Monday, June 19, 2017

Do you think it just to call me into existence - Conrad Aiken's puppets argue their case

After a long absence, I always feel like I have to remind myself how to write, so I will burn off this piece by writing about Conrad Aiken, useful for practice since almost no one cares about Aiken.

The last two books of his that I read were Punch: The Immortal Liar, Documents in His History (1921) and Priapus and the Pool (1922) – I know, what titles, yeesh.  But both are books as such, not collections of the poems of the moment, and thus unrepresented in Aiken's Selected Poems not because their contents are inferior but because the poems need the company of the rest of the book.

Aiken, since his earliest poems, had a tendency to turn his female characters into an abstract, idealized, Woman, which is perhaps not a problem from the point of view of accuracy, representing the all too real psychology of his male characters, and presumably himself, but is nonetheless tiresome.  I know it is too much to ask, physician, to heal thyself, but at least critique thyself.  Well, in these two books Aiken critiques himself.

Priapus and the Pool employs a symbolic male/female symbolic dichotomy that is not so original – lust versus love, restless motion versus stable depth, like that – but the directness of the confrontation has some interest.  The most curious effect is in the poems in which the voice is ambiguous, where the speaker could be either Priapus or the pool, with the meaning of the poem changing accordingly.  Unfortunately, the diction is high Romantic, or perhaps Symbolist, and any quotations will make Aiken look ridiculous.  I wonder if he had been reading D. H. Lawrence.

Punch: The Immortal Liar, though – this one is different.  The title character is the marionette.  His wife is the much-abused Judy.  Did he hurl her down the stairs, or was she driven to suicide by his abuse and philandering with Polly Prim?  Punch is a trickster figure, and a mix of Faust and Mephistopheles, with a Walpurgisnacht section.  Is he the devil or merely a puppet?

The great surprise for me was the end of the poem, the epilogue “Mountebank Feels the Strings of His Heart,” where poor Judy speaks for herself:

                                  “Listen! you puller of strings!
Do you think it just to call me into existence, –
To give me a name, – and give me so little beside? . . .
To Polly you give her laughter, to Punch his illusions, –
To me you give nothing but death!”  (ellipses in original)

The puppeteer, the poet, has an answer:

“I too am a puppet.  And as you are a symbol for me
(As Punch is, and Sheba – bright symbols of intricate meanings,
Atoms of soul – who move, and are moved, by me – )
So I am a symbol, a puppet drawn out upon strings,
Helpless, well-coloured, with a fixed and unchanging expression…”  (ellipses mine – The Biblical Sheba replaces Goethe’s Helen)

The poet then, for a stanza, exercises his power and makes Judy “real” for a moment.

                                                     I desire to see you
Under a pear-tree – (we’ll say that the tree is in blossom –)
A warm day of sunlight, and laughing, - at nothing whatever!...
A green hill’s behind you; a cloud like a dome tops the hill;
A poplar tree, like a vain girl, leans over a mirror
Trying on silver, then green, perplexed, but in pleasure;
And you there, alone in the sunlight, watch bees in the pear-tree,
Dipping the leaves; and you laugh – for no reason whatever!  (ellipses in original)

This meta-fictional gift is the most beautiful scene I have found in Aiken so far.  How sad that the puppeteer, the poet, finds no solace in it, for despite his imaginative efforts his puppets “lay huddled together / Arms over heads, contorted”:

Inscrutable, silent, terrific, like those made eternal
Who stare, without thought, at a motionless world without meaning.


  1. And you there, alone in the sunlight, watch bees in the pear-tree

    That is hands down the most beautiful line I've ever read by Aiken (in whom I confess I've never had much interest), so thank you for making this post so I could read it! (I've never had much interest in philosophical poetry in general, I'm afraid.)

  2. Right! More of this, please, Conrad.

    Not that I really am expecting to find much more like it in Aiken.