the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls

by E. E. Cummings

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Last Updated February 6, 2024.

"The Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls" is a short satirical poem by E.E. Cummings, first published in 1923. Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a city home to Harvard University and renowned for its upper-crust society, this poem critiques a specific group of residents within this intellectual and affluent community. Written in Cummings' distinctive style—characterized by unconventional punctuation and spacing—the poem employs wit and irony to convey its message.

The speaker sets a satirical tone in the poem's opening lines by describing the titular women as "unbeautiful" with "comfortable minds." Through this juxtaposition, Cummings suggests a disconnect between their outward appearance and inner thoughts. By doing so, he suggests they are superficial and vapid, highlighting their conformist and materialistic mindset. These lines serve as a critical introduction to the central theme of the poem and emphasize the poet's satirical perspective on the Cambridge ladies and their way of life.

The speaker continues his critique by noting that these women attend church to receive its "protestant blessings" and believe they are wholesome and righteous. These blessings are then passed on to their daughters, who are "unscented shapeless spirited," meaning they are just as dull and unoriginal as their mothers.

Cummings continues his critique by highlighting that the Cambridge ladies hold steadfast beliefs in both Christ and Longfellow, despite both being deceased. This ironic comparison of religious and literary figures suggests a clinging to traditions that may no longer hold contemporary relevance. The phrase "invariably interested in so many things" adds a touch of humor by portraying the ladies as easily distracted or superficial in their numerous pursuits. Cummings then critiques the ladies' seemingly unexamined adherence to conventional beliefs and their wide-ranging but perhaps shallow interests.

The speaker accuses the Cambridge ladies of only having a fleeting interest in current events. The phrase "at the present writing one still finds" suggests a temporary engagement with the world around them. The imagery of "delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?" implies that their support for a cause may be superficial or momentary. Cummings uses "perhaps" to further emphasize the uncertainty or lack of genuine commitment.

Meanwhile, the ladies' "permanent faces coyly bandy scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D" suggest a tendency towards gossip and idle chatter rather than a sincere engagement with substantive issues. The speaker implies that their interests are transitory, easily shifting with the changing currents of public opinion. This reinforces the satire on the ladies' lack of deep, enduring convictions.

In the concluding lines, the speaker asserts that the Cambridge ladies are indifferent to events beyond the confines of Cambridge itself. The phrase "the Cambridge ladies do not care, above" suggests a limited concern for matters beyond their immediate surroundings. The poet then introduces a vivid metaphor, describing the moon as rattling "like a fragment of angry candy" within its "box of sky lavender and cornerless." This imaginative portrayal adds a surreal and whimsical touch, possibly suggesting that even nature's disruptions fail to capture the attention or evoke a reaction from these seemingly detached and uninterested women. The lines reinforce the theme of the ladies' insular focus and indifference to broader concerns.

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