Conrad (Potter) Aiken (1889-1973), poet, essayist, novelist, and critic, was one of America's foremost men of letters and a major figure in American literary modernism.
In Conrad Aiken's "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," a young boy named Paul withdraws from his parents, teacher, and people with authority over his life. He enters a private, autistic world in which it seems as if he were cut off from everyone else by a wilderness of silence and snow. That private world seems mysterious in a delightful way, and by the end of the story, Paul has completely enveloped himself in it. There is no sign that anyone will ever be able to reach him again.
"Silent Snow, Secret Snow" is one of Aiken's most powerful stories. One of its principal achievements lies in making the reader sense the force and pleasure that a private world like Paul's can have.
A world like that might once have been attractive to Aiken himself. He was the son of wealthy, socially prominent New Englanders who had moved to Savannah, Georgia, where his father became a highly respected physician and surgeon. But then something happened for which, as Aiken later said, no one could ever find a reason. Without warning or apparent cause, his father became increasingly irascible, unpredictable, and violent. Then, early in the morning of February 27, 1901, he murdered his wife and shot himself. Aiken (who was eleven years old) heard the gunshots and discovered the bodies.
The violent deaths of his parents overshadowed Aiken's life and writings. Throughout his life, he was afraid that, like his father, he would go insane, and, like Paul in "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," he withdrew from threats in the world around him. He disliked large gatherings and refused to give public readings from his works. He became deeply interested in psychoanalytic thought, and it became a central concern in his works.
After the tragedy, Aiken was taken to Massachusetts to live with relatives. He graduated from the Middlesex School and Harvard, where his classmates included T.S. Eliot, with whom he established a lifelong friendship. He lived in England for several years, but his main home for most of his life was Massachusetts. During his last 12 years, however, his home was the brickfront rowhouse in Savannah next to the one in which his parents died.
Aiken wrote or edited more than 50 books, the first of which was published in 1914, two years after his graduation from Harvard. His work includes novels, short stories (The Collected Short Stories appeared in 1961), criticism, autobiography, and, most important of all, poetry. He was awarded the National Medal for Literature, the Gold Medal for Poetry from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, and the National Book Award. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, taught briefly at Harvard, and served as Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress from 1950 to 1952. He was also largely responsible for establishing Emily Dickinson's reputation as a major American poet.
The best source for information on Aiken's life is his autobiographical novel Ushant (1952), one of his major works. In this book he speaks candidly about his various affairs and marriages, his attempted suicide and fear of insanity, and his friendships with Eliot (who appears in the book as The Tsetse), Ezra Pound (Rabbi Ben Ezra), and other accomplished men.
In an interview for the Paris Review toward the end of his life, Aiken claimed that Freud's influence could be found throughout his work. In both his poetry and his fiction, Aiken tried to realize motivations buried in the subconscious. He believed that if they were left there, unspoken and unacknowledged, they could have as disastrous an effect as they had on his father's life. For Aiken, literature was a means to awareness, a route by which a man could become aware of the dark motivations hidden within himself.
Psychoanalytic thought is central in Aiken's writings. In his novel Great Circle (1933), for example, the central character has to learn to accept his past—with, of course, the help of a psychoanalyst. Blue Voyage (1927) is ostensibly about a voyage to England, but in fact the real voyage in this stream-of-consciousness novel is in the mind.
Aiken was principally successful as a poet, but his poetry has also been severely criticized. The central problem with much of the poetry is that it seems to lack great intensity. It conveys feelings of indefiniteness; emotion seems dispersed or passive. But those who criticize the poetry in this way have missed the nature of Aiken's poetic task. He cannot speak with the intensity and precision of other poets because he is, as it were, seeing and showing us things for the first time. He is dealing with aspects of man's psychology that are by their very nature indefinite and, in any precise way, undefinable. In this respect, his poetry reminds us strongly of the work of Mallarmé and other French symbolists.
Like the symbolists, Aiken is also a master of poetic music. Some poets are read less for the sound of their verse than for their ideas. Although Aiken presents grand intellectual schemes rooted in psychoanalytic thought, his greatest achievement is in the sound of his poetry—that is, in the creation of formal patterns of sound. There is great pleasure in simply reading and hearing the sound of his verse.
Aiken trained himself comprehensively in traditional English prosody, but his poetry shows little awareness of the revolutions in prosody that Pound and William Carlos Williams were effecting during his life. But the poetic effects he created are reminiscent of experiments in other arts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The sound of his poetry reminds one of the music of Debussy or, to name one of Aiken's American contemporaries, Charles Tomlinson Griffes. In painting, he reminds one of Whistler, particularly the Whistler of the Nocturnes.
Aiken sketches out moods, sensations, feelings, and attitudes with the music of his verse, but it is done as impressionistically as in, for example, Griffes' "The White Peacock" and "Nightfall." Aiken was at his best in poetic evocations of emotional and subconscious states which are better understood through suggestion than through direct statement.
Aiken's experiments with poetic music link him to some of the major poets of the New York School, particularly John Ashbery. The New York poets have generally been somewhat more experimental technically, but in the creation of "pure poetry"—poetry dependent on internal music for its unity and effect—they have clear affinities with him. Aiken should be seen in part as a transitional figure between the fin-de-si'le world of aestheticism and symbolism, on the one hand, and the poetic experiments of Ashbery and the New York School, on the other.
The magic of Aiken's poetry is in its ability to suggest through sound, image, and rhythm the things that would otherwise remain unknown to us. That accomplishment by itself places him among the most significant American poets of his generation.
The critical work on Aiken is vast. Reuel Denney's Conrad Aiken (1964), Frederick John Hoffman's Conrad Aiken (1962), and Jay Martin's Conrad Aiken, a Life of His Art (1962) are essential works. Selected Letters of Conrad Aiken, Joseph Killorin, ed., was published in 1978.
Butscher, Edward, Conrad Aiken, poet of White Horse Vale, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
Conrad Aiken: a priest of consciousness, New York: AMS Press, 1989. □