Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In the broadest sense, Cummings is both celebrating and attacking American optimism. The symbol of the wild west has become an essential part of the American identity. It expresses the American’s quest to be an individual and the American worship of those who have created a heroic sense of themselves. On the one hand, Buffalo Bill was handsome, energetic, and successful. On the other hand, what does his fame amount to? What did he really accomplish?

Not only Buffalo Bill himself but also his kind of heroism is defunct, the poem announces. Cody died in 1917, so the poem, first published in 1920, is a kind of obituary for this fallen figure. He is remembered fondly by the speaker—almost as if the speaker is remembering his childhood pleasure in watching Buffalo Bill’s wild west show. The adult speaker, however, is wondering what Buffalo Bill’s legacy really is.

The poem implies that shows such as Buffalo Bill’s are distractions from reality, from the knowledge of death. The idea of youth, of freshness and innocence, is worshipped in a kind of religion, and Buffalo Bill becomes a stand-in for Jesus. Ultimately such substitutes fade in importance. The American myth is that the United States is the New World and that Americans can escape from the tyranny of history, from the death and destruction that has struck Europe and other continents. Cummings insinuates that it is a little late in the day for Buffalo Bills—either for nostalgia...

(The entire section is 523 words.)