Last Updated on September 20, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 355
The central character in this short poem by E. E. Cummings is, of course, the Buffalo Bill of the title; the poem focuses on Buffalo Bill, praising his skills in life, despite the fact that he is now “defunct.”
Buffalo Bill is a legendary figure in the folklore of the Wild West. A real person, he is now thought of as the archetype of the cowboy, and his showmanship in life helped to ensure that his memory would be cemented in this way. Although Buffalo Bill really was a cowboy and bison hunter, he also quickly realized the appeal of the cowboy legend to the wider American public, particularly given the appeal of westward expansion at that time, and began to participate in cowboy-themed traveling shows. Cummings touches on this in his description of Buffalo Bill and particularly in the use of the word “defunct,” which suggests Bill was a commodity, rather than a person as such. He is “defunct” in the sense that he is no longer as relevant to modern America as he once was; his capacity to shoot down multiple pigeons in one go, or to ride a “watersmooth-silver / stallion,” were impressive in their day but are now things of the past. Cummings does note, with apparent appreciation, that Buffalo Bill “was a handsome man,” but this again is a characteristic necessary for a showman, not so much for a genuine cowboy.
The speaker is the other major character in this poem. He does not identify himself, but he is clearly somebody who has a considerable amount of interest in, and approval for, Buffalo Bill. He imagines Buffalo Bill as the “blue-eyed boy” of Death and wonders how Buffalo Bill is now getting on, now that he is no longer part of the ongoing American legend and the world has moved on beyond him.
The final character in the poem is Death himself. The poem ends with an appeal to Death on the part of the poem: the personification serves to create the impression that Buffalo Bill is now keeping company with Death—two legendary figures together.