Today marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of the poet, Conrad Aiken. He was born in Savannah and lived in a townhouse on Oglethorpe Avenue across the street from Colonial Cemetery. He often played in that ancient burial ground midst tabby crypts and tombstones where the mortal remains of many of Georgia's aristocracy found rest. From the time he was eight or nine he wanted to be a writer. Soon he found himself captured by the works of Edgar Allan Poe and happily sharing the terror with his brother and sisters.
With his parents immersed in Savannah society and surrounded by wealth, privilege, and pedigree, he seemed destined for happiness. His father was a successful physician; his mother, a leader in Savannah society circles. Unfortunately, there was little peace in the family. One day, when young Aiken was eleven, his father took a revolver and killed his wife, then killed himself. Aiken never fully recovered from the horror of that day. He would spend the rest of his life exploring the interplay and uncertainty of a good and evil world.
Aiken spent the remainder of his childhood with relatives in New England. Later, he would attend Harvard where he was deeply influenced by the writer-philosopher, George Santayana. He also began a life-long friendship with fellow student, T.S. Eliot.
Aiken would go on to write lyrical poetry weighted with symbolism and psychological exploration so deep that, in his own words, "Freud was in everything after 1912." Later in his career he moved predominantly to prose expressing "faith in consciousness" and an endless search for knowledge as the means to bring order and structure to the larger consciousness of the world. In all, he wrote or edited fifty books, including his poetry, short stories, five novels, and one autobiography.
Unfortunately, for all of his output Conrad Aiken never achieved the level of fame of his good friend, T. S. Eliot or other contemporaries. Shyness kept him away from readings that, for a poet, were lifelines to his audience. Also, he was a most candid critic, a posture that did not endear him to his fellow writers. Lastly, as a resident of both the United States and Europe he could never quite be associated with writers, benefactors, and salons on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1960, he had been resident in the U.S for some years and "rediscovered." Aiken eventually returned part-time to the elegance of Savannah. He spent the winters living next to his boyhood home, becoming the focus of social and academic circles and sought out by admirers until his death in 1973.
If you wander toward the eastern bluff in Savannah's magnificent Bonaventure Cemetery you arrive at Aiken Way. At it's end you find a memorial bench Aiken installed before his death. Next to it is a headstone bearing the identical death dates of his parents, an eerie reminder of the chaos we all face in our lives.
For those of us who have found our peace, there is a profound release there under the live oaks and Spanish moss. Others may not be so fortunate. Aiken is one them. In life, he was restless, a constant searcher forever sailing through an uncertain sea. He felt the same about death and wanted us to know. How fitting it was that he should find his epitaph quite by accident while perusing the Savannah newspapers. It appeared in the daily list of port activity and read simply: "Cosmos Mariner - Destination Unknown." Aiken indeed saw himself a cosmic mariner who on his death in 1973 cast off without a port of call, destination unknown. He left behind, engraved on the bench the wish, "Give my love to the world." It is a rather confident wish coming from a restless sailor. We can pray that every man should find safe harbor, all the while knowing that we are not the final judge of his navigation. We are left merely to explore the products of a shy and troubled man who could appreciate a bawdy pun and have his say in singing words and lilting prose.
If readers want to learn more about Aiken and his world, I strongly recommend they read this interview published in The Paris Review in 1963.
Conrad Aiken, The New Georgia Encyclopedia, entry by Ted R. Spivey
Conrad Aiken, Wikipedia
Conrad Aiken: Progidy Unitarian Poet, Richard A. Kelloway
The poem fragment is the conclusion from Aiken's, "The Dance of Life" published in 1916.