'Senlin: His Cloudy Destiny' by Conrad Aiken

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Senlin sat before us and we heard him.
He smoked his pipe before us and we saw him.
Was he small, with reddish hair,
Did he light his pipe with a meditative stare
And a twinkling flame reflected in blue eyes?
'I am alone': said Senlin; 'in a forest of leaves
The single leaf that creeps and falls.
The single blade of grass in a desert of grass
That none foresaw and none recalls.
The single shell that a green wave shatters
In tiny specks of whiteness on brown sands . . .
How shall you understand me with your hearts,
Who cannot reach me with your hands? . . .'

The city dissolves about us, and its walls
Are the sands beside a sea.
We plunge in a chaos of dunes, white waves before us
Crash on kelp tumultuously,
Gulls wheel over foam, the clouds blow tattered,
The sun is swallowed . . . Has Senlin become a shore?
Is Senlin a grain of sand beneath our footsteps,
A speck of shell upon which waves will roar? . . .
Senlin! we cry . . . Senlin! again . . . no answer,
Only the crash of sea on a shell-white shore.

Yet, we would say, this is no shore at all,
But a small bright room with lamplight on the wall;
And the familiar chair
Where Senlin sat, with lamplight on his hair.


Senlin, alone before us, played a music.
Was it himself he played? . . . We sat and listened,
Perplexed and pleased and tired.
'Listen!' he said, 'and you will learn a secret--
Though it is not the secret you desired.
I have not found a meaning that will praise you!
Out of the heart of silence comes this music,
Quietly speaks and dies.
Look! there is one white star above black houses!
And a tiny man who climbs toward the skies!
Where does he walk to? What does he leave behind him?
What was his foolish name?
What did he stop to say, before he left you
As simply as he came?
"Death?" did it sound like, "love and god, and laughter,
Sunlight, and work, and pain . . .?"
No--it appears to me that these were symbols
Of simple truths he found no way to explain.
He spoke, but found you could not understand him--
You were alone, and he was alone.

"He sought to touch you, and found he could not reach you,--
He sought to understand you, and could not hear you.
And so this music, which I play before you,--
Does it mean only what it seems to mean?
Or is it a dance of foolish waves in sunlight
Above a desperate depth of things unseen?
Listen! Do you not hear the singing voices
Out of the darkness of this sea?
But no: you cannot hear them; for if you heard them
You would have heard and captured me.
Yet I am here, talking of laughter.
Laughter and love and work and god;
As I shall talk of these same things hereafter
In wave and sod.
Walk on a hill and call me: "Senlin! . . . Senlin! . . ."
Will I not answer you as clearly as now?
Listen to rain, and you will hear me speaking.
Look for my heart in the breaking of a bough . . .'


Senlin stood before us in the sunlight,
And laughed, and walked away.
Did no one see him leaving the doors of the city,
Looking behind him, as if he wished to stay?
Has no one, in the forests of the evening,
Heard the sad horn of Senlin slowly blown?
For somewhere, in the worlds-in-worlds about us,
He changes still, unfriended and alone.
Is he the star on which we walk at daybreak,
The light that blinds our eyes?
'Senlin!' we cry. 'Senlin!' again . . . no answer:
Only the soulless brilliance of blue skies.

Yet we would say, this was no man at all,
But a dream we dreamed, and vividly recall;
And we are mad to walk in wind and rain
Hoping to find, somewhere, that dream again.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Senlin: His Cloudy Destiny

Senlin: His Cloudy Destiny is a work of literature that has captivated readers for almost a century. Written by Conrad Aiken, the poem was first published in 1918 and has since become one of the most celebrated and studied poems in American literature. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will explore the themes, motifs, and symbolism used by Aiken to create a haunting and enigmatic portrait of the human experience.


The poem tells the story of a man named Senlin who sets out on a journey to find himself. He travels through a series of landscapes, each one more surreal and dreamlike than the last. Along the way, he meets a variety of characters, each one representing a different aspect of the human psyche. Through their interactions, Senlin begins to understand the complexities of his own nature and the nature of the world around him.


One of the central themes of the poem is the search for identity. Senlin is on a quest to find himself and understand his place in the world. This search takes him through a range of experiences that are both challenging and transformative. Along the way, he encounters characters who embody different aspects of his personality and force him to confront his own fears and desires.

Another important theme is the idea of the journey itself. Senlin's journey is not just a physical one, but also a psychological one. He must navigate through a landscape of his own mind, facing the unknown and the unfamiliar. This journey is a metaphor for the human experience, as we all must navigate through the complexities of our own consciousness.

Finally, the poem also explores the theme of the human condition. Senlin's experiences are universal, and his struggles are relatable to all readers. Through his journey, we come to understand the joys and sorrows, the hopes and fears, that define the human experience.


Throughout the poem, Aiken employs a number of motifs that help to reinforce the themes of the work. One of the most prominent of these is the use of nature imagery. Senlin's journey takes him through a variety of landscapes, each one more surreal than the last. The natural world is often used to reflect Senlin's own emotional state, with storms and tumultuous weather representing his inner turmoil.

Another important motif is the use of mirrors and reflections. Senlin frequently encounters mirrors throughout his journey, and these reflections often reveal aspects of his own psyche that he is unable to see otherwise. Mirrors are also used to explore the theme of identity, as they reflect the multiple facets of Senlin's personality.


The most powerful aspect of the poem is the use of symbolism to convey complex ideas and emotions. One of the most important symbols is the Tower of Senlin, which serves as a representation of the human psyche. Senlin's journey through the tower represents his search for self-understanding, and the different rooms and floors of the tower represent different aspects of his personality.

Another important symbol is the cloud, which represents both the unknown and the potential for transformation. Throughout the poem, Senlin is surrounded by clouds, and these clouds often take on different shapes and forms. This symbolism is used to explore the idea of the journey itself, as Senlin must navigate through the unknown in order to find himself.


At its core, Senlin: His Cloudy Destiny is a work of existentialist literature. It explores the themes of identity, the journey, and the human condition in a way that is both profound and deeply moving. Through the use of motifs and symbolism, Aiken creates a work that is both haunting and beautiful.

Ultimately, the poem is a meditation on the nature of the self and the search for meaning in life. It is a work of literature that speaks to the universal human experience, and it has resonated with readers for almost a century. Senlin: His Cloudy Destiny is a true masterpiece of American literature, and it will continue to inspire and challenge readers for generations to come.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Senlin: His Cloudy Destiny - A Masterpiece of Modernist Poetry

Conrad Aiken's "Senlin: His Cloudy Destiny" is a modernist poem that explores the themes of identity, self-discovery, and the search for meaning in a chaotic world. The poem is a journey of the protagonist, Senlin, through a tower that represents the complexities of life. The tower is a metaphor for the human condition, and the journey through it is a metaphor for the search for meaning in life. The poem is a masterpiece of modernist poetry, and it is a must-read for anyone interested in exploring the complexities of the human condition.

The poem is divided into five sections, each of which represents a different stage in Senlin's journey through the tower. The first section, "The Wanderer," introduces us to Senlin, who is wandering through the streets of a city. He is lost and confused, and he is searching for something that he cannot name. The city is a metaphor for the world, and Senlin's confusion represents the confusion that many people feel in the face of the complexities of modern life.

In the second section, "The Alchemist," Senlin enters the tower and meets an alchemist who represents the search for knowledge and understanding. The alchemist teaches Senlin about the mysteries of the universe and the secrets of life. He shows Senlin the wonders of the world and teaches him how to see the beauty in everything. The alchemist represents the search for meaning and understanding in life, and his teachings help Senlin to find his way through the tower.

The third section, "The Poet," is perhaps the most beautiful and lyrical section of the poem. Senlin meets a poet who represents the search for beauty and inspiration. The poet shows Senlin the power of language and the beauty of the written word. He teaches Senlin how to see the world through the eyes of a poet and how to find inspiration in the most unlikely places. The poet represents the search for beauty and inspiration in life, and his teachings help Senlin to find his way through the tower.

In the fourth section, "The Tower," Senlin reaches the top of the tower and confronts the mysteries of life. He realizes that the tower is a metaphor for the human condition, and he understands that life is a journey of self-discovery. He sees the world from a new perspective and understands that everything is connected. The tower represents the complexities of life, and Senlin's journey through it represents the search for meaning and understanding.

In the final section, "The End," Senlin leaves the tower and returns to the world. He has found the answers that he was searching for, and he understands the mysteries of life. He sees the world with new eyes and understands that everything is connected. He has found his place in the world, and he is at peace with himself and with the world.

The poem is a masterpiece of modernist poetry, and it is a must-read for anyone interested in exploring the complexities of the human condition. The poem is a journey of self-discovery, and it teaches us that the search for meaning and understanding is a lifelong journey. The tower is a metaphor for the human condition, and the journey through it is a metaphor for the search for meaning in life. The poem is a beautiful and lyrical exploration of the human condition, and it is a testament to the power of poetry to explore the mysteries of life.

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