Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Cummings’s poem is both satirical and lyrical. It satirizes the hypocrisy and artificiality of people, represented by the Cambridge ladies, who are more concerned with their own images than with the images of nature around them. While appearing to go about their humanitarian tasks with duty and dedication, these ladies actually spread gossip, and they fail to appreciate and become a part of the natural beauty surrounding them (one of the greatest sins of all in Cummings’s inventory of sins). In setting his poem in Cambridge and focusing on the ladies who live there, Cummings uses a city he knows well: He was born there, and he was a student at Harvard. His father, a Congregational minister, taught English and, later, social ethics at Harvard. The poet, therefore, is not satirizing an abstract place and set of behaviors but, rather, a specific location that represents his roots and is frequently associated with high culture and the source of what many consider to be true American culture and civilization.
The poem is also lyrical, demonstrating those qualities that typically characterize a lyric poem: imagination, melody, and emotion. Cummings’s description of both worlds in this poem—the artificial world of Cambridge and the natural world around the city—do not offer literal, pictorial views. Rather, they provide imaginative perspectives that emphasize the poet’s strong emotions: his deep feelings for the beauty of the natural world and his equally deep feelings against the ugliness of the lives embodied by the world created by human beings.
This artificial world, fashioned by the women of Cambridge, is only an appearance. Reality, an important concept to Cummings (this sonnet first appeared in Tulips and Chimneys in a section titled “Realities”), is the essence of life. It transcends what a person sees when looking with ordinary eyes at ordinary life. It transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. It is the “sky lavender and cornerless” that the Cambridge ladies do not know exists above them.