Aiken was the son of wealthy, socially prominent New Englanders, William Ford and Anna (Potter) Aiken, who had moved to Savannah, Georgia, where his father became a respected physician and brain surgeon. 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. Finally, early in the morning of February 27, 1901, he murdered his wife and shot himself. According to his own writings, Aiken (who was eleven years old) heard the gunshots and discovered the bodies. He was then raised by his great aunt in Massachusetts and was educated at private schools and at Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, then at Harvard University where he edited the Advocate with T. S. Eliot, who became a lifelong friend and associate.
Aiken's earliest poetry was written partly under the influence of a beloved teacher, the philosopher George Santayana. This relationship shaped Aiken as a poet, deeply musical in his approach and, at the same time, philosophical in seeking answers to his own problems and the problems of the modern world.
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 psychological themes. He wrote the widely anthologized short story "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" (1934). His collections of verse include Earth Triumphant (1911), 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.
Other influences were Aiken's grandfather, Potter, who had been a church preacher, as well as Whitman's poetry which was 'free' style. 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.
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), criticism, autobiography, and 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 lived at 323 Second Street SE, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. He was also largely responsible for establishing Emily Dickinson's reputation as a major American poet.
After 1960, when his work was rediscovered by readers and critics, a new view of Aiken emerged—one that emphasized his psychological problems, along with his continuing study of Sigmund Freud, Carl G. Jung, Otto Rank, and other depth psychologists. Two of his five novels deal with depth psychology.
Aiken's writing was largely influenced by Freud (he was also an admirer of Rank, Ferenczi, Adler, and somewhat less Jung); however, Freud never replied to a letter Aiken sent him. Although Aiken was encouraged by H.D to go to Vienna to meet Freud, the dream was never realized. As he later wrote, "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."
Conrad married Canadian Jessie McDonald in 1912, and the couple moved to England in 1921 with their first two children; John (born 1913) and Jane (born 1917), and settled in Rye, East Sussex (where the American novelist Henry James had once lived). Joan was born in 1924 and the marriage was dissolved in 1929. During his time in England, up until the outbreak of World War II, he served in loco parentis as well as mentor to the budding English author Malcolm Lowry. In 1923 he acted as a witness at the marriage of his friend the poet W. H. Davies. In 1950, he became 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 English Lake District (once the home of William Wordsworth) with his friend from Rye, the painter Edward Burra.
Aiken returned to Savannah for the last 11 years of his life. Aiken's tomb, located in Bonaventure Cemetery on the banks of the Wilmington River, was made famous by its mention in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the bestselling book 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. Its inscriptions read "Give my love to the world," and "Cosmos Mariner—Destination Unknown."
He was married three times: first to Jessie McDonald (1912–1929); second to Clarissa Lorenz (1930) (author of a biography, Lorelei Two); and third to Mary Hoover (1937). He was the father, by Jessie McDonald, of the writers John Aiken, Jane Aiken Hodge and Joan Aiken.
Aiken had three younger siblings, Kempton, Robert and Elizabeth. After their parents' deaths, they were adopted by Frederick Winslow Taylor and his wife Louise, a distant relative, and took Taylor's last name. Kempton was known as K. P. A. Taylor (Kempton Potter Aiken Taylor) and Robert was known as Robert P. A. Taylor (Robert Potter Aiken Taylor). Kempton helped establish the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry.
The most regarded 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 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 of the Library of Congress from 1950–1952, Conrad Aiken earned numerous prestigious national writing awards, including a National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal and the National Medal for Literature. Honored by his native state in 1973 with the title of Poet Laureate, Aiken is remembered there as the first Georgia-born author to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1930, for his Selected Poems).
Aiken 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.
- 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 Other Pool, and Other Poems, 1925
- Selected Poems, 1929
- John Deth, A Metaphysical Legacy, and Other Poems, 1930
- The Coming Forth by Day of Oriris 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
- "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"
- 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)
- Collected Short Stories (1960)
- A Reviewer's ABC: Collected Criticism of Conrad Aiken from 1916 to the Present (1961)
- Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken (1965)