The HyperTexts

Conrad Aiken

Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.

Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, belovèd,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

For it was in my heart you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,―
They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.
"Bread and Music" by Conrad Aiken

The following introduction has been generously provided by Tom Merrill.

Having devoted my last three contributions to Blasts from the Past to poets born on the other side of the ocean — an Oxonian, a Cantabrigian, and a hobo — I thought it would add a little balance to the series if I introduced a fine homegrown specimen in this fourth installment. THT Editor Michael Burch suggested a few worthy candidates for presentation, and one I felt reasonably well prepared, and happy enough, to bring back on stage is Conrad Aiken, a distinguished Harvardian.

Aiken was a Southerner by birth but a Northerner by lineage, both his parents having descended from old and prominent New England families. He began writing poetry early, at age nine. But at age eleven, fate threw quite a wrench into the works when his father, a surgeon who had set up his medical practice in Savannah, Aiken's birthplace, killed himself and his wife. This disaster transplanted Aiken to New England, where he went to live with a great aunt, in New Bedford, Massachusetts. For the next seven years he attended the Middlesex School, and in 1907 was admitted into Harvard College.

Like many luminaries in American literature, Aiken while at Harvard was associated with Harvard's most prestigious student literary magazine, The Harvard Advocate, and was even for a time its president. He was also class poet. In fact he was so successful at Harvard academically, that he was granted the privilege of not having to attend classes regularly. But when, in his senior year, he skipped all his classes for ten days to write a poem, college authorities regarded such a lengthy absence as an abuse of his privilege, and he was put on probation. In protest he left college and went to Europe, where he stayed six months before returning to Harvard to finish his course requirements and graduate with the class of 1912.

In the summer following his graduation, he married his first wife, a girl from Montreal, and the newlyweds spent the next year discovering Europe together, traveling in England, France and Italy. After their return to the United States, they successively lived in Cambridge, Boston and Cape Cod, but in 1923 he decided to return to England, where he bought himself a place in Rye, only a block or two from a house in which Henry James had lived. He maintained residence there about a decade and a half, with only two return visits to the Unites States before the outbreak of WWII, both in the 1920s, one of them lasting three years, and during which he taught for a year at his alma mater, and also finalized his first divorce (His second divorce occurred nine years later, in 1938, shortly after which he got married again, for the third and final time.)

His first poetry collection came out in 1914, Earth Triumphant and Other Tales in Verse, and thereafter he produced more than a dozen volumes of poetry. He also wrote several novels and short stories. I remember trying to read one of the former decades ago, but somehow I couldn't get past the style — which, as I remember it, was all exclamation points and italics — and had to abandon the effort. No telling how I'd manage his exuberant, and quite literary prose now. But his poetry never posed a problem, and one of his poems presented below, "Morning Song Of Senlin," is a longish one of his I've admired since first reading it.He wrote many quite lengthy poems, but generally preferring shorter poems myself, I allowed this bias of mine to influence my selection of which of his poems to present here.

He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1930, and in the same year became the first recipient of the Shelley Memorial Award. In 1934 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. He received a National Book Award two decades later, in 1954, followed, in 1956, by the Bollingen Prize from Yale, and in 1958 by a Gold Medal in Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1969 he received the National Medal for Literature. Much of his verse reflects the morbid preoccupation with the inevitable destiny of life and love that is so characteristic of the best lyric poetry. And "Morning Song Of Senlin," it occurs to me, bears a striking resemblance both in theme and style to Harold Monro's poem "Living."

[Note: I have taken the liberty of adding my favorite Aiken poem, "Bread and Music," to the excellent slate of Aiken poems chosen by T. Merrill.—MRB]

Conrad Aiken, Magus by Lewis Turco is a personal reminiscence and review by one of America's premier poet-scholars

Morning Song of Senlin

It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning
When the light drips through the shutters like the dew,
I arise, I face the sunrise,
And do the things my fathers learned to do.
Stars in the purple dusk above the rooftops
Pale in a saffron mist and seem to die,
And I myself on a swiftly tilting planet
Stand before a glass and tie my tie.

Vine-leaves tap my window,
Dew-drops sing to the garden stones,
The robin chirps in the chinaberry tree
Repeating three clear tones.

It is morning. I stand by the mirror
And tie my tie once more.
While waves far off in a pale rose twilight
Crash on a white sand shore.
I stand by a mirror and comb my hair:
How small and white my face!—
The green earth tilts through a sphere of air
And bathes in a flame of space.
There are houses hanging above the stars
And stars hung under a sea...
And a sun far off in a shell of silence
Dapples my walls for me....

It is morning, Senlin says, and in the morning
Should I not pause in the light to remember God?
Upright and firm I stand on a star unstable,
He is immense and lonely as a cloud.
I will dedicate this moment before my mirror
To him alone, for him I will comb my hair.
Accept these humble offerings, cloud of silence!
I will think of you as I descend the stair.

Vine-leaves tap my window,
The snail-track shines on the stones;
Dew-drops flash from the chinaberry tree
Repeating two clear tones.

It is morning, I awake from a bed of silence,
Shining I rise from the starless waters of sleep.
The walls are about me still as in the evening,
I am the same, and the same name still I keep.
The earth revolves with me, yet makes no motion,
The stars pale silently in a coral sky.
In a whistling void I stand before my mirror,
Unconcerned, and tie my tie.

There are horses neighing on far-off hills
Tossing their long white manes,
And mountains flash in the rose-white dusk,
Their shoulders black with rains....
It is morning, I stand by the mirror
And surprise my soul once more;
The blue air rushes above my ceiling,
There are suns beneath my floor....

...It is morning, Senlin says, I ascend from darkness
And depart on the winds of space for I know not where;
My watch is wound, a key is in my pocket,
And the sky is darkened as I descend the stair.
There are shadows across the windows, clouds in heaven,
And a god among the stars; and I will go
Thinking of him as I might think of daybreak
And humming a tune I know....
Vine-leaves tap at the window,
Dew-drops sing to the garden stones,
The robin chirps in the chinaberry tree
Repeating three clear tones.


One, where the pale sea foamed at the yellow sand,
With wave upon slowly shattering wave,
Turned to the city of towers as evening fell;
And slowly walked by the darkening road toward it;
And saw how the towers darkened against the sky;
And across the distance heard the toll of a bell.

Along the darkening road he hurried alone,
With his eyes cast down,
And thought how the streets were hoarse with a tide of people,
With clamor of voices, and numberless faces...
And it seemed to him, of a sudden, that he would drown
Here in the quiet of evening air,
These empty and voiceless places...
And he hurried towards the city, to enter there.

Along the darkening road, between tall trees
That made a sinister whisper, loudly he walked.
Behind him, sea-gulls dipped over long grey seas.
Before him, numberless lovers smiled and talked.
And death was observed with sudden cries,
And birth with laughter and pain.
And the trees grew taller and blacker against the skies
And night came down again.

All Lovely Things Will Have an Ending

All lovely things will have an ending,
All lovely things will fade and die,
And youth, that's now so bravely spending,
Will beg a penny by and by.

Fine ladies all are soon forgotten,
And goldenrod is dust when dead,
The sweetest flesh and flowers are rotten
And cobwebs tent the brightest head.

Come back, true love! Sweet youth, return!
But time goes on, and will, unheeding,
Though hands will reach, and eyes will yearn,
And the wild days set true hearts bleeding.

Come back, true love! Sweet youth, remain!
But goldenrod and daisies wither,
And over them blows autumn rain,
They pass, they pass, and know not whither.

Variations: XII

Wind, wind, wind in the old trees,
Whispering prophecies all night long ...
What do the grey leaves sing to the wind,
What do they say in their whispered song?

We were all young once, and green as the sea,
We all loved beauty, the maiden of white.
But now we are old, O wind, have mercy
And let us remember our youth this night!

The wind is persuasive, it turns through the trees
And sighs of a miracle under its breath...
Beauty the dream will die with the dreamer,
None shall have mercy, but all shall have death.

Watch Long Enough, and You Will See

Watch long enough, and you will see the leaf
Fall from the bough. Without a sound it falls:
And soundless meets the grass....And so you have
A bare bough, and a dead leaf in dead grass.
Something has come and gone. And that is all.

But what were the tumults in this action?
What wars of atoms in the twig, what ruins,
Fiery and disastrous, in the leaf?
Timeless the tumult was, but gave no sign.
Only, the leaf fell, and the bough is bare.

This is the world: there is no more than this.
The unseen and disastrous prelude, shaking
The trivial act from the terrific action.
Speak: and the ghosts of change, past and to come,
Throng the brief word. The maelstrom has us all.

Hypocrite Auteur

mon semblable, mon frère

Our epoch takes a voluptuous satisfaction
In that perspective of the action
Which pictures us inhabiting the end
Of everything with death for only friend.

Not that we love death,
Not truly, not the fluttering breath,
The obscene shudder of the finished act—
What the doe feels when the ultimate fact
Tears at her bowels with its jaws.

Our taste is for the opulent pause
Before the end comes. If the end is certain
All of us are players at the final curtain:
All of us, silence for a time deferred,
Find time before us for one sad last word.
Victim, rebel, convert, stoic—
Every role but the heroic—
We turn our tragic faces to the stalls
To wince our moment till the curtain falls.

A world ends when its metaphor has died.

An age becomes an age, all else beside,
When sensuous poets in their pride invent
Emblems for the soul’s consent
That speak the meanings men will never know
But man-imagined images can show:
It perishes when those images, though seen,
No longer mean.

A world was ended when the womb
Where girl held God became the tomb
Where God lies buried in a man:
Botticelli’s image neither speaks nor can
To our kind. His star-guided stranger
Teaches no longer, by the child, the manger,
The meaning of the beckoning skies.

Sophocles, when his reverent actors rise
To play the king with bleeding eyes,
No longer shows us on the stage advance
God’s purpose in the terrible fatality of chance.

No woman living, when the girl and swan
Embrace in verses, feels upon
Her breast the awful thunder of that breast
Where God, made beast, is by the blood confessed.

Empty as conch shell by the waters cast
The metaphor still sounds but cannot tell,
And we, like parasite crabs, put on the shell
And drag it at the sea’s edge up and down.

This is the destiny we say we own.

But are we sure
The age that dies upon its metaphor
Among these Roman heads, these mediaeval towers,
Is ours?—
Or ours the ending of that story?
The meanings in a man that quarry
Images from blinded eyes
And white birds and the turning skies
To make a world of were not spent with these
Abandoned presences.

The journey of our history has not ceased:
Earth turns us still toward the rising east,
The metaphor still struggles in the stone,
The allegory of the flesh and bone
Still stares into the summer grass
That is its glass,
The ignorant blood
Still knocks at silence to be understood.

Poets, deserted by the world before,
Turn round into the actual air:
Invent the age! Invent the metaphor!

Bend As the Bow Bends

Bend as the bow bends, and let fly the shaft,
the strong cord loose its word as light as flame;
speak without cunning, love, as without craft,
careless of answer, as of shame or blame.
This to be known, that love is love, despite
knowledge or ignorance, truth, untruth, despair;
careless of all things, if that love be bright,
careless of hate and fate, careless of care.
Spring the word as it must, the leaf or flower,
broken or bruised, yet let it, broken, speak
of time transcending this too transient hour,
and space that finds the beating heart too weak.
Thus, and thus only, will our tempest come
by continents of snow to find a home.

The Tower

One, from his high bright window in a tower,
Leans out, as evening falls,
And sees the advancing curtain of the shower
Splashing its silver on roofs and walls:
Sees how, swift as a shadow, it crosses the city,
And murmurs beyond far walls to the sea,
Leaving a glimmer of water in the dark canyons,
And silver falling from eave and tree.

One, from his high bright window, looking down,
Peers like a dreamer over the rain-bright town,
And thinks its towers are like a dream.
The western windows flame in the sun's last flare,
Pale roofs begin to gleam.

Looking down from a window high in a wall
He sees us all;
Lifting our pallid faces towards the rain,
Searching the sky, and going our ways again,
Standing in doorways, waiting under the trees...
There, in the high bright window he dreams, and sees
What we are blind to,we who mass and crowd
From wall to wall in the darkening of a cloud.

The gulls drift slowly above the city of towers,
Over the roofs to the darkening sea they fly;
Night falls swiftly on an evening of rain.
The yellow lamps wink one by one again.
The towers reach higher and blacker against the sky.


Vermilioned mouth, tired with many kisses,
Eyes, that have lighted for so many eyes,
Are you not weary yet with countless lovers,
Desirous now to take even me for prize?

Draw not my glance, nor set my sick heart beating,
Body so stripped, for all your silks and lace.
Do not reach out pale hands to me, seductive,
Nor slant sly eyes, O subtly smiling face.

For I am drawn to you, like wind I follow,
Like a warm amorous wind...though I desire
Even in dream to keep one face before me,
One face like fire, and holier than fire.

* * *

I walk beneath these trees, and in this darkness
Muse beyond seas of her from whom I came,
While you, with catlike step, steal close beside me,
Spreading your perfume round me like soft flame.

Ah! should I once stoop face and forehead to you,
Into and through your sweetness, a night like this,
In the lime-blossomed darkness feel your bosom,
Warm and so soft, and find your lips to kiss.

And tear at your strange flesh with crazy fingers,
And drink with mouth gone mad your eyes' wild wine,
And cleave to you, body with breathless body,
Till bestial were exalted to divine,

Would I again, O lamia silked and scented,
Out of the slumberous magic of your eyes,
And your narcotic perfume, soft and febrile,
Have the romantic hardihood to rise,

And set my heart across great seas of distance
With love unsullied for her from whom I came?
With catlike step you steal beside me, past me,
Leaving your perfume round me like soft flame.


Twilight is spacious, near things in it seem far,
And distant things seem near.
Now in the green west hangs a yellow star.
And now across old waters you may hear
The profound gloom of bells among still trees,
Like a rolling of huge boulders beneath seas.

Silent as though in evening contemplation
Weaves the bat under the gathering stars.
Silent as dew, we seek new incarnation,
Meditate new avatars.
In a clear dusk like this
Mary climbed up the hill to seek her son,
To lower him down from the cross, and kiss
The mauve wounds, every one.

Men with wings
In the dusk walked softly after her.
She did not see them, but may have felt
The winnowed air around her stir;
She did not see them, but may have known
Why her son's body was light as a little stone.
She may have guessed that other hands were there
Moving the watchful air.

Now, unless persuaded by searching music
Which suddenly opens the portals of the mind,
We guess no angels,
And are contented to be blind.
Let us blow silver horns in the twilight,
And lift our hearts to the yellow star in the green,
To find perhaps, if, while the dew is rising,
Clear things may not be seen.

The HyperTexts