And in the hanging gardens there is rain
From midnight until one, striking the leaves
And bells of flowers, and stroking boles of planes,
And drawing slow arpeggios over pools,
And stretching strings of sound from eaves to ferns.
The princess reads. The knave of diamonds sleeps.
The king is drunk, and flings a golden goblet
Down from the turret window (curtained with rain)
Into the lilacs.
And at one o’clock
The vulcan under the garden wakes and beats
The gong upon his anvil. Then the rain
Ceases, but gently ceases, dripping still,
And sound of falling water fills the dark
As leaves grow bold and upright, and as eaves
Part with water. The princess turns the page
Beside the candle, and between two braids
Of golden hair. And reads: ‘From there I went
Northward a journey of four days, and came
To a wild village in the hills, where none
Was living save the vulture and the rat,
And one old man, who laughed, but could not speak.
The roofs were fallen in; the well grown over
With weed; and it was there my father died.
Then eight days further, bearing slightly west,
The cold wind blowing sand against our faces,
The food tasting of sand. And as we stood
By the dry rock that marks the highest point
My brother said: “Not too late is it yet
To turn, remembering home.” And we were silent
Thinking of home.’ The princess shuts her eyes
And feels the tears forming beneath her eyelids
And opens them, and tears fall on the page.
The knave of diamonds in the darkened room
Throws off his covers, sleeps, and snores again.
The king goes slowly down the turret stairs
To find the goblet.
The vulcan in his smithy underground
Under the hanging gardens, where the drip
Of rain among the clematis and ivy
Still falls from sipping flower to purple flower,
Smites twice his anvil, and the murmur comes
Among the roots and vines. The princess reads:
‘As I am sick, and cannot write you more,
Nor have not long to live, I give this letter
To him, my brother, who will bear it south
And tell you how I died. Ask how it was,
There in the northern desert, where the grass
Was withered, and the horses, all but one,
Perished’ … The princess drops her golden head
Upon the page between her two white arms
And golden braids. The knave of diamonds wakes
And at his window in the darkened room
Watches the lilacs tossing, where the king
Seeks for the goblet.
And at three o’clock
The moon inflames the lilac heads, and thrice
The vulcan, in his root-bound smithy, clangs
His anvil; and the sounds creep softly up
Among the vines and walls. The moon is round,
Round as a shield above the turret top.
The princess blows her candle out, and weeps
In the pale room, where the scent of lilac comes,
Weeping, with hands across her eyelids, thinking
Of withered grass, withered by sandy wind.
The knave of diamonds, in his darkened room,
Holds in his hands a key, and softly steps
Along the corridor, and slides the key
Into the door that guards her. Meanwhile, slowly,
The king, with raindrops on his beard and hands,
And dripping sleeves, climbs up the turret stairs,
Holding the goblet upright in one hand;
And pauses on the midmost step, to taste
One drop of wine, wherewith wild rain has mixed.
Conrad Aiken (1889-1973)
Conrad Aiken was one of America’s greatest poets, as well as a masterful prose writer. Here are six facts that may inspire your appreciation of Aiken and tempt you to learn more about him.
1. Though he described himself as a New England poet – having been reared and educated for most of his life in Massachusetts – he hailed from Savannah, Georgia, where he returned to live out his final years. Local legend has it that he wanted a marble bench by his graveside, as an invitation for visitors to stop there and enjoy a Martini. (Aiken is buried at the Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah).
2. The marble bench is indeed there, and inscribed with two epitaphs of Aiken’s own choosing: “Give my love to the world” and “Cosmos Mariner – Destination Unknown.” In the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Aiken’s grave is where the author John Berendt shares a shaker of cold Martinis with Miss Harty.
Aiken’s parents are buried in a double grave next to his. Their deaths were the great tragedy of his young life, as the 11-year-old Conrad was the one who discovered their bodies after his father shot his mother and then turned the gun on himself. (Source: Bloom, Harold. The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost. New York: 2004).
3. “Most of Aiken’s poetry reflects an intense interest in psychoanalysis and the development of identity. Of the many influences Aiken acknowledged, the writings of Freud, William James, Edgar Allan Poe, and the French Symbolists are most evident in his work. The forms and sounds of music pervade all of Aiken’s highly introspective poetry …” (Source: Poets.org).
4. Kate Bernadette Benedict, a talented modern poet, has a page about Aiken on her website, which she opens with this (abridged) paragraph: “No poet of the 20th Century fascinates me more than Conrad Aiken (1889-1973) whose poetry I would describe as imagistic, enigmatic, penetrating, lush, and not a little Gothic … In orderly sitting rooms, his characters encounter chaos; they fall into other dimensions or the chasm of their own selves. It is all very slippery. These poems are the product of an original and a fearless mind.” (Link to page).
5. As editor of Emily Dickinson’s Selected Poems (1924), Aiken was largely responsible for establishing her posthumous literary reputation. He considered Dickinson to be a very fine poet, calling her work “perhaps the finest poetry by a woman in the English language.” (Of course, he might have left out qualifying the compliment with “woman.” Dickinson is considered a master among poets of either gender, challenged only by Whitman as the greatest of the American poets of the 20th century, according to Harold Bloom.)
6. He is the father of the author Joan Aikens, who wrote The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.