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Conrad Aiken

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Conrad Aiken
BornConrad Potter Aiken
(1889-08-05)August 5, 1889
Savannah, Georgia, U.S.
DiedAugust 17, 1973(1973-08-17) (aged 84)
Savannah, Georgia, U.S.
EducationHarvard University (BA)
SpouseJessie McDonald (1912–1929)
Clarissa Lorenz (1930)
Mary Hoover (1937)
Children3, including Jane Aiken Hodge and Joan Aiken

Conrad Potter Aiken (August 5, 1889 – August 17, 1973) was an American writer and poet, honored with a Pulitzer Prize and 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[edit]

228 East Oglethorpe Avenue in Savannah, Georgia

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] For the first eleven years of Aiken's life, his family lived at 228 East Oglethorpe Avenue in Savannah.[2]

On February 27, 1901, Dr. Aiken murdered his wife and then committed suicide. According to his 1952 autobiography, Ushant, Aiken, then 11 years old, heard the two gunshots and discovered the bodies immediately thereafter.[3] 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 influence.[4] It was also at Harvard where Aiken studied under another significant influence in his writing, the philosopher George Santayana.[3]

Adult years[edit]

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.[4]

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", uses these influences on 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, Henry Cowell, and Helen Searles Westbrook.[5] 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.[3]

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 said, "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."[6]

Personal life[edit]

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).[4] 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).[7] 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.[8] In 1931 he was introduced by the artist Paul Nash to Edward Burra, a painter also living in Rye. That year Burra painted his gouache "John Deth", inspired by Aiken's poem of that name and originally intended to illustrate a projected edition that was never realized. Nevertheless, the two men maintained a lifelong friendship thereafter.[9]

In 1936, Aiken 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".[10] 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.[6]

Over the years, he served in loco parentis as well as mentor to the English author Malcolm Lowry.[11] 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 Edward Burra.[12]

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.[13]

Aiken died on 17 August 1973 and was buried in Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia, on the banks of the Wilmington River. His widow was buried beside him 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[edit]

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,[14] 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.[15] Aiken was the first Georgia-born author to win a Pulitzer Prize, and was named Georgia's Poet Laureate in 1973.[16] He was the first winner of the Poetry Society of America (PSA) Shelley Memorial Award, in 1929. In 1973, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature but died months earlier before his only chance to be awarded.[17]

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[edit]

Poetry collections[edit]

  • Earth Triumphant (Aiken, 1914)
  • Turns and Movies and other Tales in Verse (Aiken, 1916, Houghton Mifflin)
  • The Jig of Forslin: A Symphony, 1916
  • Nocturne of Remembered Spring: And Other Poems (Aiken, 1917)
  • Charnel Rose (Aiken, 1918)
  • 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[edit]

  • "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"


  • Blue Voyage (1927)
  • Great Circle (1933)
  • King Coffin (1935)
  • A Heart for the Gods of Mexico (1939)
  • The Conversation (1940)

Other books[edit]

  • Scepticisms: Notes on Contemporary Poetry (1919)
  • 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. ^ a b c d "Conrad Aiken". Britannica. Retrieved July 6, 2020.
  2. ^ "Oct 26, 1994, page 41 - The Atlanta Constitution at Atlanta Journal Constitution". Newspapers.com. Retrieved 2024-03-28.
  3. ^ a b c "Conrad Aiken". Poetry Foundation.org. Poetry Foundation. Retrieved July 6, 2020.
  4. ^ a b c "About Conrad Aiken". Poets.org. Academy of American Poets. Retrieved July 6, 2020.
  5. ^ Office, Library of Congress Copyright (1956). Catalog of Copyright Entries: Third series.
  6. ^ a b Wilbur, Robert Hunter (1968). "Conrad Aiken, The Art of Poetry No. 9". theparisreview.org. Vol. Winter-Spring 1968, no. 42. The Paris Review. Retrieved July 6, 2020.
  7. ^ Nash, Paul (1949). Outline, an Autobiography: And Other Writings (1st ed.). Faber & Faber. p. 220.
  8. ^ "Aiken, Conrad(1889-1973)". HarvardSquareLibrary.org. Harvard Square Library. Retrieved July 6, 2020.
  9. ^ Edward Burra, Arts Council of Great Britain (1985), pp. 95-7
  10. ^ Kingsley, Orson (October 24, 2016). "Maxwell Library, Archives & Special Collections, Conrad Aiken Collection". Bridgewater.edu. Bridgewater State University. Retrieved July 6, 2020.
  11. ^ 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).

  12. ^ Arts Council, Hayward Gallery Catalogue, 1985
  13. ^ Killorin, Joseph (October 26, 1992). "Obituary: Mary Hoover Aiken". The Independent. Retrieved July 6, 2020.
  14. ^ "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.)
  15. ^ Riggs, Thomas (1999). Reference Guide to Short Fiction (second ed.). Michigan: St. James Press. p. 8. ISBN 1-55862-222-5.
  16. ^ Malone, Tyler (April 13, 2017), "Is it time to rediscover Conrad Aiken?", Los Angeles Times, retrieved 2019-06-27
  17. ^ "Nomination Archive - Conrad Potter Aiken". NobelPrize.org. March 2024. Retrieved 14 March 2024.

External links[edit]