Conrad Aiken


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was born in Georgia but reared in Massachusetts, from which his parents' families had come, and educated at Harvard (A.B., 1911), so that a strong sense of a New England heritage is evident in his writing. In his maturity he lived for many years in England but returned to make his home in Massachusetts. His early poetry is marked by subtle musical rhythms and is concerned with the problem of personal identity, what it is that constitutes one's own consciousness, how to achieve self-knowledge, and how to transcend the self so as to understand the world at large. The volumes that collect this early poetry include Earth Triumphant (1914); Turns and Movies (1916); The Jig of Forslin: A Symphony (1916); Nocturne of Remembered Spring (1917); The Charnel Rose, Senlin: A Biography, and Other Poems (1918); The House of Dust: A Symphony (1920); Punch: The Immortal Liar (1921); Priapus and the Pool (1922); and The Pilgrimage of Festus (1923). A more metaphysical expression is developed in John Deth (1930), The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones (1931), Preludes for Memnon (1931), Landscape West of Eden (1934), and Time in the Rock (1936), philosophic poems dealing with consciousness and time. And in the Human Heart (1940) is a sequence of 43 sonnets extending the concern with consciousness to the intensity of love. Brownstone Eclogues (1942) picks up the setting and subject of The House of Dust: the city and the quest of the individual for identification with its good and evil. The Soldier (1944) traces the common soldier through history in treating the wars of armies and the wars of the spirit. In The Kid (1947) Aiken uses the figure of William Blackstone, an individualistic and very early New England settler, as a symbol for the American character which is developed in the guise of such diverse later figures as Thoreau, Johnny Appleseed, and Whitman. Later poetry showing great musical quality and setting forth his essentially existentialist position appears in Skylight One (1949), A Letter from Li Po (1955), Sheepfold Hill (1958), and The Morning Song of Lord Zero (1963). He published Selected Poems (1929, Pulitzer Prize), Collected Poems (1953), and another Selected Poems (1961). He is also known for his critical writing in Scepticisms (1919), commenting on contemporary poets, his introduction to an edition of Emily Dickinson's poems (1924), which had much to do with establishing her reputation, and A Reviewer's ABC (1958). In 1927 appeared his first novel, a fantasy titled Blue Voyage, which treats some of his poetic themes as it tells in stream-of-consciousness prose of a dramatist's voyage to England, supposedly for reasons of his career and his love for a girl, but actually in his quest for self-knowledge. Later novels are Great Circle (1933), another tale of a voyage and of the quest to discover oneself; King Coffin (1935), the story of a neurotic criminal; A Heart for the Gods of Mexico (1939), about a dying woman's last love as it takes her from Boston to Mexico; and Conversation; or, Pilgrims' Progress (1940), dealing with crises in a man's life as husband, father, and artist. His stories have appeared in Bring! Bring! (1925), Costumes by Eros (1928), and Among the Lost People (1934), the last-named including “Mr. Arcularis,” dramatized by the author and published as a play in 1957, about a sad old man who is dying, as he lived, alone, and who imagines himself on a recuperative sea voyage while he is actually outward bound toward death on an operating table. Ushant (1952), subtitled “an essay,” is a psychological autobiography, reissued (1971) with the names of actual people replacing the original pseudonyms. Selected Letters was published in 1978.


Subjects: Literature.

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Works by Conrad Aiken