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Aiken, Conrad (1889-1973)

Conrad Aiken

Conrad Aiken

Conrad Aiken was born in Savannah, Georgia. In his childhood Aiken experienced a considerable trauma when he found the bodies of his parents after his physician father had killed his mother and committed suicide. He was brought up in Massachusetts from the age of eleven by a great-great-aunt.

Before entering Harvard, Aiken was educated at private schools and at Middlesex School, Concord. AtHarvard he shared a class and developed a close friendship with T. S. Eliot, with whom he edited the Advocate. Aiken was a member of the class of 1912, in the same era as Eliot, Walter Lippman, Van Wyck Brooks, and E. E. Cummings. After working as a reporter, Aiken devoted himself entirely to writing, having also a small private income. Of the many influences Aiken acknowledged, the writings of Freud, Havelock Ellis, William James, Edgar Allan Poe, and the French Symbolists are evident in his work. Freud considered Aiken’s Great Circle a masterpiece of analytical introspection.

Aiken’s first collection of verse, Earth Triumphant, appeared in 1914, and it made him known as a poet. He was a contributing editor to Dial, which led to a friendship with Ezra Pound. Aiken’s essays, collected in Scepticisms (1919) and A Reviewer’s ABC (1958), dealt with the questions provoked by his commitment to literature as a mode of self-understanding.

Aiken’s adult life was marked by trans-Atlantic journeys. In 1921 he moved from Massachusetts to England, settling in Rye, Sussex. In 1927-1928 he was a tutor in English at Harvard. He married Jessie MacDonald, a Canadian, in 1912; the three children of that marriage—John, Jane Aiken Hodge, and Joan—all became published authors. Joan Aiken has a major reputation in her own right. Conrad Aiken later married Clarissa M. Lorenz in 1930 (divorced in 1937). In 1933 he sailed again for Boston, and then spent two years in Rye (1934-36), writing ‘London Letters’ to The New Yorker. He returned to New York and Boston, and traveled in Mexico, where he married the artist Mary Hoover. They returned to Rye in 1937, but moved to the United States after the outbreak of World War II.

Walk with me world, upon my right hand walk,
speak to me Babel, that I may strive to assemble
of all these syllables a single word
before the purpose of speech is gone.

In 1930 Aiken received the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Selected Poems. Aiken wrote most of his fiction between the 1920s and 1930s, including novels Blue Voyage (1927), in which he used interior monologue and King Coffin (1934). He also wrote short story collections Bring! Bring! (1925) and Among the Lost People (1934).

After staying two years in Rye, Aiken settled in 1947 in Brewster, Massachusetts. He was a consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress from 1950 to 1952. In 1953 he published Collected Poems, which included the masterwork “Preludes to Definition” and “Morning Song of Senlin.” Aiken’s ‘autobiographical narrative, Ushant (1952) depicted his friendships with Malcolm Lowry, Eliot, and other figures he knew. It dramatized the attempt of its protagonist, the author’s persona, to read the palimpsest of hieroglyphs that constitutes the landscape of his soul, and mingled sketches of the literary generation between the wars with psychoanalytic free association.

Conrad Aiken

Jeake House, Aiken’s residence in the UK, with an undated photograph of the poet inset.

From 1962 to 1973 Aiken wintered in a Savannah house adjacent to that of his childhood. He died in Savannah on August 17, 1973. Aiken received a Pulizer Prize, National Book Award, and Bollinger Prize in 1956, a Gold Medal in Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1958, and a National Medal for Literature in 1969.

Aiken’s psychological penetrations and verbal richness never received the wide recognition they deserve in spite of the several awards the author received. There were reasons. His trans-Atlantic life mode made it difficult for the public to decide whether he was an American or an English author. Unlike Eliot, who became a British subject, Aiken always considered himself an American. Because as a critic, he always tried to tell the truth as he saw it, he did not always endear himself to literary colleagues. His shyness prevented him from doing public readings, which are part of the path to popularity.


Conrad Potter Aiken and T. S. (Thomas Stearns) Eliot met at Harvard College in 1907. They became renowned poets and lifelong friends. Both were the true progeny of one of their grandfathers. The historic connection is the Unitarian ministry. Aiken’s maternal grandfather, William James Potter, was the minister of the First Congregational Society (Unitarian), of New Bedford from 1859 to 1892. Eliot’s paternal grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, Jr., ministered to the First Unitarian Church in St. Louis from 1834 to 1887.

William Greenleaf Eliot, Jr., after graduating from Harvard, was ordained to the Unitarian ministry. At the age of 23, he set out for St. Louis to help establish a new liberal congregation. Establish one he did. And much more besides. He helped develop a public school system, was “the Father of Washington University,” and pioneered in many other civic and charitable enterprises. Without doubt he was the leading public citizen of St. Louis.

William James Potter, to the undiscerning observer, had a relatively uneventful life and ministry. Born a birthright Quaker in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in 1830, his entire ministry (1859-1892) was spent with the First Congregational Society in adjacent New Bedford. He graduated from the Friends’ school at Providence, Rhode Island, prepared as a teacher at the Normal School at Bridgewater, Massachusetts, and after a brief teaching career, entered Harvard College in 1850. Graduating with honors in 1854, he taught at Cambridge High School until he entered the Harvard Divinity School in 1856. He never graduated. After one year, he sailed for Germany to study philosophy at the University of Berlin and to travel. He returned to Cambridge in 1858 and began seeking a church. He preached at the Unitarian Church in New Bedford (First Congregational Society) several times in July 1859. A call came in the Fall. He was ordained and installed on December 28, 1859, and preached his first sermon as the Society’s minister on January 1, 1860. He retired from the same pulpit in 1892.

Aiken's house

41 Doors, Aiken’s home on Cape Cod in Brewster, Massachusetts

In 1866 the idea of a spiritual antislavery society occurred to William James Potter….”The new society would dedicate itself to the emancipation of religion from the thralldom of irrational and traditional authorities.” The result was the Free Religious Association, organized in Boston in l867. It was radical in its openness to new ideas. Potter drafted the Constitution and throughout its effective history, he was its mainstay, first as Secretary and later as President. He also edited its journal, The Index.

Potter’s daughter, Anna, married a physician, Dr. William Ford Aiken. They moved to Savannah where they quickly established themselves in society. They had four children; Conrad, the oldest, was born in l889, followed by Elizabeth, Kempton and Robert. In l901 Dr. Aiken murdered his wife and then committed suicide. The younger three were adopted by Frederick Winslow Taylor and his wife, Louise Spooner Taylor, cousin of Anna Potter Aiken. A wealthy Pennsylvania electrical engineering and pioneering efficiency expert, he insisted that the children to be adopted take his name. In order to preserve the Aiken name, Conrad was not included in the arrangement. Conrad was raised by a succession of relatives, many of them in New Bedford, and attended Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, but “never felt that he had a home.”

His second wife, Clarissa Lorenz, reports on one of their first meetings. “In a warm account of his grandfather, William James Potter, a Unitarian minister in New Bedford for thirty years, Conrad expressed his own idealism. “He was a hero to his congregation. They followed him when he broke away from orthodoxy to form the Free Religious Association, a doctrine embracing scientific discoveries like Darwin’s theory.”

In 1971, Aiken wrote: “What could have been more natural, as I grew older, that in my preoccupations as to the content of the poetry I should turn to the teachings‚—for they were more teachings than preachings—of my Grandfather. I regard all my work, both verse and prose, as in a way a continuation of his work—the finding of the truth about man, and man’s mind, and of man’s place in the universe, and the telling of it as accurately and beautifully as such themes deserved. And, success or not, I like to think he would have approved of the endeavor, at least. And that’s all I can say.”

At Harvard Aiken and Eliot spent much time together. Both aspiring poets at different times served as editor of the Advocate. Eliot frequently accompanied Aiken to the home of “Beloved Uncle” Alfred Claghorn Potter for Sunday night supper. In the same early conversation with Clarissa, Conrad: “…described meeting Eliot in his freshman year, dining at the same table in Memorial Hall. Actually, he said, they weren’t in the same class‚ Tom Eliot was ahead of him. What was he like? ‘A Wonderful fellow. Marvelous sense of humor. We were both addicts of the comic strips, made the rounds of bars and burlesque shows, talked about everything from free verse to love and human folly. After I moved to England we met less often.'”

Both spent much of their adult lives in England. Eliot in London quickly established himself in important literary circles. Aiken, painfully shy, settled in West Surrey in remote Rye. The work of each exemplifies and extends attitudes and values at the center of the religious commitments of their divergent grandfathers.

Aiken married three times and produced three children. He spent many of his years in three places—Rye, Savannah, and Brewster, Massachusetts. It has been suggested that he loved his houses more than his first two wives—Jeakes House in Rye, a townhouse near his childhood home in Savannah, and 41 Doors, an old farmhouse on the Cape. In temperament he was frequently irascible and outspoken. Often he seemed to enjoy shocking others.

Among his works are 35 volumes of poetry, 5 novels, an autobiographical essay, Ushant, short stories and criticism. In the 20’s and 30’s he wrote the “Letter From London” for The New Yorker. He received numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, and was the Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress. But his shyness led him to reject all offers of honorary degrees‚ including one from Harvard. Indeed, he resigned from the College as an undergraduate, partially because his election as Class Poet would have required him to speak in public.

In spite of all honors, Aiken has never been a popular poet. Perhaps one reason is that many poets become known through their public readings. Contemporary poets who are unavailable rarely develop large followings. While he was fascinated by the literary world, he did not much participate in it. As a person, author, and critic, he was deeply committed to candor. He believed his real business was “to give the lowdown on himself, and through himself on humanity.” A poem posted in the Henry A. Murray Memorial Bathroom at 41 Doors (made possible by a gift from this friend) states the poet’s mission:

. . . Was this the poet? It is man.
The poet is but man made plain,
A glass-cased watch, through which you scan
The multitudinous beat-and-pain,
The feverish fine small mechanism,
And hear it ticking while it sings.
Behold, this delicate paroxysm

This mission was in large measure a response to avid reading of Freud, Jung, Adler, and Ferenczi. He was enthralled by the notion that the unconscious could be explored to reveal realities not only about the individual self, but also about the essential character of the human species. In the early thirties, the poet H D (Hilda Doolittle) returned to Rye from Vienna after experiencing analysis with Freud. She reported that he had read Great Circle and kept a copy of it in his waiting room. She then suggested that Aiken take her place as one of the analyst’s five patients. He was greatly tempted, although there would be great difficulty in raising the funds to afford the trip and process. Perhaps even more daunting than poverty was the fear that analysis might destroy creativity.

Sell him to Doctor Wundt the psycho-analyst
Whose sex-ray eyes will separate him out
Into a handful of blank syllables,—
Like a grammarian, whose beak can parse
A sentence till its gaudy words mean nothing

Obedient to rebellious springs! His candor extended to his bluntly expressing his views about the work of other authors. This honesty helped make him an outstanding literary critic; it hardly enhanced his popularity within the literary world. His isolation was increased by his prolonged sojourns in England which led to confusion about his identity. Unlike Eliot, he never chose to assimilate and become a British subject. Yet his absences made it more difficult to be accepted within the American literary scene. Clarissa’s reflections on Conrad’s lack of recognition suggest several factors:

. . .Conrad’s obscurity has puzzled many. There were, in my view, a number of factors that contributed to the paradox. He was a writer’s writer, “a hellish highbrow,” too difficult and serious for the average reader. There’s too much analysis for his own good and the reader’s. “. . .Even a book of critical essays frightened off a yea-loving public by calling itself ‘Scepticisms.'”

. . . His poetry wasn’t difficult to understand, he said. In fact, it was quite easy. Young people had begun to discover him. “These young people, I think, are interested in my free-wheeling attitude to life, my skepticism, my belief that there are no final solutions, that things may have no meaning and that we’ve got to face that possibility all the time. Everything is in a sense reversible.”

Including his lifestyle, and this is reflected in his work. New England serves as one spiritual pole, the South the other, forcing a life of uneasy perpetual motion on him.

. . .He pined for America when in England and for England when in America, delighted by the British flair for conversation and other attractions. He couldn’t resist the pretty girl who described herself as a “piece de non-resistance.”

An undoubted Anglophile, Conrad, but “the history and landscape of Puritan America in his bones created his most
distinguished poetry,”. . .

. . .Aiken shrank from promoting himself. His whole life was devoted to his own genius, as one critic noted. He made no effort to polish his image; he forbade the reprinting of one of his most popular early poems because he detested it. He has been known to pay a price for sticking to writing, and writing only what he believed in. His only profession of being a poet was a rarity.

. . .Lest his father’s insanity doom him, too, he lived his life off stage, behind the scenes, remote whether in Savannah, Boston, Cambridge, Rye, Cape Cod or Manhattan. He never lifted a finger (except at the typewriter) to advance his own reputation. . . .He let his books speak for themselves; no autograph parties, TV appearances, lecture tours, or readings (only on tape), no plugging his name. . . .

As for religion, he never joined a church. However, when his wife, Mary Hoover Aiken, jokingly listed him as Episcopalian on a hospital admission slip, he was furious and insisted that he was a Unitarian. She reports that the two volumes of Grandfather Potter’s sermons accompanied them on all their journeys and that they were once lent to Eliot.

Shortly after Eliot’s death on January 4, 1965, Aiken did a reminiscence for Life magazine. In it he refers to his own religious identity. In it reports on youthful discussions: “He preferred France and I was the one who felt inclined to England‚ oddly, because it was he who became so entrenched in London that he became a British subject and, in time, a convert to the Anglican Church (from which I, a Unitarian). . .

Aiken had much to say about Eliot. In a 1922 letter to G. B. Wilbur, he commented: “Tom Eliot is starting a mag., The Criterion, which ought to be good. He, poor devil, cries out for analysis more than anyone I’ve ever seen. He’s in a perfect Gordian knot‚—he thinks he’s God. A passion for perfection – etc.” In 1937 in a letter to Henry A. Murray, he reported: “Tom Eliot came for the weekend, last week, played ping pong, went to church, drank his beer like a man, was in fact very good company, and promised to come down again to sit for Mary‚—was much impressed.” It took until 1952, but an excellent portrait emerged.

“The Waste Land” is one of Eliot’s most renowned poems:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers . . .

Aiken’s response was in a 1925 letter to Robert N. Linscott,

eliot is the cruellest poet, breeding
lyrics under the driest dustpan, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
verb roots with spring brain…

Aiken summarized his feelings about Eliot’s poetry in a 1932 letter to Theodore Spencer: “I don’t think Tom’s poetry is unintelligible because it’s complex or, overconceptual, or abstruse, but because it’s so increasingly empty of everything but pure affect! and more and more idiosyncratic affect, at that. But the skill in the use of time and sound increasingly impresses me, in the later things—Ash Wednesday, for example—there was never a more beautiful gibberish of language, surely? the whole, or detailed, meaning almost nil, but the effect lovely. Pure skill has never gone farther.”

Perhaps Aiken’s judgment was tinged by jealousy. While Eliot was renowned, Aiken found little acclaim and constantly struggled to survive economically. He often felt unappreciated and defeated.

As for Aiken’s opinion of Eliot’s “conversion,” this limerick (never shown to Eliot) is evidence enough:

Eliot’s left us in the lurch
been gone and joined the Church
he’s been drinking holy water
when he knows he hadn’t oughter
and it’s made him awful sick
turning into Catholic
Better be a Unitarian
or a plain humanitarian.
Truer mind and heart had he
before he took the Trinitee
for now he’s put himself a-Cross
his great pain is our great loss
and Pure Thought’s no longer pure
since he took the Sinai Cure.

In a 1965 article in the Lugano Review, Aiken commented: “It was my own private joke to call the portrait (which was very true of him at that time) Mr. Eliot’s Fallen Arches, or Murder in the Cathedral. The reference being to the fact that we both came of generations of Unitarians and liberals, with preachers in both families, and that his joining of the Church put a wall of dogma between us, which, thereafter, only our deep affection, and a sense of humor shared for a lifetime could surmount.” In an early 30s conversation in Rye, he asserted: “When Eliot joined the Anglican church four years ago, he regressed two thousand years, becoming one of the herd, making himself null and void as an explorer of human awareness.”

But there is no doubt of his admiration. In the Life piece he commented: “I can only think of two other poets who can have had the immense satisfaction of seeing a poetic age named for them while they were still alive. One is Tennyson, an unfortunate comparison, and the other Dryden, a more flattering one. In any case, our age beyond any doubt has been and will continue to be, the Age of Eliot.”

Eliot’s opinion of Aiken is not easily discovered.

As an editor for Faber and Faber, he selected nothing of Aiken’s work for publication, and in the more than two decades when he edited The Criterion and The New Criterion he published only one poem, one story and eight reviews by Aiken. Clarissa Lorenz commented: “Margaret (Nash) told me that T. S. Eliot, then editor of the Criterion, ordered a copy of Great Circle after hearing that it was magnificent, then delivered a double entendre to Paul: “Each book Aiken writes is better than the last one.” When Margaret chided the editor of New Verse for rejecting Conrad’s poems, he said he had taken Eliot’s word that they were unsuitable. She suspected Eliot of being at the bottom of the resistance movement. Regarding his old friend as subversive, a rival who must remain crushed, he staged a cabal, feeling it his duty as a Catholic to stamp out atheism and nihilism‚ or so her thinking went. It might also be part revenge, since Conrad once said that Eliot didn’t put anything down because he thought he was God and was afraid of falling short of perfection. That crack, Conrad claimed, so incensed Eliot that he produced The Waste Land as a tour de force.”

Later, personal circumstances kept them distant, but I suspect that, also, Eliot may have found Aiken too blunt and bawdy for comfortable companionship. There were occasional cordial meetings through the years, but it is doubtful that their early intimacy was ever re-established.

In 1952 Eliot responded to a gift from Aiken of his autobiography:

Dear Conrad,

I am writing to thank you for Ushant which has just reached me, and the inscription which I shall value. It is certainly a very remarkable book. After the first few pages, I said to myself, this is all very well for a short distance, but can he keep it up through 365 pages without the style becoming oppressive? Anyway, you have done it, and I have read the book through with unflagging interest and I hope that it will have a great success.

I was, as a matter of fact, somewhat shocked to find myself described as having a streak of sadism in my nature! I haven’t the faintest recollection of the two incidents on which you base this diagnosis, but if it was like that, then it seems to me I must have behaved very badly. I hope in that case that I have been forgiven.

Ever affectionately,

Tom

Aiken was infused with a great restlessness. His life was spent seeking, exploring, questioning, doubting, and, occasionally, celebrating. As a literary disciple of Sigmund Freud, he was deeply concerned for exploring the depths of human consciousness. He experienced therapy himself. In his poetry, he was much concerned for catching the contrapuntal rhythms of music. Beyond the rhythms there was a fascination in exploring the burlesque or vaudeville of the seemingly ordinary‚ the amazing everyday, the exotic commonplace, the explosively casual.

About his religious views, he once said: “Yes, I suppose I’m a naturalistic humanist if I’m anything—that and an evolutionist. I am against all forms of supernaturalism, dogma, myth, church—primarily, I believe in the evolution of consciousness as something we’re embarked on willy-nilly, the evolution of mind, and that devotion to this is all the devotion we need.”

The universe is chaos, a tumultuous maelstrom of fragments of bouncing bits and pieces. As humans we create experiences of meaning and unity out of the formless chaos—if we are sensitive enough to observe and experience. We can never find assured order, not a creating, caring and sustaining God. The nearest we can come to a god is in the process of discovering and creating a self.

At the age of 77, Aiken (to the admiration of Eliot) produced his last great poem. He found his own Thee and expressed it in 250 lines, published in a handsome volume illustrated by Leonard Baskin. As with Eliot, he flowed with the spirit of New England transcendentalism. Thee is not benevolent; it is the essential energy, the life force which like Kali creates, nourishes, destroys and creates again. And yet Thee also can evolve out of its interchange with the human spirit:

Who is that splendid THEE
who makes a symphony
of the one word
be
admitting us to see
all things but THEE…

as if perhaps in our slow growing and the beginnings of our knowing
as if perhaps
o could this be
that we
be
THEE?
THEE still learning
or first learning
through us
to be
THY THEE?
Self-praise were then our praise of THEE
unless we say divinity
cries in us both as we draw breath
cry death cry death
and all our hate
we must abate
and THEE must with us meet and mate

give birth give suck be sick and die
and close the All-God-Giving-Eye
for the last time to sky.

Who was right, Aiken or Eliot? Of course, there is no right answer to that question. Which one had the better religion or non-religion? No answer there either. Our religious experiences, attitudes, and commitments are very much a matter of temperament and taste. And our heritage.

Both men were profoundly influenced by the convictions of their Unitarian grandfathers. In Eliot I sense an urgency for answers, for assurance, for structure. He believed in institutions and was persuaded that the church could and should do good in the world. Not just good deeds, but to shape a good society.

Aiken was a rebel. He distrusted symbols, traditions, institutions. They attempt to encapsulate what should always be open. The chaos of the universe provides no answers, only the elements from which we can choose to create our own.

Religion is the discovering, creating, celebrating, and sustaining of transforming relationships. Eliot was committed to discovering essential relationships and believed that he had. Aiken struggled to create relationships and knew that, if only for a moment, he could. Why poetry? Because it moves beyond mind and rationality to plumb our wonderings, our fears, our struggles, our hopes, our spirits. Poetry can infuse us all with grace. Even the poet.

— Abridged from Conrad Aiken and T. S. Eliot: Ministers’ Progeny Gone Away (Astray) by Richard A. Kellaway


Conrad Aiken and Bright Heraclitus

“Preludes for Memnon,” published in 1935, is a long meditative poem in which the narrator explores the metaphysical and psychological consequences of his belief that we inhabit a universe subject to ceaseless change. The greatest challenge to reading this poem is the unstated but nonetheless indispensable philosophy which underlies the narrator’s dramatic monologue. Therefore, examine the narrator’s philosophy.

Aiken completely accepted the Heraclitean view that everything in this universe is endlessly and relentlessly subject to change. ‘Everything’ is not being used rhetorically here but literally. Each natural object, living creature and above all, each memory, identity, thought, feeling, opinion and discovery is constantly changing into something else. Heraclitus said that no one may step twice into the same river because by the time of the second step, both the river and the person have changed. Aiken radicalizes this statement: No man or woman may have the same identity twice, think the same thought or have the same feeling twice; no man or woman may kiss the same person twice, nor may anyone see, feel, love, appreciate, hate, hear, touch, taste, imagine or dream anything twice.

This radicalization of Heraclitus’ dictum leads to consequences which are accepted by Aiken’s narrator in “Preludes for Memnon.”

Because we live in a universe of ceaseless change all things, including human beings, are continually dying and being reborn at every moment. The narrator accepts this as a metaphysical truth and not as a mere poetic sentiment. Death is a necessary and wonderful thing.

There can be no rest. Because there is no final stopping place, no heaven, every rest is only a pause before a new beginning. This will go on forever both for the body and the mind.
A transvaluation of values is needed. We must reinterpret old values and beliefs in light of this fact or invent new moralities. The narrator of “Preludes for Memnon” does both. He rereads certain Bible passages in radically new ways and tries to invent a morality in which his infidelity is not only justified but perfectly moral.

Because all things—including humanity—are in process, they all share the same essential nature or essence: processes and, in particular, processes in evolutionary development. This fact becomes the basis for the narrator’s use of the doctrine of microcosm and macrocosm: human beings are a smaller, ‘micro’ version of the process at work in the vast macrocosm. Humanity is a natural child of the universe.

The only enduring identity human beings have is their essential identity as parts of the cosmic process.

— Abridged from Becoming God: A Philosophical Background to Reading Conrad Aiken by Ian Kluge


A Note on Unitarian Connections

Conrad Aiken served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1950 to 1952. His poetry is deliberately built on the foundation of the philosophy of Heraclitus expressed in such presocratic fragments as these:

-This world, which is the same for all, no one of the gods or men has made, but it ever was, is now, and ever shall be an everliving Fire, with measures of its kindling, and measure going out.

-Fire lives the death of air, and air lives the death of fire; water lives the death of earth, earth that of water.

-You cannot step twice into the same river, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.

-All things come into being and pass away through strife.

-God is Day and Night, Winter and Summer, War and Peace, Surfeit and Hunger; but God takes various shapes, just as fire, when it is mingled with spices, is named according to the savour of each.

Conrad Aiken affirms the all too often hidden Heraclitean heritage of the American Unitarian faith: faith in the everliving cosmos which is our home, faith in reason as a way to reliable knowlege, and faith symbolized by sacred fire, such as that dancing in a flaming chalice.

The Aiken's Grave

The Aikens’ gravesite in Savannah, Georgia. Engravings on a stone bench are their epitaphs, hers on the left, his on the right

Conrad clearly thought of himself as Unitarian. A reason for not joining any church is that he was painfully shy of any public activity. He resigned from Harvard College rather than accept the honor of being the Senior Class Poet. He never gave public readings. He refused an honorary Harvard degree because he had refused the graduation appearance and, again, was fearful of appearing in public. Much of his adult life was spent in Jeakes House in Rye, UK. When it much later became a B & B, I had the good fortune to stay in the tower room where he did much of his writing. I met him once (martinis at 11AM at his home in Brewster, MA). He was warm, friendly and engaging. He was eager to hear about New Bedford and his grandfather William J. Potter. In his magnificent autobiography Ushant, he states that his entire lifework was to carry on the ideas and work of Mr. Potter.

—From “Unitarian Universalist Historical Society Chat” June 26, 2002



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