Ernest Hemingway once paid a left-handed compliment to Herman Melville, praising and at the same time denigrating Moby-Dick as "rhetoric." Clive James is no Hemingway, and though James's credentials as a critic and connoisseur of poetry are not in doubt, his abrupt dismissal of the works of Conrad Aiken seems on par with that brusque, intolerant jibe by Hemingway.
After all, the "torrential mellifluousness" that so offends James is part and parcel of the charm and magnetism that Aiken held for some young people—people who were, be it conceded, naïve to a fault, but also alert to the voice of world tragedy and its mysterious redemptions that is everywhere in the work of this poet from Savannah, Georgia. Aiken's poems hint at the soul's encounter with eternity, and give evidence of the tremendous vitality of a creative, but much afflicted, artist. They contain a strange beauty and heartache to which James, with his dry, vituperative style, is probably not susceptible. His is the well-known superiority of live dogs to dead wolves.