23 Selected Poems of E. E. Cummings

Mr. Dwaipayan Mitra

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This module will introduce the students to the characteristics of E.E. Cummings’s poetry. Cummings was one of the major representative poets of the twentieth century. He was famous for his technical improvisations in verse. In this module we would study five major poems of E.E. Cummings.

E.E. Cummings


Life and Works of E.E. Cummings


Edward Estlin Cummings was born on October 14 in 1894. Cummings’s father, (Edward Cummings) a professor at Harvard University and mother, a philanthropic person, helped him develop his interest in poetry. In 1911 Cummings went to Harvard and focused his study on literature. He had his first poem published in 1912 in The Harvard Monthly. His early poetry was pervaded by a conservative outlook and owed a debt to John Keats and D.G. Rossetti. However, his style took a radical turn when his fellow writers such as John Dos Passos and Scofield Thayer acquainted him with the works of Eliot and Joyce. He was also introduced to the technical innovations of Ezra Pound. This encounter with the wave of Modernism changed his poetic sensibility and syntax. His verses began to evince various typographical experiments. He began using lowercase personal pronoun (‘i’) to indicate technical virtuosity, uniqueness of individual and humility.


After completing graduation, Cummings went to New York and got his first job as a clerk for a mail-order bookseller. After three months he quit and went to work full-time on his poetry and painting. In 1917 when the First World War was wreaking havoc on Europe Cummings volunteered for the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps. On the ship over to France he chummed up with William Slater Brown who was a pacifist. Both of them espoused anti- war views. Their activities incurred the wrath of French officials and they were locked in a detention camp. Cummings recorded the pathetic experience during this time in his novel The Enormous Room (1922), an experimental prose work that is included among the quintessential specimens of war literature.


When the war ended, he went to New York, shared a studio apartment with Brown, and started painting and writing with renewed zeal. He published four poetry collections in no time: Tulips and Chimneys (1923), & (1925), XLI Poems (1925), and Is 5 (1926). These collections cemented his reputation as a rebel poet who would use unorthodox style to launch a diatribe against social wrongs.

The poetry of Cummings reached its acme of development when he was drawn to transcendental philosophy, a way of living partly occasioned by the demise of his parents in a car accident. In them we discern a concern for unification with transcendental elements.

Cummings as a Modern Poet


Edward Estlin Cummings, better known as e.e. cummings, was one of the group of poets who by diverging from the traditional practices in the beginning of the twentieth century revolutionised American poetry. Through his poetry we are introduced to the turmoil that engulfed the early decades of the twentieth century. By using satire, irony and cynicism that characterised his poetic style Cummings pilloried the injustices of the world. Twentieth century was an age that can be rightly described as, in the words of W.H. Auden, the ‘Age of Anxiety’. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or W.B. Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ are two representative works of alienation and anarchy that swept over both sides of the Atlantic. The onset of the First World War exacerbated the condition ushering in an age of chaos. This anxiety and turmoil ring through the poems of E.E. Cummings. In poems such as ‘i sing of Olaf glad and big’ and ‘Plato Told’ we see the description of anarchy that was the order of the day.


Cumming pinned faith on the individual persons to steer clear of the cultural and social emasculation. He observed that ‘mostpeople’ (as he calls it) have tendency to succumb to the materialistic world and become slave to mammon worship. For example, in his poem ‘The Cambridge Ladies’ the poet lays bare the drabness of the modern world where the flame of individual energy is found wanting. Through his poetry Cummings sings the saga of the modern individuals who do not bid adieu to their humane qualities in the midst of great crisis.

Technical Innovations of Cummings’s Poetry


The most conspicuous quality of Cummings’s poetry is their technical originality. It has been pointed out by numerous critics that among the American poets, with the exception of Vladimir Nabokov, Cummings has most effectively expanded the domain of diction and syntax. His jugglery with words is almost unparalleled. It is mainly as a result of his technical improvisation that he is called an ultra-modern poet. Cummings once remarked, ‘The artist’s country is inside him.’ It shows that he would abide by his own rules rather than letting his verse be governed by traditional, jargon-ridden features. His innovative experimentations with language does not aim at bewildering the readers but to evoke a proper setting for his message.


Among his experimentations the most important is the use of the lowercase i. Critics have split upon rocks to come to a unanimous thought about the employment of lowercase personal pronoun. Some critics consider it as Cummings’s desire to turn conventional vocabulary and syntax upside down. Some claim that it was his protest against the self- exhibiting whim of the people. Some critics tell that Cummings was imitating the handyman his father employed to take charge of their summer home.


Some of Cummings’s poems make use of the ‘pattern poetry’ where no adherence to rhyme or meter is maintained. They are arranged according to the thought of poet’s mind. This pattern was in vogue during the Elizabethan time. Cummings reintroduced this trope in the twentieth century. His poem ‘Little Tree’ suggests the shape of a Christian tree.

Another noticing feature is his gift of word-coinage. Sometimes Cummings found the available words ill-equipped to describe his thought pattern. Therefore he adds new suffixes to existing word. His new words with novel suffixes such as ‘riverly’, ‘birdfully’, ‘downwardishly’ produce an intensity of perception. This novel usage also suggests his attempts to transgress the boundary of the mundane world and reach a transcendental world.


Cummings played with typographical rhetoric. He introduces spaces within single word to add density to his thought. Sometimes he did not give space between two words to suggest the association of thought.


Cummings’s various uses of parentheses are worth noticing. They are used sometimes for an interpolated comment or for the purpose of splitting words. In his ‘go(perpe)go’ (in No Thanks) we see a typographical juxtaposition. The parenthetical sentence is a surrealist collection of ‘perpetual adventuring particles’ showing the action of a muddled ant heap and an anteater getting his dinner. In his poem ‘Memorabilia’ we see the last two lines within parentheses that shows the poet’s separation from the materialistic society.


Another technical innovation of Cummings’s poetry is his emphasis on the role of the reader. Much before the advent of Reader-Response school his verse evinced the way for getting the reader’s response. For example, his poem ‘in Just-’ invites the response of the reader to fill in the missing gaps.

Critical Analysis of ‘All in green went my love riding’


‘All in green went my love riding’ is culled from Tulips & Chimneys (1923).In this poem we see the Pre-Raphaelite feature of Cummings’s poetry that characterize the first stage of his poetic career. Like D.G. Rossetti and others, he has set great store by medievalism, ornamental function and symbolism. Just as a painter paints with his brushes, so does Cummings paint with his words to present before us a vivid portrayal of a medieval story.

The poem draws on the myth of Diana and Actaeon. This myth finds references in the works of Euripides and Ovid. According to Euripides’s version, the mortal Actaeon is torn asunder by his own dogs when he brags that he is a better hunter than Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses this myth occurs in a changed version. According to Ovid’s narration, Actaeon unexpectedly turns up at a pool where Diana is taking a bath and stares at her. Diana runs amuck and turns him into a stag for his act. Actaeon’s dogs mistake him for a deer and tear him into pieces. Cummings reworks on this ancient myth to develop a love story. It seems that in the poem ‘All in green went my love riding’ Cummings chiefly works on Euripides’s version. His romantic sensibility urges him to penetrate deep into the complexity of the myth so as to treat the poem as a metaphor about romance and courtship.


In this poem, it seems that Diana is the speaker and Actaeon the hunter. The opening lines (‘All in green went my love riding/ on a great horse of gold/into the silver dawn’) situates the poem within a medieval setting describing Actaeon’s act of hunting. From the outset, a series of epithets to describe the quarry such as ‘swift sweet’, ‘lean lithe’, ‘sleek slim’ suggests Diana’s sympathy for the deer. Expressions such as ‘cruel bugle’, ‘famished arrow’, ‘hounds crouched low’ reveal about her antipathy to the hunter, Actaeon. Then comes the moment of hubris; the assertion of the hunter’s superiority that brings his downfall- ‘Four tell stags at a green mountain/the lucky hunter sang before.’ These lines indicate how the hunter boasts of his hunting finesse that incurs the wrath of Diana, who is known as the goddess of the hunt and also the protectress of animals. She changes Actaeon into a quarry as a result of his transgression. The word by word repetition of the first stanza signifies the moment of reversal. The hunter (Actaeon) is metamorphosed into a hunted (deer) and is killed by his own dogs.


Cummings injects a note of love element into the poem in the concluding couplet: ‘four lean hounds crouched low and smiling/my heart fell dead before.’ The expression ‘my heart fell dead before’ shows the oscillating nature of Diana. In her heart of hearts she, perhaps, cherishes a love for Actaeon and is at pain to see him get killed before her eyes. However, as a protectress of animals she cannot help performing her duty. But she feels sorry for Actaeon. That vacillation is shown by the employment of pun (‘dead’) in the last line.

Critical Analysis of ‘Memorabilia’


‘Memorabilia’ is collected from Cummings’s 1926 volume is 5. In this poem we see the sharp satire and typographical tableau associated with Cummings’s poetry. It also shows Cummings as a major representative modern poet. Major characteristics of Modernism such as realism, alienation, experimental syntax ring through the entire poem. ‘Memorabilia’ is a pungent critique of tourism, especially practised by the shallow Americans. The title of the poem is reminiscent of Browning’s poem of the same name. However, Cummings’s poem does not share anything with Browning’s poem except in nostalgia.


The opening lines (stop look &/listen Venezia) are evocative of both the safety slogan posted at railroad crossings and the rout directions a tour guide gives to followers. However, they are levelled at the oft-visited places in Venice: ‘the glassworks of Murano’, the ‘elevator’ of the campanille, and the crocodile (‘cocodrillo’) that are a part of the statue of St. Theodore. Once Venice dominated the seas. It is from Venice that Marco Polo started his voyages. Dante had been sent to Venice as an ambassador by Guido da Polenta. This city with rich cultural legacy has now been reduced to a mere shadow of its former self. The glory of this city has been eclipsed by the introduction of materialistic American culture. Once at the apex of culture, Venice is now frequented by ‘the brand of marriageable nymphs’, visited by mistranslation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (‘nel mezzo del cammin’). The modern intruders from America are not like civil war soldiers in Miss Howe’s ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ (‘mine eyes have seen/ the glory of/ the coming of /the Americans’). The poet’s eyes sees only ‘substantial dollarbringing virgins’.

The following stanza (beginning with ‘i do signore’) with its disjointed structure elaborates on the damage done by the tourists. The fascinating gondoliers now sound like carnival barkers. The apotheosis of tragedy is reached when the tourist, faced with suck kind of architectural wonders, can only say ‘isn’t this well curb simply darling’. This shallow appreciation of a work of art reminds us of the lines of T.S. Eliot in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock where we see snobbish women talk about the art works of Michelangelo to show their cultural heritage:


In the room the women come and go


Talking of Michelangelo.


The last two allusions in ‘Memorabilia’ (‘O Education: O thos cook & son’) to a Latin poet shows how materialistic fashion has been wedded to knowledge that results in the desecration of Venice. ‘Tho(ma)s cook & son’ is the name of a successful travel firm that orchestrated many tours of the continent. This firm ushered in a culture of tourism and the resultant degradation. The final lines, reminiscent of Browning’s ‘O, to be in England Now that April’s there’ in ‘Home-Thoughts, from Abroad’, are suggestive of Cummings’s plea to be free of this claustrophobic culture that is anathema to him. He wants to lead a meaningful life ensconced in a locale free from the cacophony of materialist culture with the same comfortable position with which a metope fits between two triglyphs in the Doric order. It is worth noting that the last two lines are within bracket that signifies the poet’s separation from the prevalent culture- a typographical experiment so typical of Cummings’ craftsmanship.

Critical Analysis of ‘i sing of Olaf glad and big’


The poem ‘i sing of Olaf glad and big’ is collected from Cummings’s anthology W (ViVa). Here the poet lays bare the destruction unleashed during the First World War. Cummings had experienced the war time violence and recorded it vividly in his experimental novel The Enormous Room. In this poem he also gives us a snapshot of the ravages of war. As a votary of individualism, Cummings was shocked to see how individual rights were infringed during war time. Free minded individuals were coerced into conformity.


In the opening line of the poem Cummings gives the Virgilian credo an ironical twist. Virgil began his Aeneid with ‘arma virumque cano’ (Of arms and the man I sing). Unlike Virgil, Cummings does not parade the glory of war. His hero is not a maverick soldier famous for his heroic activities but a conscientious objector ‘whose warmest heart recoiled at war.’ Cummings uses euphemistic diction to delineate the physical torture Olaf is subjected to because of his pacifist ideology. He is hit with ‘brushes recently employed/anent this muddy toiletbowl’ by the ‘noncoms’(non-commissioned officers). They freeze him with ice water. The poet cleverly uses the phrase ‘kindred spirits’ to describe the other soldiers who torture Olaf for his moral stance to war.


Despite the inhumane torture meted out to him (‘being to all intents a corpse’), Olaf denies submission. He passively undergoes the torture and does not rebel (‘without getting annoyed’). This stance projects Olaf as a new kind of hero – a hero who is out and out a pacifist. He is ready to go through any kind of ordeal in order to sustain his principle of non- violence. His remark ‘I will not kiss your fucking flag’ is not an assertion of pride but an enunciation of his personal ethos that is impervious to change. The following couplet gives us a short comic relief from the gruesome atmosphere. Amidst the grave situation, the Colonel can only think of shaving his beard that shows his nonchalant attitude towards individual predicament. The next stanza provides the picture of the ritualised violence. The description of ‘blueeyed’ officers tormenting and sodomizing Olaf with ‘bayonets roasted hot with heat’ is shocking to us. Then Cummings fixes his critical eye on the Commander-in-chief who puts Olaf in prison ‘where he died’. What is more heinous than the war is the warmongers who perpetrate violence.

After firing a salvo at the entire military, Cummings makes a mockery of religion. He ironically hints that infinite mercy of Christ does not shower on Olaf. In the final lines Cummings gives a final encomium on Olaf:


‘… he was more brave than me: more blond than you.’


Olaf dies for showing the quintessential qualities of Americanism. That is why, according to the poet, Olaf is more American ethically than his fellow Americans who submit to those systems that thwart individual rights.

Critical Analysis of ‘somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond’



Transcendentalism was a New England movement which flourished from c. 1835to 1860. It had its roots in romanticism and in the post-Kantian idealism by which Coleridge was influenced. It had a considerable influence on American art and literature. Basically religious, it emphasized the role and importance of the individual conscience, and the value of intuition in matters of moral guidance and inspiration. The actual term was coined by opponents of the movement, but accepted by its members (e.g. Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803–82, one of the leaders, published The Transcendentalist in 1841). The group were also social reformers. Some of the members, besides Emerson, were famous and included Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

‘somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond’ is an outcome of Cummings’s mature vision. Here we do not find Cummings as a modern rebel poet launching a diatribe against the world but as a transcendentalist who is keen to perceive the truth that can be accessible not by physical experience but through a spiritual essence. This quality puts him in a rank with the likes of Emerson who believed that ultimate truth cannot be quantified or proved, but only perceived directly by intuition or imagination.


The opening stanza of the poem suggests the intangible nature of love. The poet had never experienced such kind of love before that cannot be felt by ‘touch’. His five sense -organs are ill-equipped to reveal the extent of his love. For Cummings the realm of the metaphysical cannot be attained by the renunciation of physical reality. That is why the poet writes: ‘in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me’. Norman Freidman aptly remarks that the ideal world of Cummings encompasses both the natural world and a timeless world of eternal present.


In the second stanza the poet turns upside down the prevalent fashion of comparing his beloved to a flower. Instead, Cummings compares himself to a rose and his lover to spring. Just as a flower is germinated in spring so does the poet rejuvenate by the spring-like warmth of the beloved. It is worthwhile to take a notice of the fact that the word ‘Spring’ is the only capitalised word in the poem suggesting the primacy of love. The phrase ‘though i have closed myself as fingers’ shows his previous bitter experiences in love.

The third stanza describes how the poet likes to be directed by the wish of his lover: ‘or if your wish be to close me,i and/my life will shut very beautifully’. The adverb ‘beautifully’ suggests that the poet has no complaint against the acts of his lover. He is ready to let his life be governed according to the wish of his lover just as the life of a flower is subjected to the whim of nature.


The fourth stanza is rich in transcendental metaphors that lend the poem a touch of complexity. The poet tells unequivocally that the experience gathered by the five senses pales into insignificance in comparison with the experience gathered by transcendental love. The last line of the stanza reveals the fact that this experience has such a power that it co-mingles the real and the metaphysical world in such a way that the poet tastes of eternity in a real world.


In the final stanza the poet writes that all of his attempts at describing the exquisite nature of love ultimately prove futile. The nature of transcendental love beggars description. The line  ‘only something in  me  understands  the  voice  of your  eyes  is  deeper  than  all roses’ suggests that the experience of it cannot be depicted but only be felt. Even the metaphor of rain  commonly  used  by  the  artists  to  suggest  the  rejuvenation  of  life  is  no  match  for describing the invigorating power of her ‘small hands.’ Thus, through describing the journey of his progress from the realm of the mundane to that of spiritual the poet has eked out a transcendental vision.

Critical Analysis of ‘my father moved through dooms of love’


In ‘my father moved through dooms of love’ Cummings champions the supremacy of the individual. It is only the individual motivated by humanitarianism who can pioneer a change. Here Cummings sings in praise of his father who through his philanthropic acts has taught the materialistic world the lesson of charity and love. Written in iambic tetrameter, this poem is a supreme tribute to the memory of his father. Here the poet fuses romantic individualism with social responsibility. In his early youth Cummings rebelled against his father who was a Unitarian Minister and a sociologist. By leaning towards various avant- garde movements that characterize the early phase of the twentieth century the poet took a course that ran counter to the ethics of his father. By and by the poet understood the values of his father. In this poem through his idealistic description of his father Cummings feels a kinship with the ideals of his father.


As the poem opens the poet describes how his father overcame the odds imposed against him through the power of love. Tormented by the thorns of life, his father did not submit to the degenerated world and took an escape route to the metaphysical world being oblivious of the misery of life. Instead, he encountered the world’s wrongs directly. As the poem develops, the poet casts his father as a superman figure. He compares his father to God in relation to the creation of the universe. His father, like the touch of April, gave a clarion call to the slumbered world. The subsequent metaphors such as lifting the valleys of the sea extended his father’s resemblances to God. In his various roles as Professor, Minister, Edward Cummings tried to resurrect the world. He administered help to the poor and the needy.


The poet tells that his father was not a self-exhibiting braggart. Nor was he an unsympathetic saint. He was empathetic to his fellow beings. Even in his old age he did not deviate from the path of virtue and went on living a pious life that set an example before the future generation. As a human being, his father was subject to the change of time. The poet employs a seasonal metaphor to chart the various stages of his father’s life. Beginning from spring at the end of stanza 13 the poet describes the onset of winter to suggest the physical death of his father. However, there is no defeat in death as the poet writes: ‘proudly…/so naked for immortal work/his shoulders marched against the dark.’ The fact that the poem does not come to an end in winter but goes on to spring time suggests that the values his father stood for are not dead. The grisly death cannot snatch that legacy.

Stanza 14 restates the way of the world that his father moved through. The world of evil is described in a vivid style. This world is steeped in corruption and ruled by cut-throat competition. They do not have the capacity to share. This world of ‘scheming’ and ‘passion’, of ‘maggoty minus and dumb death’ needs redemption. Against these self-centred motives the poet posits the reality of love as a bulwark. It is not abstract love that the poem craves for. It is a love enshrined in the works of man who ‘lived his soul’, an application of love which, in the New Testament is the foundation of Christianity. The final line of the poem (‘love is the whole and more than all’) validates the poet’s philosophy.

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