Biography of Conrad 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.


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. 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. After his parents' deaths, he was raised by his great-aunt and uncle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, attending Middlesex School, then Harvard University.At Harvard, Aiken edited the Advocate with T. S. Eliot, who became a lifelong friend, colleague, and influence. It was also at Harvard where Aiken studied under another significant influence in his writing, the philosopher George Santayana.

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.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 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.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. 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."

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). 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). 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. 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". 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.Over the years, he served in loco parentis as well as mentor to the English author Malcolm Lowry. 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.

The Aikens lived primarily at their farmhouse in West Brewster, and wintered in Savannah in a home adjacent to his early childhood house.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, 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. Aiken was the first Georgia-born author to win a Pulitzer Prize, and was named Georgia's Poet Laureate in 1973. 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"


"The Disciple"


"The Anniversary"

"Hello, Tib"

"Smith and Jones"

"By My Troth, Nerisa!"

"Silent Snow, Secret Snow"

"Round by Round"


"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

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)


External links

Works by Conrad Aiken at Project Gutenberg

Works by or about Conrad Aiken at Internet Archive

Works by Conrad Aiken at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)

Poems by Conrad Aiken An extensive collection of Aiken's poetry

Conrad Aiken: Unitarian Prodigy Poet Biography Conrad Aiken Biography at the Wayback Machine (archived September 27, 2007)

Conrad Aiken's Grave in Savannah, Georgia

New Georgia Encyclopedia entry

Index entry for Conrad Aiken at Poets' Corner

Famous Poets and Poems, Aiken Biography

Collected Poems by Conrad Aiken on the National Book Awards Poetry Blog

Conrad Aiken at University of Toronto Libraries at (archived January 2, 2013)

Guides to Conrad Aiken's prose, poetry, and correspondence at Houghton Library, Harvard University

Robert Hunter Wilbur (Winter–Spring 1968). "Conrad Aiken, The Art of Poetry No. 9". Paris Review.

Conrad Aiken historical marker

Conrad Aiken at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library

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Poem of the day

Isaac Watts Poem
Psalm 119 Part 10
 by Isaac Watts

Pleading the promises.

ver. 38,49

Behold thy waiting servant, Lord,
Devoted to thy fear;
Remember and confirm thy word,
For all my hopes are there.

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