morning Song of Lord Zero (1963)

  • The Collected Novels of Conrad Aiken (1964)

  • Cats and Bats and Things with Wings (1965)

  • Collected Poems (1968)

  • Collected Criticism (1968)

  • Collected Poems (1970)

  • A Little Who's Zoo of Mild Animals (1977)

  • Selected Letters of Conrad Aiken (1978)

  • Selected Poems (1980)

Further Reading

Hoffman, Frederick J. Conrad Aiken. New York, 1962. A comprehensive work on Aiken's writing up to the late 1950s. It does an excellent job of critiquing Aiken's poetry, but the chapter on his fiction is quite thin and incomplete.Find this resource:

    Marten, Harry. The Art of Knowing: The Poetry and Prose of Conrad Aiken. Columbia, Mo., 1988. Chapter 6, “Absolute Fiction and Beyond,” offers a very good explication of Aiken's fiction.Find this resource:

      Seigel, Catharine F. The Fictive World of Conrad Aiken. DeKalb, Ill., 1993.Find this resource:

        Spivey, Ted R., and Arthur Waterman, eds. Conrad Aiken: A Priest of Consciousness. New York, 1989. A collection of essays offering incredible breadth—from comparisons with Melville to the metafictional aspects of Ushant.Find this resource:

          by Arnold E. Sabatelli