Conrad Potter Aiken (AY-kuhn) was a central figure in the American poetry renaissance of the early twentieth century. He was born in Savannah, Georgia, on August 5, 1889, the son of parents of distinguished New England ancestry. His father, William Ford Aiken, studied medicine at Harvard University and in Europe. His mother, Anna Potter Aiken, was the daughter of William James Potter, a prominent minister in New Bedford, Massachusetts, who left the Unitarian church to cofound the less sectarian Free Religious Association. For his freethinking and rationalism, Potter assumed heroic stature in many of Aiken’s works. The key event of Aiken’s life occurred when his father shot to death himself and his wife in February, 1901. The tragedy’s effects on the development of Aiken’s personality are analyzed, often through elaborate dream sequences, in much of his writing. Following the deaths of his parents, Aiken was separated from his two younger brothers and sister to be reared by relatives in New Bedford and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Aiken entered Harvard University in 1907, where he became a close and lifelong friend of T. S. Eliot. As a student, Aiken was deeply influenced by the naturalistic rationalism of George Santayana, who argued that the greatest poetry was philosophical, capable of expressing a coherent worldview based upon a knowledge of contemporary scientific and humanistic thought.
Aiken’s first book of poetry, Earth Triumphant, and Other Tales in Verse, appeared in 1914, and his criticism began to appear in 1915. Before 1925, Aiken published ten volumes of poetry and some one hundred critical essays. Aiken’s most important works prior to the early 1920’s were his five verse “symphonies”: The Charnel Rose, The Jig of Forslin, Senlin: A Biography, and Other Poems, The House of Dust, and The Pilgrimage of Festus (published together as The Divine Pilgrim in 1949). Alternately musical, fragmented, dreamlike, morbid, and erotic, these long poems were designed to depict progressive stages in the development of consciousness, essentially along Freudian lines, and to tell the story of Aiken’s life.
As a critic, Aiken warred with the Imagists and such popular anthologizers and editors as Harriet Monroe, Louis Untermeyer, and Amy Lowell. Because he had no use for nationalistic themes, poetic cliques, manifestos, schools, or prizes, Aiken tended to distance himself from the popular poetic trends of his time. He repeatedly argued for “scientific” critical standards. Aiken was the first Freudian critic; he praised Walt Whitman and championed Emily Dickinson. In “The Impersonal Poet,” he expressed every major tenet of Eliot’s seminal essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which appeared in The Sacred Wood (1920).
Beginning in the early 1920’s, Aiken, in such short lyrics as “Cliff Meeting” and “Sea Holly,” began to write in a voice that finally expressed his anguished vision of deterministically fused subjective and objective realms. At the same time, he also turned to the short story, where he proved himself to be a master of psychological realism, particularly in the depiction of compulsive behavior and parent-child relationships, as in “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.”
Aiken moved with his wife and children to England in 1921. Isolated and believing himself a failure, he began in 1924 to write Blue Voyage, an autobiographical stream-of-consciousness novel that profoundly influenced Malcolm Lowry. Great Circle, Aiken’s second novel, further explores both his childhood and the breakup of his first marriage. Much like his two first novels, Aiken’s most powerful poems, Preludes for Memnon and Time in the Rock: Preludes to Definition, were written in the period surrounding his first divorce in 1928, his second marriage in 1930, his suicide attempt in 1932, and his second divorce and third marriage in 1937. In these poems, Aiken analyzes the biological causes and artistic implications of his own compulsive personality.
From the urbane Brownstone Eclogues, and Other Poems of 1942 until his death in 1973, Aiken’s poetry celebrated both his New England ancestry and the American scene. Sheepfold Hill: Fifteen Poems contains Aiken’s most explicit and nostalgic ancestral memoirs. From 1950 to 1952, he was poetry consultant at the Library of Congress, during which time he wrote his postmodernist, highly confessional autobiography, Ushant: An Essay.
Despite the quality and quantity of his work, Aiken did not receive the critical recognition afforded his contemporaries T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. Aiken’s early disputes with editors and other poets contributed to his reputation as a loner. By his own admission, much of his earliest verse was derivative and flawed. Moreover, as a modernist, Aiken sought to be cosmic at the wrong historical juncture. His lifelong quest to develop a workable Darwinian and Freudian theory of the “evolution of consciousness” marks Aiken as one of the most significant American writers of the twentieth century.