Last Updated on September 20, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473
Every word in this short poem is quotation-worthy. Examining Cummings’s language closely will help the reader understand some of the themes in this poem.
In some ways, the most important word of the poem is the third one, “defunct.”
The first two lines
Buffalo Bill ’s
and in particular, the verb “defunct,” raise some interesting questions about the relationship between the subject of the poem (ostensibly Buffalo Bill) and the writer or speaker. Why say “defunct” instead of “dead”? The word suggests that Bill is obsolete, or has become meaningless or useless, and suggests a kind of condescension or superiority on the part of the speaker, who is not “defunct.”
This attitude toward Bill is contrasted in the following lines, where Cummings refers to how Bill “used to” ride a “watersmooth-silver / Stallion.” “Watersmooth-silver” suggests a particular kind of fluid grace and a color—the “Stallion” (more potent than a mere “horse”) is like the silver of water in a fast-flowing stream. This image of beauty is part of what has become “defunct.”
Cummings next uses one of his characteristic run-together words to describe Buffalo Bill’s prowess as a marksman:
break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
The words running together are a way of trying to duplicate in type the speed with which Buffalo Bill is able to shoot (so fast there isn’t even time for spaces between words) but also serves to call attention to Buffalo Bill as a person worthy of admiration. This feeling would seem to be confirmed by the next line,
which can be understood as an exclamation either of admiration (e.g., “Jesus! He was good!”) or condemnation (“Jesus! Can you believe this guy?”). This pivot to irony is clear in the last lines of the poem, in which the writer remarks that Buffalo Bill was “a handsome man” and then asks, in an almost menacing way,
what I want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
These final lines can be understood as a challenge to Death, who has taken (made defunct) the “blue-eyed” Buffalo Bill. The description “blue-eyed” can be read as ironic: it suggests innocence and purity, whereas Buffalo Bill, who fought in the Indian Wars and the Civil War, is anything but. Calling Death “Mister Death” serves to trivialize Death; the honorific is used as a kind of insult. It’s possible, then, to read the poem as a kind of angry lament for how death must claim us all, even someone as famous as Buffalo Bill, or as a kind of taunt aimed at Death, in the sense that Death’s “blue-eyed boy” is actually a more proficient killer than Death itself, or as a kind of ironic comment on how Death may have claimed Buffalo Bill, but the poet or speaker (and the poem) remain outside Death’s grasp.