The Great Depression
When cummings wrote his poem in the early 1930s, America was in the grips of the Great Depression, a massive economic disaster that affected the entire country. As a result, many people did not have the luxury of being in awe over love, as cummings is in the poem. Most were focused on basic survival. Although the exact causes of the Great Depression are still debated, most historians agree that the Stock Market Crash of 1929 helped to usher in this huge economic downturn. As the country began to have increasing financial troubles, however, President Herbert Hoover, along with many others, refused to provide federal aid to struggling individuals. The Hoover administration felt that the crisis was only temporary, and that in any case, it would not help Americans to give them handouts. Unfortunately, the situation only got worse. As the jobless rate rose, starvation and suicide became an issue for many families. Millions of families migrated to try to find a better life and available work in other regions of the country, but in many cases, they found neither, and instead set up shelters on vacant lots in other cities and towns, which came to be known as Hoovervilles—after President Hoover, who many blamed for the depression.
The Rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party
At the same time, the world was recovering from the financial and emotional impact of World War I, while trying to prevent another world war. Although...
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For a reader who is new to cummings, or who is new to poetry, this poem may seem confusing at first. While the poem contains concrete images of objects such as eyes and roses, the ways that the poet chooses to describe them are often unusual or contradictory. For example, in the first stanza, the speaker talks about things that he “cannot touch because they are too near.” This seems paradoxical at first, and hard to imagine, because if something is very close to somebody, that person should be able to touch it. When the reader realizes that cummings is speaking in metaphysical terms, the poem starts to make more sense, as do its image systems, which collectively evoke a sense of intense love and passion. Cummings uses two main image systems in his poem—human anatomy and nature. The poem’s focus on anatomical imagery is apparent from the second line, when the speaker discusses his beloved’s eyes. These eyes have such a power over the speaker that one look can easily “unclose” him. Likewise, a “frail gesture” made by the woman evokes powerful feelings from the speaker. The poem ends with anatomical imagery, as the speaker discusses “the voice of your eyes” and “small hands” that rival the manipulative powers of nature.
While even nature is ultimately shown to be inferior to the speaker’s beloved in this final stanza, it plays an important part in the poem’s imagery in the second and third stanzas. Here, the speaker uses the natural image of nature controlling a...
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Compare and Contrast
Late 1920s–Early 1930s: The world escalates toward a world war, in large part due to the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Today: The world is engaged in a war on terrorism, in large part focusing on Middle Eastern figureheads such as Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
Late 1920s–Early 1930s: During the Great Depression, most Americans focus on the struggle to survive and feed their families, so there is little time for quiet reflection about love and other feelings.
Today: Despite a massive recession that leaves many Americans jobless, people take time out to appreciate love and other feelings. In fact, although some men still fit the stereotype of being a tough-guy male who bottles up his feelings, the self-help revolution of the late twentieth century has encouraged everybody, men included, to get in touch with their feelings.
Late 1920s–Early 1930s: Americans are encouraged to be conservative with their sexuality.
Today: Despite the very real threat of lethal venereal diseases like AIDS, it is a very sexually free time. Sensual images and words can be found in most major media, including television, radio, and print ads.
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Topics for Further Study
Some commentators have called cummings a unique poet. Read through several other avantgarde or experimental poetry by different poets and try to find a poem that is similar to the entry poem. Compare the two poems in terms of punctuation, grammar, and style.
Read more about cummings’s life and write a short biography about the woman who you think is the subject of the poem.
Cummings wrote this poem during the era known as the Great Depression in the United States. Compare cummings’s poetry during this time period with other depression-era poetry. Discuss any trends that you find in this poetry.
In the poem, the poet is amazed at how his lover has been able to change his perspective about life. Research the physiology and psychology of love and discuss why you think love has this effect. Use your research to support your claims.
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E. E. Cummings: A Poetry Collection is an audiocassette that gathers selections from the poet’s work. Published in 2001, the collection features poems read by cummings. It is available from HarperAudio.
The Great Voices Audio Collection (1994) is an audiocassette that gathers selections from four writers: Ernest Hemingway, Anais Nin, James Joyce, and cummings. Each writer reads his or her own work. In the case of cummings, the poet reads from his XAIPE collection. The audiobook is available from HarperAudio.
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What Do I Read Next?
In the decade before cummings wrote “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond,” another avant-garde artistic movement, surrealism, gained force. Surrealist Painters and Poets (2001), edited by Mary Ann Caws, offers a good introduction to the works of surrealist painters and poets from this era, including some rare letters and essays that are hard to find elsewhere.
Although cummings is best known for his poetry, he also wrote other works, including Eimi (1933), a travel diary of his trip to the Soviet Union in 1931. Up until that point, cummings had been a supporter of communism but changed his views after witnessing the Soviet dictatorship that masqueraded as a communist government. The book is...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Baum, S. V., “E. E. Cummings: The Technique of Immediacy,” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 1, January 1954, pp. 70–88.
Blackmur, R. P., “Notes on E. E. Cummings’ Language,” in the Hound & Horn, Vol. 4, No. 2, January–March 1931, pp. 163–92.
Bode, Carl, “E. E. Cummings: The World of ‘Un,’” in Critical Essays on E. E. Cummings, edited by Guy Rotella, G. K. Hall, 1984, p. 83.
cummings, e. e., Complete Poems, 1913–1962, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
—, “somewhere i have travelled,gladly beyond,” in 100 Selected Poems, by e. e. cummings, Grove Weidenfeld, 1959, p. 44.
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