Situating Poetry in Personal and Historical Contexts
In order to understand the themes or meaning of this poem, context is important. This is an elegy written in 1940 on behalf of E. E. Cummings's father, Edward, a Unitarian minister who was killed in a car crash. An elegy is a poem that celebrates the life of someone who has died and is a serious and sincere genre, as it would be in poor taste to jeer at or satirize someone who can no longer respond. Therefore, knowing the genre of the poem, we understand that lines that might seem hyperbolic or satiric are, in fact, earnest, for we know that Cummings loved his father and wanted to honor him.
Furthermore, the year 1940 should be a red flag for us to think about the wider world political context. Cummings is pondering his father's life and its value within the context of dark times. World War II had started in Europe, though the US is not yet directly involved yet, and Nazism, with its ideology of "might makes right"—triumphalist crushing of the weak by the strong—and its exaltation of hate, violence, and hyper-masculinity seemed at this point to be winning the war, threatening all of western civilization with its barbarism.
The Importance of Individuals to Follow Emotions Based in Compassion
Against this backdrop, the poem is a plea for living life, as the poet's father did: from a moral compass informed by compassion. Over and over again, the poem praises the father for his acts of individual kindness: for instance, he comforts a weeping person and helps her to sleep. Even the cry of the "smallest voice" brings a compassionate response from him. His father also "sings" (lives) joyfully and dreams. Notably, his dreams are not of world conquest but of helping the hungry and smiling on the crippled—dreams, it is implied, that he fulfilled.
He lived sincerely, experienced righteous anger, felt pity for the suffering, and laughed through adversity. He believed in sociality and community: his life was about reaching out to all people, scorning the "Pomp of must and shall" to do what he believed was right. In the poem, he is held up as a model for the rest of us to follow.
Love is Stronger than Hate
The last stanza, and especially the last line of the poem, emphasizes this theme. As the last line states, "love is the whole and more than all." Basically, Cummings is saying that love is the summation of all his father did in his life, and it is stronger than hate. Cummings explicitly, in the last stanza, contrasts this love to the backdrop of hate that seems to rule: "i say [love] though hate were why men breathe." His father's life, lived from the depths of a humane soul, shows the power and triumph of love. To say that love is stronger than hate may seem trite to us, but in the world Cummings lived, that belief was under a severe test.
The Journey, Not the Afterlife, is the Reward
Cummings's poem celebrates what his father did in this life—with no mention of an afterlife or a heavenly reward, even though his father was a minister. This sends the message that what we do on earth is the most important thing in and of itself. Our life is the sum of all our seemingly small gestures, and these acts are not valuable because they get us to a paradise beyond the grave but because they make the world a better place .