Conrad Aiken

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Conrad Aiken
Conrad Aiken poet.jpg
Born Conrad Potter Aiken
(1889-08-05)August 5, 1889
Savannah, Georgia, United States
Died August 17, 1973(1973-08-17) (aged 84)
Savannah, Georgia, United States
Spouse Jessie McDonald (1912–1929)
Clarissa Lorenz (1930)
Mary Hoover (1937)
Children John, Jane Aiken Hodge, and Joan Aiken

Conrad Potter Aiken (5 August 1889 – 17 August 1973) was an American writer and poet, honored with a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and was United States Poet Laureate from 1950 to 1952. His published works include poetry, short stories, novels, literary criticism, a play, and an autobiography.[1]


Early years

Aiken was the eldest son of William Ford and Anna (Potter) Aiken. In Savannah, Aiken's father became a respected physician and eye surgeon, while his mother was the daughter of a prominent Massachusetts Unitarian minister.[1] On February 27, 1901, Dr. Aiken murdered his wife and then committed suicide. According to his autobiography, Ushant, Aiken, then 11 years old, heard the two gunshots and discovered the bodies immediately thereafter.[2] After his parents' deaths, he was raised by his great-aunt and uncle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, attending Middlesex School then Harvard University.[1]

At Harvard, Aiken edited the Advocate with T. S. Eliot, who became a lifelong friend, colleague, and influencer.[3] It was also at Harvard where Aiken studied under another significant influencer in his writing, the philosopher George Santayana.[2]

Adult years

Aiken was strongly influenced by symbolism, especially in his earlier works. In 1930 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his Selected Poems. Many of his writings had strong psychological themes. He wrote the widely anthologized short story "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" (1934), partially based on his childhood tragedy.[3]

Other influences were Aiken's grandfather, Potter, who had been a church preacher, as well as Whitman's freestyle poetry. This helped Aiken shape his poetry more freely while his recognition of a God grounded his more visually rich explorations into the universe. Some of his best-known poetry, such as "Morning Song of Senlin", use these influences to great effect.

His collections of verse include Earth Triumphant (1914), The Charnel Rose (1918) and And In the Hanging Gardens (1933). His poem "Music I Heard" has been set to music by a number of composers, including Leonard Bernstein and Henry Cowell. Aiken wrote or edited more than 51 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), reviews, an autobiography, and poetry. He received numerous awards and honors for his writing, though for most of his lifetime, he received little public attention.[2]

Though Aiken was reluctant to speak of his early trauma and ensuing psychological problems, he acknowledged that his writings were strongly influenced by his studies of Sigmund Freud, Carl G. Jung, Otto Rank, Ferenczi, Adler, and other depth psychologists. It wasn't until the publication of his autobiography, Ushant, that Aiken revealed the emotional challenges that he had battled for much of his adult life. During the 1920s Freud heard of him, and offered to psychoanalyze him. While aboard a Europe-bound ship to meet with Freud, Aiken was discouraged by Erich Fromm from accepting the offer. Consequently, despite Freud's strong influence on Aiken, Aiken never met the noted psychoanalyst.[1] As he later shared, "Freud had read Great Circle, and I’m told kept a copy on his office table. But I didn't go, though I started to. Misgivings set in, and so did poverty."[4]

Personal life

Aiken had three younger siblings, Kempton Potter (K. P. A. Taylor), Robert Potter (R. P. A. Taylor), and Elizabeth. After their parents' deaths, the four children were adopted by Frederick Winslow Taylor and his wife Louise, their great-aunt. His siblings took Taylor's last name. Kempton helped establish the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry.

He was married three times: firstly to Jessie McDonald (1912–1929); secondly to Clarissa Lorenz (1930–1937) (author of a biography, Lorelei Two); and thirdly to the painter Mary Hoover (1937–1973).[3] He fathered three children by his first wife Jessie: John Aiken, Jane Aiken Hodge and Joan Aiken, all of whom became writers.

Aiken married Jessie McDonald in 1912, and the couple moved to England in 1921 with their older two children; John (born 1913) and Jane (born 1917), settling in Rye, East Sussex (where the American novelist Henry James had once lived).[5] The couple’s youngest daughter, Joan, was born in Rye in 1924.

Conrad Aiken returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a tutor at Harvard from 1927 to 1928. For many years, he divided his time between Rye, New York, and Boston.[6] In 1936, he met his third wife, Mary, in Boston. In the following year the couple visited Malcolm Lowry in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where Aiken divorced Clarissa and married Mary. The couple moved to Rye, where they remained until the outbreak of World War II in 1940. The Aikens settled in Brewster, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, where he and his wife Mary later ran a summer program for writers and painters named after their antique farmhouse, "Forty-One Doors".[7] Despite living for many years abroad and receiving recognition as a Southern writer, Aiken always considered himself an American, and, in particular, a New Englander.[4]

Over the years, he served in loco parentis as well as mentor to the English author Malcolm Lowry.[8] In 1923 he acted as a witness at the marriage of his friend, poet W. H. Davies. From 1950 to 1952, he served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, more commonly known as Poet Laureate of the United States. In 1960 he visited Grasmere in the Lake District, England (once the home of William Wordsworth), with his friend from Rye, painter Edward Burra.[9]

Bench at grave of Conrad Aiken in Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia

The Aikens lived primarily at their farmhouse in West Brewster, and wintered in Savannah in a home adjacent to his early childhood house.[10]

Aiken died on 17 August 1973 and was buried in Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia on the banks of the Wilmington River, and so was Mary after her death in 1992. The burial site was featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. According to local legend, Aiken wished to have his tombstone fashioned in the shape of a bench as an invitation to visitors to stop and enjoy a martini at his grave. The bench is inscribed with "Give my love to the world", and "Cosmos Mariner—Destination Unknown".

A primary source for information on Aiken's life is his autobiographical novel Ushant (1952), one of his major works. In it, he wrote candidly about his various affairs and marriages, his attempted suicide and fear of insanity, and his friendships with T. S. Eliot (who appears in the book as the Tsetse), Ezra Pound (Rabbi Ben Ezra), Malcolm Lowry (Hambo), and others.

Awards and recognition

Named Poetry Consultant (now U.S. Poet Laureate) of the Library of Congress from 1950 to 1952, Aiken earned numerous prestigious writing honors, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1930 for Selected Poems, the 1954 National Book Award for Collected Poems,[11] the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal in Poetry, and a National Medal for Literature. He was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1934, Academy of American Poets fellowship in 1957, Huntington Hartford Foundation Award in 1960, and Brandeis University Creative Arts Award in 1967.[12] Aiken was the first Georgia-born author to win a Pulitzer Prize, and was named Georgia's Poet Laureate in 1973.[13] He was the first winner of the Poetry Society of America (PSA) Shelley Memorial Award, in 1929.

In 2009, the Library of America selected Aiken's 1931 story "Mr. Arcularis" for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American fantastic tales.

Selected works

Poetry collections

  • Earth Triumphant (Aiken, 1914) (available online at
  • Turns and Movies and other Tales in Verse (Aiken, 1916, Houghton Mifflin) (available online at
  • The Jig of Forslin: A Symphony, 1916
  • Nocturne of Remembered Spring: And Other Poems (Aiken, 1917) (available online at
  • Charnel Rose (Aiken, 1918) (available online at
  • 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
  • Selected Poems, 1929
  • John Deth, A Metaphysical Legacy, and Other Poems, 1930
  • The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones, 1931
  • Preludes for Memnon, 1931
  • Landscape West of Eden, 1934
  • Time in the Rock; Preludes to Definition, 1936
  • And in the Human Heart, 1940
  • Brownstone Eclogues, and Other Poems, 1942
  • The Soldier: A Poem, 1944
  • The Kid, 1947
  • The Divine Pilgrim, 1949
  • Skylight One: Fifteen Poems, 1949
  • Collected Poems, 1953
  • A Letter from Li Po and Other Poems, 1955
  • Sheepfold Hill: Fifteen Poems, 1958
  • The Morning Song of Lord Zero, Poems Old and New, 1963
  • Thee: A Poem, 1967
  • Collected Poems, 2nd ed., 1970

Short stories

  • "Bring! Bring!"
  • "The Last Visit"
  • "Mr. Arcularis"
  • "The Bachelor Supper"
  • "Bow Down, Isaac!"
  • "A Pair of Vikings"
  • "Hey, Taxi!"
  • "Field of Flowers"
  • "Gehenna"
  • "The Disciple"
  • "Impulse"
  • "The Anniversary"
  • "Hello, Tib"
  • "Smith and Jones"
  • "By My Troth, Nerisa!"
  • "Silent Snow, Secret Snow"
  • "Round by Round"
  • "Thistledown"
  • "State of Mind"
  • "Strange Moonlight"
  • "The Fish Supper"
  • "I Love You Very Dearly"
  • "The Dark City"
  • "Life Isn't a Short Story"
  • "The Night Before Prohibition"
  • "Spider, Spider"
  • "A Man Alone at Lunch"
  • "Farewell! Farewell! Farewell!"
  • "Your Obituary, Well Written"
  • "A Conversation"
  • "No, No, Go Not to Lethe"
  • "Pure as the Driven Snow"
  • "All, All Wasted"
  • "The Moment"
  • "The Woman-Hater"
  • "The Professor's Escape"
  • "The Orange Moth"
  • "The Necktie"
  • "O How She Laughed!"
  • "West End"
  • "Fly Away Ladybird"

Other books

  • Scepticisms: Notes on Contemporary Poetry (1919)
  • Blue Voyage (1927)
  • Great Circle (1933)
  • King Coffin (1935)
  • A Heart for the Gods of Mexico (1939)
  • The Conversation (1940)
  • Ushant (1952)
  • A Reviewer's ABC: Collected Criticism of Conrad Aiken from 1916 to the Present (1958)
  • Collected Short Stories (1960)
  • Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken (1965)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "Conrad Aiken". Britannica. Britannica. Retrieved July 6, 2020.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "Conrad Aiken". Poetry Poetry Foundation. Retrieved July 6, 2020.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "About Conrad Aiken". Academy of American Poets. Retrieved July 6, 2020.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 Wilbur, Robert Hunter (1968). "Conrad Aiken, The Art of Poetry No. 9". The Paris Review. Retrieved July 6, 2020.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Nash, Paul (1949). Outline, an Autobiography: And Other Writings (1st ed.). Faber & Faber. p. 220.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Aiken, Conrad(1889-1973)". Harvard Square Library. Retrieved July 6, 2020.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Kingsley, Orson (October 24, 2016). "Maxwell Library, Archives & Special Collections, Conrad Aiken Collection". Bridgewater State University. Retrieved July 6, 2020.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. David Markson’s Malcolm Lowry’s Volcano: Myth, Symbol, Meaning:

    A case in point involved Aiken, who had filled an in loco parentis role for [Lowry] in his youth… (Pg. 224).

  9. Arts Council, Hayward Gallery Catalogue, 1985
  10. Killorin, Joseph (October 26, 1992). "Obituary: Mary Hoover Aiken". The Independent. Retrieved July 6, 2020.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "National Book Awards – 1954". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-02.
    (With acceptance speech by Aiken and essay by Evie Shockley from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
  12. Riggs, Thomas (1999). Reference Guide to Short Fiction (second ed.). Michigan: St. James Press. p. 8. ISBN 1-55862-222-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Malone, Tyler (April 13, 2017), "Is it time to rediscover Conrad Aiken?", Los Angeles Times, retrieved 2019-06-27<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links