Because of his idiosyncratic punctuation and typography, E. E. Cummings is often labeled an experimentalist, and indeed his art is innovative and revolutionary. One of the most curious aspects of Cummings’s work, however, is that it combines experimentation with tradition, a point Gertrude Stein noted in her book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933):Gertrude Stein who had been much impressed by The Enormous Room said that Cummings did not copy, he was the natural heir of the New England tradition with its aridity and its sterility, but also with its individuality.
In all of his works—prose, poetry, drama, and autobiography—Cummings celebrated this quality of individuality, seeing it as the legacy of his New England upbringing and also as the outstanding characteristic of modernism. For Cummings, individuality was both a theme and a technique. Thematically, it was a faith in a world in which the independent, alive, living individual struggled against the cerebral, joyless nonindividual. Cummings celebrated the existence of the individual and satirized the boring, mechanistic lives of nonindividuals. Technically, individuality was at the core of Cummings’s experiments with word coinings, free verse, innovations with typography and punctuation, and other strategies that make his literature, especially his poetry, look and sound different from almost any other artist’s work, especially those who preceded him. Thematically and technically, then, Cummings was committed to individuality, a dedication he made clear during one of his six “nonlectures” at Harvard: “Let us pray always for individuals; never for worlds.”
The individuals for whom Cummings prays and about whom he writes inhabit a particular kind of universe. It is, first of all, a place that is natural, not created by human beings, and it is a place in which nature is process, not product. To understand this place and the people within it requires intuition and imagination, not mere intellectualizing. Thus Cummings is constantly criticizing those who believe they can rely only upon reason, while he praises those who try to understand with their hearts and their emotions.
Cummings’s true individuals are lovers, artists, clowns, circus people, or adolescents—those who, in his view, challenge both society and labels. They are connected by their freedom—their vital need to be independent—and they typically demonstrate that independence by challenging those who embody convention, tradition, and mechanization. Politicians, soldiers, bureaucrats, and “Cambridge ladies” are targets of their assaults, for all those individuals not only represent categories themselves but they also attempt to label, and thus limit, the freedom of others.
In his poetry, Cummings uses several strategies to explore his ideas about individuality. He coins words so that nouns are made of verbs, creating a sense of nonstop motion and forcing the reader to become actively involved in the poem. He also distorts the syntax of sentences so that it is impossible to read his works in a traditional way of identifying subject-verb-object. Still another strategy is visual—setting up the poem on a page so that it looks different from the traditional, linear lyric, thus compelling the reader to move back and forth within the poem, making meaning out of the motion of reading as well as out of the words being read. Taken together, these strategies emphasize process: the process of being alive—a hallmark of a true individual—and the process of reading.
His other literary forms demonstrate this same celebratory stance. In his autobiographies—The Enormous Room and Eimi—Cummings honors the individuals who transcend the boundaries of society. Whether they are the prisoners in the French army camp or citizens in Russia, individuals who listen to and learn from their hearts and who are independent and self-reliant are the objects of Cummings’s praise. In his plays and ballets and other works, the same kind of people are honored, and, by contrast, their opposites are parodied and satirized.
The Enormous Room
First published: 1922
Type of work: Autobiography
A self-portrait in which Cummings describes his captivity in a French prison during World War I.
The Enormous Room is Cummings’s autobiographical narrative of the time he spent in La Ferté Mace, a French concentration camp a hundred miles west of Paris. Cummings and a friend, both members of an American ambulance corps in France during World War I, were erroneously suspected of treasonable correspondence and were imprisoned from August, 1917, until January, 1918. In this book, Cummings describes the prisoners with whom he shared his captivity, the captors who subjected their victims to enormous cruelty, and the filthy surroundings of the prison camp.
Written in the form of a pilgrimage and modeled after John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), Cummings’s narrative also shows the influence of early American black autobiographies. Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress and the slaves who wrote their own stories, the narrator in Cummings’s self-portrait faces an arduous journey to freedom, a voyage not unlike the ones described in many early black autobiographies also modeled on Bunyan’s classic. In Cummings’s voyage, the autobiographer emphasizes and celebrates his belief in individuality, especially as it is seen in the characters of the prisoners, including the gypsy dubbed Wanderer, the childish giant named Jean le Nègre, and the clownish captive called Surplice.
In The Enormous Room, the reader follows the enslaved Cummings along three legs of his journey: first, the period before La Ferté Mace; then, the period beginning with the second day in the enormous room; and finally, the departure from the French prison. During the first part of the autobiographical journey, Cummings appears as a rebellious American soldier parodying the rhetoric of wartime communication in his description of dissension within the ranks:To borrow a characteristic-cadence from Our Great President: the lively satisfaction which we might be suspected of having derived from the accomplishment of a task so important in the saving of civilization from the clutches of Prussian tyrany [sic] was in some degree inhibited, unhappily, by a complete absence of cordial relations between the man whom fate had placed over us and ourselves. Or, to use the vulgar American idiom, B. and I and Mr. A. didn’t get on well.
Rebellious and independent, the young Cummings quickly learns the price of asserting these two qualities: He is imprisoned and joins a multitude of other captives who try desperately, and usually successfully, to retain their individuality despite their captors’ efforts to rob them of this quality.
Enclosed in the space he calls “the Enormous Room,” Cummings is entrapped in an oblong room eighty feet by forty feet. This room in La Ferté Mace both restricts and unites an international menagerie of humanity (Dutch, Belgian, Spanish, Turkish, Arabian, Polish, Russian, Swedish, German, French, and English), including the American animal, E. E. Cummings. Among the most memorable of these fellow prisoners is Surplice—the court jester of the enormous room, the fool, the scapegoat, the eternal victim—who occupies an important spot in both the prison and the world, as Cummings notes: “After all, men in La Misère as well as anywhere also rightly demand a certain amount of amusement; amusement is, indeed, peculiarly essential to suffering; in proportion as we are able to be amused we are able to suffer.” Cummings’s description of this classic notion of scapegoating is especially poignant because he is describing himself as well as his readers: “I, Surplice,” says Cummings, “am a very necessary creature after all.”
Another memorable prisoner with whom Cummings shares his space is Zulu, thus called, says Cummings, partly because he looks like something Cummings had never seen, partly because the sounds of the two syllables appeared to relate to his personality, and partly because Zulu seemed to like the name. Cummings is particularly attracted to this prisoner because Zulu embodies the qualities that Cummings cherishes: individuality, vitality, emotion, and timelessness. Zulu is “A Verb; an IS,” according to Cummings, meaning that he is an example of life and action—as a verb represents action—not a victim of passivity, the quality Cummings associates with nouns.
His insights into scapegoating and verbs are two of the many lessons Cummings learns during his captivity; they are lessons that contribute to the changes that occur within him and that result in his being a different person when he leaves La Ferté Mace. Having entered the prison as a youthful soldier who flippantly used language to parody wartime rhetoric and officials, he leaves the prison as a more thoughtful individual, one who sees the power of language to celebrate the wonders of life and individuality. As he prepares to leave the prison, he writes a poem, not only the first stanza of a ballad, as he had done in the beginning of his journey, when he had hoped that the next day he would write the second, the day after, the third, and the next day, the refrain—never having done any of it.
On the boat to America, Cummings is surrounded by strangers, and when he arrives in New York he is struck by the image of anonymous Americans, hurrying about in a frenzy of activity. He sees New York differently from the time he left it because he himself is different. This final scene in The Enormous Room, a picture of separateness yet potential connectedness, reflects the basic lesson that Cummings learned from his education in prison: He can neither completely nor permanently unite himself with others. He can, however, celebrate his individuality, his sense of self, and his gratitude for being alive and able to use language to describe his journey into and out of La Ferté Mace and the trips that lie ahead of him.
One of the strengths of The Enormous Room is that it explores several important issues, including war, society, and language. In the tradition of war novels, it protests the war, but it is more of a parody than a protest, as Cummings uses humor to present his view of people. Thus one has the plantons, the cruel jailers, whom Cummings depicts with a mixture of mockery and sympathy, and the prisoners, whom Cummings describes with humor and joy as they find ways to remain individuals despite the efforts of their captors to dehumanize their innocent victims.
The Enormous Room is a book about society insofar as it protests society’s tendencies toward dehumanization, nonreflection, mechanization, and overintellectualizing. Amid his descriptions of prisoners and jailers, Cummings inserts his protestations about education, government, and religion, suggesting that these institutions rob people of their individuality.
The Enormous Room is also about language, the vehicle that Cummings manipulates for two reasons: to show the dangers of empty rhetoric and to help readers see the world in a new way. Like other artists during and after World War I, including Ernest Hemingway, who objected to the lofty words that frequently concealed reality, Cummings protests the politicians’ words that, in his view, were largely responsible for the “Great War.” Cummings uses language as art—art that is intended to help people see in a new way. Thus he describes the prisoners, whom he calls Delectable Mountains, in poetic terms that force the reader to see these characters as beautiful individuals, not as dirty criminals.
Finally, The Enormous Room is about Cummings, the prisoner who begins his captivity as a young Harvard graduate and who grows through the process so that he is able to transcend his Cambridge roots and connect with prisoners whose lack of education and sophistication taught him who he was and wanted to be. At the conclusion of the book, when Cummings returns to New York, he is a different person, one who has recaptured the joy of childhood and the importance of being an individual who celebrates humanity, life, and love.
First published: 1920 (collected in Tulips and Chimneys, 1923)
Type of work: Poem
This lyric is about the time that immediately follows winter.
One of Cummings’s most famous poems, “in Just-” reveals the poet’s typically experimental approach, avoiding all punctuation to emphasize the nonstop vitality of a season he describes as “mud-/ luscious” and “puddle-wonderful.” A goat-footed balloonman whistles; children play hopscotch, jump-rope, and marbles; and the world celebrates the season that can only be described as “Just-spring.”
The poem is divided into five sections, with a format that matches the sense of dance and music that are described in the lyric. Contrasts are important—the slow tune of “Just-/ spring” and “mud-/ luscious” is juxtaposed with the speed of “and eddieandbill come/ running from marbles and/ piracies and it’s/ spring.” The poem, like the season, is a mixture of contrasts, from old balloonman to young children, from the slow, quiet time of growth to the rapid, explosive moments of ecstasy. Taken together, these contrasts describe a season which has no word in the English language except for Cummings’s coined phrase: “Just-spring.”
“all in green went my love riding”
First published: 1923 (collected in Tulips and Chimneys, 1923)
Type of work: Poem
The myth of Diana slaying Actaeon is re-created.
“All in green went my love riding” is an example of Cummings’s use of an ancient myth to communicate his message to a modern audience. The poem is about courtly love, and it alludes to the Roman and Greek myth in which Diana or Artemis, goddess and protectress of wildlife, is challenged by the hunter Actaeon. The goddess changes Actaeon into a stag, whereupon Actaeon’s own hounds attack and kill him. Cummings retells this story, using fourteen stanzas, each of which paints a graphic picture that chronicles a part of this chase.
The poem is replete with colors: the green garb of a lover, the golden color of the horse, the silver dawn, the redness of the roebuck, the whiteness of water. It is equally specific in other details, such as numbers: There are four hounds and four deer. These and other details paint a picture that combines beauty with terror; the beauty of the place and the lover are enveloped in the ominous atmosphere of death.
Told from the view of Diana or Artemis, this poem describes the chase, beginning with Actaeon’s departure and concluding with his death and Diana’s swoon. Though the poem ends with these images, it is not a lyric about finality or mortality. On the contrary, it is about vitality and life, for the lovers are united in their ecstasy, just as the poem is united by its repetition (with the variation in the final line) of the first and last two stanzas. Thus the color green, the color of life, connects the lovers, who themselves are joined in the cycle of life and death.
“the cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls”
First published: 1923 (collected in Collected Poems, 1938)
Type of work: Poem
This poem satirizes people whom Cummings viewed as aristocratic snobs.
A sonnet, “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls” attacks a broad group of people who, Cummings believed, populated Cambridge, Massachusetts, and many other locales. These faculty wives, church women, and literary society ladies are described in careful detail, beginning with the first line, in which they are seen in terms of the stuffy Victorian rooms in which many of them reside. They have “comfortable minds,” suggesting their lack of individuality and originality, and daughters who are like themselves: “unscented shapeless spirited.”
These Cambridge ladies believe in Christ and the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “both dead.” They themselves are also dead, unaware that, above their stuffy rooms and beyond their stuffy lives, the “moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy.” Isolated in their artificial world, they engage in meaningless banter, oblivious of the wonders of the natural world within and around them.
“i sing of Olaf glad and big”
First published: 1931 (collected in W: Seventy New Poems, 1931)
Type of work: Poem
The poem sings the praises of Olaf, a conscientious objector.
The opening line of “i sing of Olaf glad and big” announces the poet’s intention: to sing, to celebrate, the greatness of an individual who bravely defies convention and who heroically dies because of his act of rebellion. Olaf’s “warmest heart recoiled at war,” so he became a conscientious objector, subjecting himself to cruel harassment at the hands of a “trig westpointer”—a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Like the Delectable Mountains in The Enormous Room, Olaf stands his ground and announces to his tormentor that he will not kiss the flag that he represents.
Described as “a conscientious object-or,” Olaf becomes an “object” to the officers who treat him as cruelly as the plantons treated the prisoners in La Ferté Mace. Olaf continues in his opposition to war, however, and is thrown into prison for his defiant stance. His tragic, heroic death causes the poet to sing his praises and to question conventional notions of courage: “unless statistics lie he was/ more brave than me: more blond than you.”
“anyone lived in a pretty how town”
First published: 1940 (collected in Fifty Poems, 1940)
Type of work: Poem
In the town depicted, humanizing and dehumanizing forces coexist.
“Anyone lived in a pretty how town” is a poem in which Cummings’s wordplay is especially effective. The poem contrasts “anyone” and “noone” with “someones and everyones,” the first pair being the hero and heroine who love each other, the second pair being the anonymous mass of nonbeings who live lives of quiet desperation, as another New Englander, Henry David Thoreau, once lamented. Eventually “anyone” and “noone” die, but their lives have been meaningful and enriching; the rest of the townspeople—the “someones and everyones”—continue to live, though their existences, like those of the Cambridge ladies, are characterized not by life but by living death.
In the first stanza, Cummings reveals a number of technical innovations. In addition to his inventive use of the pronoun “anyone,” he plays with the phrase “a pretty how town,” suggesting that the saying—“how pretty a town”—conceals something not so pretty after all. The second line is a syntactical jolt: “(with up so floating many bells down).” It is followed by a line in which four words, without punctuation, imply the tolling of those bells to signify the passing of time: “spring summer autumn winter.” The final line of this first stanza returns to the first line and anyone, who “sang his didn’t he danced his did.”
Unaware of and unconcerned about the “someones and everyones” who “cared for anyone not at all,” the hero of the poem falls in love with “noone,” whose celebration of life rivals that of her lover. As they live life and the rest of the town lives death, the cycle of nature continues. Bells continue to toll, children continue to be born, and the townspeople continue to say not their prayers but their “nevers.” While these nonbeings “slept their dream,” the lovers anyone and noone lived their dream, ultimately dying and being buried side by side, just as they had lived their full, vital lives.
After their deaths, the “pretty how town” continued exactly as it always had, with “Women and men (both dong and ding)” pursuing their meaningless lives; they “reaped their sowing and went their came/ sun moon stars rain.” Though dead, anyone and noone are alive because at least they once were alive; by contrast, someones and everyones, though still breathing, are merely existing, surviving the seasonal change. Clones of one another, they are untouched by the individuality and vitality of their neighbors who loved and died singing their “didn’ts” and dancing their “dids.”
“pity this busy monster,manunkind”
First published: 1944 (collected in 1 x 1, 1944)
Type of work: Poem
The natural world is preferable to the restless unsatisfying human world of “progress.”
“Pity this busy monster,manunkind” is a poem that emphasizes Cummings’s belief in nature and his opposition to those things—science, technology, and intellectual arrogance—that he believed attack the purity of nature. In the opening lines, Cummings makes it clear that man is un-kind—as opposed to being “mankind”—when he or she engages in “progress.” In this case, “Progress is a comfortable disease, one which uses electrons and lenses to “deify one razorblade/ into a mountainrange;lenses extend/ unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish/ returns on its unself.” For Cummings, progress contrasts with nature, as he suggests when he writes, “A world of made/ is not a world of born.”
The speaker in this poem, as revealed in the last line, represents progress but suggests the promise of nature; “We doctors,” he or she says, “know a hopeless case.” Hopelessness is the human-made cycle of progress, scientific progress. There is a way out, however, as the speaker points out in the concluding lines of the poem: “listen:there’s a hell/ of a good universe next door;let’s go.” Unlike this universe, composed of negative Cummings-created words such as “unwish” and “unself,” the next-door universe consists of wishes and selves—that is, real emotions and real individuals. Those realities, for Cummings, are the true realities.