The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

E. E. Cummings’s sonnet now known as “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls” was originally published without a title in a section of Cummings’s first collection of poetry, Tulips and Chimneys (1923). That section, labeled “Chimneys,” is divided into three subsections: “Realities,” “Unrealities,” and “Actualities.” This particular poem, included in the first subsection, is an example of how Cummings uses a traditional verse form—the fourteen-line lyric known as a sonnet—and remakes it to suit his purpose of startling the reader into a new understanding and into seeing reality in a new way. In this sonnet, Cummings portrays a group of people, “Cambridge ladies,” as representations of people who have money and a certain distinguished class in society but who lack the spontaneity and feeling that Cummings believes are the hallmarks of truly human beings. Cummings shows how these people from Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of such prestigious institutions as Harvard University, are not what they appear to be.

In the first four lines, Cummings describes the ladies whom he is criticizing. They live in “furnished souls”—that is, their souls, as is the case with their lives, are assembled, readymade, and artificially arranged—and their minds are “unbeautiful” and “comfortable.” Furthermore, they live with the approval of the society around them, described as “the church’s protestant...

(The entire section is 470 words.)