the cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls Analysis

e. e. cummings

The Poem

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...

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Forms and Devices

Innovation is E. E. Cummings’s hallmark, and this lyric embodies virtually all of his experimental efforts. Using a traditional verse form, the sonnet, as his structure, Cummings transforms the fourteen-line poem so that it is neither a Shakespearean nor a Petrarchan sonnet (the two types traditionally associated with this verse form). In the former, sometimes called English, three quatrains, each with a rhyme-scheme of its own, are followed by a rhyming couplet. In the latter, sometimes called Italian, the poem is divided into two sections, an octave and a sestet, each with its own particular rhyming pattern. Cummings uses only the basic structure of the traditional sonnet form—its fourteen lines—and discards virtually everything else, most obviously its disciplined rhyme schemes.

Another innovation Cummings introduces into his poetry is a wrenched syntax; that is, a sentence structure that does not follow the expected order of, for example, a subject followed by a verb or an adjective preceding a noun. Thus, the last four lines jumble the expected arrangement of words, forcing the reader to pause and reconstruct the lines to make meaning out of Cummings’s experimental arrangement:

the Cambridge ladies do not care, aboveCambridge if sometimes in its box ofsky lavender and cornerless| Themoon rattles like a fragment of angry candy

By forcing this...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ahearn, Barry, ed. Pound/Cummings: The Correspondence of Ezra Pound and E. E. Cummings. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Bloom, Harold, ed. E. E. Cummings: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.

Dumas, Bethany K. E. E. Cummings: A Remembrance of Miracles. London: Vision Press, 1974.

Kennedy, Richard S. E. E. Cummings Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994.

Kidder, Rushworth M. E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

Lane, Gary. I Am: A Study of E. E. Cummings’ Poems. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976.

Norman, Charles. The Magic Maker: E. E. Cummings. Rev. ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972.

Sawyer-Lauçanno, Christopher. E. E. Cummings: A Biography. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2004.

Wegner, Robert E. The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965.