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From Charnel Rose

January 4, 2018

“Perhaps I came alone on a snow-white horse
Riding alone from the deep-starred night.
Perhaps I came on a ship whose sails were music
Sailing from moon or sun on a river of light.”
He lights his pipe with a streaked and pointed flame–
“Yet there were many autumns before I came
And many springs and more will come long after
There is no horn for me or song of laughter.”

–Conrad Aiken 1918

COMMENTARY: When Conrad Aiken was 11 years old, he was upstairs in his room when he heard two gunshots. He came downstairs where he found both of his parents dead. His father had shot his mother and then himself. It would be the trauma that would define the rest of his life. Though he would go on to have a comfortable upbringing at the hands of wealthy relatives, a good education, a successful career, his later prosperity and success would be tainted, just under the surface of his happiness, by the memory of what he’d witnessed as a child. In much of his writing this theme–delight poisoned by darkness– appears as a contrast of opposites: over here, a rich luxuriance and, over there, just behind it, a darkness that seems to threaten it.

This quick lyric, the opening of a much longer “symphony” is a fair example of this theme. The title, for instance, “Charnel Rose”–graveyard flower–prefigures the opposition of romance/music/light and melancholy/silence/darkness. The striking images of the stanza–the white horse, the starry sky, the ship of song, the river of light are set floating on melodious, richly-rhymed lines. But, just behind this lavishness is the sharp sputtering of the pipe flame and the speaker’s melancholy complaint about time and death–“no horn for me or song of laughter.” The romance of the stanza, therefore, is contaminated by hint of something dark and melancholy just under the surface, a lonely threat camouflaged by the mellifluousness of the language.

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