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Last Updated September 5, 2023.


The subject of Cummings’s poem is Buffalo Bill. Cummings does not explain who Buffalo Bill is—the point being that he does not have to. Although Buffalo Bill is now “defunct,” his peak fame now behind him, he remains a well-known figure from the heyday of the American Wild West. Buffalo Bill was originally a real cowboy and scout, but he soon recognized the value of capitalizing on the romanticized idea of the Wild West for his own gain. Consequently, he began to take part in multiple stage shows and traveling circuses, where he could be viewed as the archetypal cowboy. In this role, such seemingly superficial elements as his “handsome” face, his skill at riding a “watersmooth-silver / stallion,” and his ability to kill multiple pigeons with one shot became tricks, performed as showmanship. While it is important for a celebrity to be famous, this is not something that is necessary for a real cowboy. So, to an extent, Cummings is suggesting that fame is superficial, even when it endures. However, he is also emphasizing the fact that fame is ephemeral. Buffalo Bill is “defunct” not only because he is dead but also because he has lost the relevance as a famous person that he once had. Death has come for him, and while a “blue-eyed boy” in life, the speaker is curious as to what Death thinks of him—is he more important in the realm of the dead than others, as he was seemingly more important while alive?


Connected to the theme of fame is the idea of ever-present death. If fame is fleeting, then life is even more so. At the end of the poem, Cummings appeals to Death, personifying him and addressing him directly as “Mister Death”:

                                                              and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death

This is a jarring shift, as the speaker has previously been addressing the reader; it suggests that Death is ever-present and that he has been listening all along. Through this technique, Cummings succeeds in underscoring the idea that Death can appear at any time; Death is unexpected, does not obey human laws, and can come for anyone, even the famous. As a soldier in the Indian Wars and the Civil War, Buffalo Bill likely inflicted death on others while alive, and now death has caught up with him, making him “defunct.” It is significant that Cummings uses the word “defunct” rather than “dead,” implying that Buffalo Bill is not only no longer living but no longer functioning as either a man or a myth. Yet Cummings’s poem itself immortalizes Buffalo Bill, adding to the considerable body of literature, film, and art that keeps alive the memory of this famous fixture of the American Old West. In addition, Cummings seems to suggest that life continues in some form after death, as the personified Death is asked how he likes Buffalo Bill now—implying that Buffalo Bill continues to exist in some way, even if he is “defunct.”

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