Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 383

This poem by E. E. Cummings is very short. It could be interpreted in various ways, but I feel that the major themes are fairly straightforward. To me, these are fame and death, and how the two intertwine.

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Fame: 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 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's 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?

Death: Connected to the above theme, then, 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." 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.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523

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 about Buffalo Bill himself or for others who might try to pretend that they are “blueeyed” boys who can conquer the world. It is fun to remember this simpler past, the poem affirms, but dwelling on Buffalo Bill’s exploits leaves one unprepared when death strikes—as it does abruptly in the poem, suddenly taking away the exciting images of the Buffalo Bill show.

This poem has a trajectory that is easily followed if the eye moves from the poem’s first words “Buffalo Bill ’s” to the single word Jesus on line 7 at the right-hand margin to Mister Death in the left-hand margin at the poem’s end. The story of Buffalo Bill—his self-invention and fame—gives way to Jesus and Mister Death. Buffalo Bill cannot hold his own with these two figures; there is no hint of resurrection for him. He is “defunct.”

Cummings, also a painter, provides a visual as well as a verbal demonstration of the promise as well as the demise of Buffalo Bill as a suitable American symbol. The tone of braggadocio in the first lines of the poem, which mimic the boisterous self-confidence of a wild west hero, gives way to a much more complex statement of the poem’s theme in the last three lines. The speaker addresses Mister Death directly, acknowledging Buffalo Bill’s demise but perhaps also feeling a little aggrieved that this symbol of the American go-getter has been cut down by death. There may be a bit of anger in the question addressed to Mister Death, a lingering lament for a hero and a way of life that had seemed so inspiring.

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