The Poet in Limbo

Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale

by Edward Butscher
University of Georgia Press, 518 pp., $34.95

On March 13, 1952, Wallace Stevens responded to an inquiry from Professor Norman Holmes Pearson, who planned to be of service to Conrad Aiken:

There is something about him that keeps him from rising, both personally and as a poet. No doubt this is his gentleness. He seems to be entirely without selfishness and aggressiveness.

He has always been on my side and of course he is of my generation. My liking for him may be influenced by those facts. He is honest, unaffected and a man of general all-round integrity…. There is much that is precious in his work. It would be a great pity to have a chance to do for him what he seems to be unable to do for himself and to fail to take the chance. Most of the attention that poetry attracts is attracted by manner and form, which, to him, mean very little. Nothing could make me happier than to be of help to him.

In the event, Aiken won the National Book Award for his Collected Poems (1953). But prizes made little difference to his repute: something continued to keep him from rising. When he died on August 17, 1973, he was still without the honors that might have been expected to attend him.

Stevens’s explanations are worth noting, but they don’t go far enough. Aiken was overshadowed by more imperious poets: Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Frost, and Stevens himself. He thought of himself in a direct relation to Romanticism, and of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Poe, Emerson, Whitman, and Swinburne as his masters, so he had no part to play in Eliot’s version of modernism or in Pound’s. His novels—Blue Voyage (1927), Great Circle (1933), King Coffin (1935), A Heart for the Gods of Mexico (1939), and Conversation (1940)—could not have been written without Joyce’s example, but they added nothing to it. Graham Greene, Allen Tate, and other critics have admired them, but it is my impression that only a few readers have been won. Ushant, an autobiographical fiction, is well regarded as an account of Aiken, Eliot, Pound, and their associates. Of Aiken’s short stories, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” “By My Troth, Nerissa,” and “The Letter” are to be found in anthologies and regularly compared with some of Katherine Mansfield’s best stories.

As a critic, Aiken was generously attentive to Eliot, Stevens, Williams, a little wary of Pound and of Virginia Woolf. He had no sympathy with D.H. Lawrence’s fiction, or Wyndham Lewis’s; later, he overrated Dylan Thomas—“such magic as we have not seen since Wallace Stevens published Harmonium.” But at least his early reviews of Eliot show that he knew exactly what Eliot was doing in “Prufrock” and The Waste Land. Still, Aiken has failed to rise. Indeed, he hasn’t gained much from the modern rejection of Eliot’s authority or from reasserted claims for the traditions of English and American Romanticism. It seems difficult to include Aiken in the fellowship of Hart Crane, Stevens, and Elizabeth Bishop.

Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale is a biography of the poet from his birth in Savannah, Georgia, on August 5, 1889, to about 1925: the years from 1925 to Aiken’s death in 1973 are matter for Edward Butscher’s projected second volume. The book is a study of the relation between life and work in Aiken, and in that sense it is more ambitious than Jay Martin’s Conrad Aiken: A Life of His Art (1962). Immensely detailed, Professor Butscher’s first volume gathers every available fragment of information on Aiken’s childhood on the Georgia sea-coast, the relation between his parents, and the appalling event of February 27, 1901, when Aiken’s father, a brilliant Savannah doctor, shot his wife to death and immediately killed himself. Aiken was then brought up by his great-great-aunt in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Professor Butscher ascribes virtually every defect of Aiken’s disposition and character to the death of his parents: his poetry, too, becomes a device to make himself whole. We hear much of Aiken’s “divided self” and its consequences.

Professor Butscher’s interpretative method is psychoanalytical: if Aiken pursued women, the explanation is that he was desperately trying to restore a lost mother, or to repair the damage of having been beaten by a demented father. If Aiken’s behavior in his sexual relations was often shoddy, it was because he was punishing the mother who neglected and abandoned him. It may be true. But Aiken’s anxieties often seem to have been immediate and mundane. He had money, but not enough of it. His poems were published easily enough, and praised by several influential critics including Marianne Moore, R.P. Blackmur, and Malcolm Cowley, but few ordinary readers got excited about them. Some of Aiken’s books passed by unnoticed. Eliot didn’t take him seriously, except as a companion at Harvard.

The question of Eliot’s impact upon Aiken is still an issue. A few of Aiken’s poems, including “Episode in Grey,” sound like parodies of “Prufrock”—

Then, after all, but now perhaps too late,
The long-expected clouds mount up again…
Yes, we have had too long to wait.

But Aiken got Prufrock out of his system fairly quickly. I think he soon realized that he and Eliot were of different parties. Whatever Eliot, Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and Wyndham Lewis were doing, they were not to be emulated. Eliot’s review of Aiken’s The Charnel Rose; Senlin: A Biography; and Other Poems, in The Egoist for July 1919, was a barely polite dismissal:

He has the distinction of believing in the long poem, and of having worked through and abandoned several forms of the long poem which he has probably perceived to be obsolete. He has discarded the Masefield poem; we infer from this that he has perceived that the older-fashioned narrative poem cannot be taken seriously when it has Henry James or Tchekov to compete with in prose…. Mr. Aiken has gone in for psychoanalysis with a Swinburnian equipment; and he does not escape the fatal American introspectiveness; he is oversensitive and worried. He is tangled in himself.

Aiken knew that there was no question of his making shared cause with Eliot. Their differences were exacerbated by Eliot’s religious strivings and the Christian form they eventually took. The problem was: With whom, then, could Aiken find poetic company, if not with Eliot? It is now clear that there were better ways of not being modern than the one Aiken settled for: the better ones are suggested by the work of A.E. Housman, Frost, E.A. Robinson, Wilfred Owen, and Edward Thomas. The main effect of Aiken’s dealings with Eliot was to keep Eliot remote and Aiken bewildered. Every step that Eliot took brought him toward the kind of work he wanted to do; meanwhile Aiken floundered from one enthusiasm to another, taking up Nietzsche, Bergson, Santayana, F.H. Bradley, Henry Adams, and in predictably due course Freud and Jung. Professor Butscher’s book tracks Aiken through these and other enthusiasms, and documents his often clumsy attempts to set people straight. He wasted time quarreling with Amy Lowell, protested against Pound’s exclusion of the English Georgian poets, ran from one little magazine to the next, rejected Imagism, lobbied editors. Aiken was determined to devote his life to poetry and literature. But he did not yet know what he should set himself to do.

He decided to become, like Wordsworth and Stevens, a philosophic poet. Professor Butscher speaks of Aiken “rejecting modern poetry as an escape from personality, heading, instead, toward a hypostatized self beyond the bounds of neoclassical disguises and stratagems.” Despite Eliot’s dismissal of the long poem as a redundant form, Aiken remained with it, and resorted to Joycean fiction partly for relief. To be alive meant to be conscious: What better subject than the experience of being conscious and of catching oneself in the act and process of being conscious? In June 1919, commenting on The Charnel Rose; Senlin: A Biography; and Other Poems, Aiken defined his theme as “the problem of personal identity, the struggle of the individual for an awareness of what it is that constitutes his consciousness; an attempt to place himself, to relate himself to the world of which he feels himself to be at once an observer and an integral part.”

It is the central concern of Romanticism: place yourself at what you deem to be the center of experience, inscribe concentric circles, construe every experience as if it asked for nothing more than to be drawn toward the center. Take every risk of vanity and absurdity, spend with no thought of the morrow. As Aiken says in Preludes for Memnon:

Then let us not be precious of our thought,
Nor of our words, nor hoard them up as though
We thought our minds a heaven which might change
And lose its virtue when the word had fallen.
Let us be prodigal, as heaven is;
Lose what we lose, and give what we may give,—
Ourselves are still the same.

But if our selves are still the same, what is the problem of personal identity? Aiken spent a lot of time tangling himself in himself, whistling in a self-proclaimed dark: his standard whistle claimed for the poet an exemplary destiny, to exhibit the processes of consciousness as evolutionary, straining to expand the possibilities of language and metaphor. A long poem was a free range. Endless possibilities of experiencing, real or imagined, were provided by psychology. To Aiken, there is no theology, and Freud is its father. In 1948, summarizing a lost preface to The House of Dust, Aiken announced the theory of his work:

namely, that in the evolution of man’s consciousness, ever widening and deepening and subtilizing his awareness, and in his dedication of himself to this supreme task, man possesses all that he could possibly require in the way of a religious credo: when the half-gods go, the gods arrive: he can, if he only will, become divine.

It is clear that Aiken took himself literally as well as metaphysically, presumably because it consoled him to do so:

We dispense
With all authority; and what we are,
Or what we have, are what we have and are
In our own godhead, and in that alone.

In “A Letter from Li Po,” he writes:

we who divine

divine ourselves, divine our own divinity
it is the examination
of godhead by godhead
the imagination

of that which it is to be divine.

Here, as elsewhere, Aiken is engaging in a secular version of the satisfaction that God enjoyed by surveying his works and seeing that they were good. The only problem is to keep going. Amy Lowell taunted Aiken with having nothing to say. It is true that he had little to write about, but he had plenty to write with. His poems emerge not as a sequence of inspections but as indefinitely extensive and circuitous broodings upon his consciousness. His method is to see the self, experimentally or fatefully, as dismembered; then to give each fragment its expressive chance; and finally to intuit a recovered self by producing, as diversely as in music or dreams, an elaborate system of motifs, recurrences, and allusions. One effect of this procedure is that it blurs the distinction of meaning, weighting, and emphasis between the several parts of experience, as between the several parts of a complex sentence: the phrases flow, no adjudication of rival claims is admitted. Aiken is not, like Donne, a judge of conflicting gravities. Why argue with oneself when the only problem is to effect a seamless transition from one state of feeling to another?

True, in The Pilgrimage of Festus, Aiken permits himself the scruple of exclaiming, “I will not have a god who is myself!” but when he specifies the god he wants, he comes back inevitably to himself:

Yet it is not a new god I desire—
It is an old god, old as water and fire;
The ancient god whose secret is creation;
Or wisdom or an infinite contempla- tion.

Evidently the only one who can practice infinite contemplation is the poet. So we are back again where we normally find him.

Aiken’s epistemology is fanciful; the best excuse for its fancifulness is that it is handsome. He escapes from problems of culture and history by assimilating them to natural processes, where they turn out not to be problems. Morality is best practiced on the analogy of natural history:

What shall we do—what shall we think—what shall we say—?
Why, as the crocus does, on a March morning,
With just such shape and brightness; such fragility;
Such white and gold, and out of just such earth.

Drowsing in sunlight, I would feel so well disposed toward that passage, so genially related to the white and gold of crocuses, that I would smile at the glib transition from “why” to the reiterated “such.” On a gray morning I would growl: such me no such suchness.

The only way I can see to stop growling is to pay attention not to the epistemology but to the feeling that apparently has need for it. The occasion of such good will arises when a poet like Aiken broods upon mind and nature. William Empson remarks in Some Versions of Pastoral that there are three main ideas about Nature; putting her above, equal to, and below man:

She is the work of God, or a god herself, and therefore a source of revelation; or she fits man, sympathises with him, corresponds to his social order, has magical connections with him and so forth; or she is not morally responsible, so that to contemplate her is a source of relief.

Aiken maintains the second of these and, more rarely, the third. Sometimes the poetry that results is so gorgeous that I warm to the desire that has produced it, and remain undismayed by the metaphysics:

Who, in this conch-shell, locked the sound of sea?
We are the tree, yet sit beneath the tree,
among the leaves we are the hidden bird,
we are the singer and are what is heard.

Aiken’s metaphysics here is not more fanciful than Eliot’s, in “The Dry Salvages,” where he speaks of

music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

In Aiken the difficult point comes when, having for long stretches of rumination put nature and man on the same level, he has to let man rise. He postpones that day by assimilating nature to man’s cognitive activity. “Keep in the heart the journal nature keeps,” he says, even though nature’s processes are so habitual they don’t need a journal. But in the end he has to give man not only the nasturtium but the palm; man is conscious of that which nature merely practices:

Then say: I was a part of nature’s plan;
Knew her cold heart, for I was consciousness;
Came first to hate her, and at last to bless;
Believed in her; doubted; believed again.
My love the lichen had such roots as I,—
The snowflake was my father; I return,
After this interval of faith and question,
To nature’s heart, in pain, as I began.

The epistemology of that passage is much the same as Stevens’s in several poems which are far more warmly valued than any of Aiken’s. I am surprised that Professor Butscher hasn’t found space to consider at length the relation between the two poets. In his middle years Aiken seems to have persuaded himself that Stevens was a sufficient answer to Eliot, and that Stevens’s “The Comedian as the Letter C” was the best modern poem in English. Aiken was intrepid enough to think his own “Changing Mind” an answer to The Waste Land: the addition of Stevens’s long philosophic poems would be enough to show the strength of American Romanticism against any odds.

But a shared epistemology isn’t enough to make a comparison between Aiken and Stevens convincing. Stevens’s long poems, and especially “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” and “The Comedian as the Letter C,” are extraordinarily fertile variations on a few fundamental themes. The themes are much the same as Aiken’s—reality and imagination, the divinity of man—but at least in certain moods Stevens was willing to think reality so intractable that only his supreme effort of language might win it over. Aiken is rarely persuasive when he concedes that some attributes of reality are indifferent to the ardors of the human imagination. In “Time in the Rock” he instructs himself on the point:

But having seen the shape, having heard
the voice, do not relate the phantom image
too nearly to yourself, leave the bright margin
between the text and page, a little room
for the unimagined.

The unimagined, I fear, will demand more than a little room or a bright margin. It is clear that Aiken has decided not to recognize more evidence, or more difficult instances, of reality than he can securely deal with. Edwin Muir had something like this in mind when, reviewing a collection of Aiken’s short stories, Bring! Bring!, he remarked that Aiken “has judged before he has seen, and that the eye would have seen more but for that judgment.” Stevens acknowledged, far more than Aiken did, the nuisances that prevent the imagination from achieving its miracles of transformation. Stevens was also more inventive than Aiken in finding styles, tones of voice, sundry braveries and audacities of language to ward off necessity. Instead of running from one authority to another, he resorted to each of them for incitement and provocation. He remained in charge. Aiken, especially in his early poems, deceived himself into thinking that his imagination was strong enough to change any object of attention; but the only evidence of such a victory is that he has written a tone poem in which the mood established is responsible for the yielding landscape in which the poem is set.

The scandal to such a Romantic imagination as Aiken’s (or indeed Stevens’s) is death, which puts a stop to our most resourceful postponements. The sense of death, and its critical bearing upon our loves, makes Preludes for Memnon Aiken’s most achieved work: the practice of transfiguration, glib in other places, behaves itself on Memnon’s shore. Memnon, as Marianne Moore phrased his state,

symbolizes the burdened sensibility; literally the Amenhotep III colossus at Luxor, cut from a single block of stone, in which a fissure was made by an earthquake—the god who “sang the day before the daybreak came” and reminded the Greeks of Memnon, Aurora’s son slain at Troy, waiting in darkness for the dawn, his mother.

In Aiken’s preludes the darkness is necessity, death its ultimate form, dawn is the hope of love:

What dignity can death bestow on us,
Who kiss beneath a streetlamp, or hold hands
Half hidden in a taxi, or replete
With coffee, figs and Barsac make our way
To a dark bedroom in a wormworn house?
The aspidistra guards the door; we enter,
Per aspidistra—then—ad astra—is it?—
And lock ourselves securely in our
And loose ourselves from terror…. Here’s my hand,
The white scar on my thumb, and here’s my mouth
To stop your murmur; speechless let us lie,
And think of Hardy, Shakspere, Yeats and James;
Comfort our panic hearts with magic names;
Stare at the ceiling, where the taxi lamps
Make ghosts of light; and see, beyond this bed,
That other bed in which we will not move;
And, whether joined or separate, will not love.

The fumbling Latin joke, the sense of other words in the vicinity of those settled for—“room” near “gloom,” “lose” behind “loose,” another kind of “lie” darkening behind speechlessness—testify to Aiken’s enchanting punctilio in the apprehension of death. His imagination has the grace here to know itself defeated, if not silenced. None of these effects is affected, though much skill went into their devising. What makes Preludes for Memnon impressive as a whole and ravishing in many details is Aiken’s sense, reluctantly exercised indeed, of limits and ends; that the Romantic imagination is necessarily vain in the end, though glorious and heroic in postponing it.

Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale is informative and useful, but I can’t say it is a pleasure to read. Professor Butscher is not on good terms with the English language; he writes as if he bore a grudge against it. Many paragraphs give an impression of a duty earnestly performed, as in this sentence about “Changing Mind”:

Clearly, the reflexive and restless progress of the poetic ego is intended to incorporate the secular curiosity of Greek philosophy (Aristotelian science), the selfless sacrifice of Christianity’s founder (ethical passion), the Hegelian resolution (Nietzschean conversion and Bergsonian evolution) of polar tensions, and the remorseless abreaction dynamic and mirror inherited from the paternal Freud, which threatens to bare (and thus dismantle) the psyche’s baroque defenses, including the sublimation process manufacturing his narcissistic art and this particular performance.

Clearly? “Changing Mind” is a dream poem, not too difficult if the reader takes the phantoms as they come. The allegory is not as intimidating as Professor Butscher’s arduous style makes it appear.

In 1928 Aiken wrote of Robert Louis Stevenson that “there is a kind of temporal Limbo to which, when a famous author dies, he must sooner or later descend; posthumously, he begins all over again the dreary business of acquiring, or attempting to acquire, a reputation.” Aiken is in that Limbo. I don’t think the first volume of Professor Butscher’s biography will rescue him: only a patient reader will put up with Aiken’s meditative copiousness. Another Selected Poems, drastically edited in favor of Aiken’s distinctive music, at whatever cost to the ideas he cherished beyond their worth, might cause him to rise.


Becoming Conrad Aiken August 17, 1989