Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The two major themes of “anyone lived in a pretty how town” are to be found in the first line or, rather, in the implications of the first line. One implication is, “how can anyone live in a pretty town” where nothing much goes on, where people are completely caught up in their everyday lives—where, though everyone is involved with everyone else, mostpeople do not really know or, in fact, care what their neighbors are really like? It is a rhetorical question because, in fact, most people do live in such a town—they are anyone and no one, of no particular significance except to one another on an individual basis. Anyone does mean something to noone, and that is the basic paradox of existence. Human beings—who, after all, are mostpeople—both care and do not care; both love and do not love; are important to one another and are not important at all.

These twin themes comprise thesis and antithesis; they make up a paradox. One theme appears to cancel out the other, but in fact does not: Both themes continue to exist and remain true. Thus, “anyone lived in a pretty how town” encompasses within its brief lyric tale two truths, not one, and these truths exist in tension with each other, each pulling and pushing against the other but remaining in a state of impossible equilibrium, which is the human condition. Humankind simultaneously treats itself with indifference and compassion, with cruelty and kindness, with trust and suspicion, and with many other antitheses one might list, all of which will, paradoxically, be true. E. E. Cummings, in this poem, managed to invent a poetic vehicle which exemplifies and illustrates these opposites, telling a story about mostpeople and individuals that is simultaneously a joyous and a sorrowful song.