E. E. Cummings 1894-1962
(Full name Edward Estlin Cummings) American poet, prose writer, essayist, lecturer, and playwright.
The following entry presents criticism on Cummings's works from 1971 through 1995. See also E. E. Cummings Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 8.
Cummings's innovative and controversial verse places him among the most popular and widely anthologized poets of the twentieth century. Cummings's work celebrates the individual, as well as erotic and familial love. Conformity, mass psychology, and snobbery were frequent targets of his humorous and sometimes scathing satires. Additionally, his fictionalized memoir of his service in World War I, The Enormous Room (1922), and his experimental plays, especially Him (1927), have earned him a reputation as a leading writer of the modernist period in American literature.
Cummings grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father was a sociology professor at Harvard and a noted Unitarian clergyman. Demonstrating a strong interest in poetry and art from an early age, Cummings enjoyed the full support and encouragement of his parents. He attended Harvard from 1911 to 1915, studying literature and writing daily. He eventually joined the editorial board of the Harvard Monthly, a college literary magazine, where he worked with his close friends S. Foster Damon and John Dos Passos. In his senior year he became fascinated with avant-garde art, modernism, and cubism, an interest reflected in his graduation dissertation, “The New Art.” In this paper, Cummings extolled modernism as practiced by Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and Pablo Picasso. He also began incorporating elements of these styles into his own poetry and paintings. His first published poems appeared in the anthology Eight Harvard Poets in 1917. These pieces feature experimental verse forms and the lowercase personal pronoun “i” (symbolizing both the humbleness and the uniqueness of the individual) that became his trademark. The copyeditor of the book, however, mistook Cummings's intentions as typographical errors and made “corrections.” That same year, Cummings moved to New York and was employed very briefly at a mail-order book company, and soon began working full-time on his poetry and art. With World War I raging in Europe, he volunteered for the French-based Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service. He spent time in Paris upon his arrival and was completely charmed by the city's bohemian atmosphere and abundance of art and artists. He was particularly impressed by the sketches of Pablo Picasso, whose cubist techniques later helped shape much of Cummings’s work. Because of a misunderstanding, Cummings spent four months in an internment camp in Normandy on suspicion of treason, an experience documented in his prose work The Enormous Room. Making use of his contacts in government, Cummings's father was able to secure his son's release. Cummings was drafted shortly after he returned to New York in 1918 and spent about a year at Camp Danvers, Massachusetts. During the 1920s and 1930s he traveled widely in Europe, alternately living in Paris and New York, and developed parallel careers as a poet and painter. Politically liberal and with leftist leanings, Cummings visited the Soviet Union in 1931 in order to find out how the system of government subsidy for art functioned there. Eimi (1933), an expanded version of his travel diary, expresses his profound disappointment in its indictment of the regimentation and lack of personal and artistic freedom he encountered. From that time, Cummings abandoned his liberal political views and social circle and became an embittered, reactionary conservative on social and political issues. He continued to write prolifically and received the Shelley Memorial Award for poetry in 1944, the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard for the academic year 1952-53, and the Bollingen Prize for Poetry in 1958. Cummings reached the height of his popularity during the 1940s and 1950s, giving poetry readings to college audiences across the United States until his death in 1962.
Cummings's first book, The Enormous Room, is a novel/memoir based on his experiences in the French internment camp; it concerns the preservation of dignity in a degrading and dehumanizing situation. This work, widely considered a classic of World War I literature, introduced themes that Cummings would pursue throughout his career: the individual against society, against government, and against all forms of authority. Cummings used both French and English to create a witty, satirical voice that lampoons the war itself as well as military bureaucracy. All of Cummings's poetry attests to the author's never-ending search for fresh metaphors and new means of expression through creative placement of words on the page, new word constructions, and unusual punctuation and capitalization. He originally intended to publish his first collection as Tulips & Chimneys, but was forced to publish the poems from the original manuscript as three separate volumes: Tulips and Chimneys (1923), XLI Poems (1925), and & (1925). The “tulips” of the first volume are free-verse lyric poems that present a nostalgic glance at his childhood. The poem “in Just-” celebrates youth in playful, imaginative and creative contractions—“mud- / luscious” and “puddle-wonderful,” for example, while the poem “O sweet spontaneous” revels in nature that can only be appreciated fully through the senses rather than through science, philosophy, or religion. The “chimneys” are a sustained sonnet sequence that identifies the hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness, and stagnation Cummings saw in the society around him. The sequence includes the well-known poem “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls”—women who, according to Cummings, “are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds.” The poems excised from the original manuscript that were later collected in XLI Poems and & are generally more erotic in content. The thematic concerns of these first three volumes of verse are repeated in Is 5 (1926), in which the author also included satiric and anti-war pieces, notably “my sweet old etcetera” and “i sing of Olaf glad and big,” a poem about the death of a conscientious objector. W: ViVa (1931) contains sonnets and other poems attacking conservative and uncreative thinking. Along with his barbs at society, Cummings also composed such lyrical poems as “somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond,” in which he extolled love, nature, the mystery of faith, individualism, and imaginative freedom. The collection No Thanks (1935), written in response to his trip to the Soviet Union, treats the theme of artistic freedom in an especially powerful manner. 50 Poems (1940) contains such popular pieces as “anyone lived in a pretty how town” and an elegy to his father, “my father moved through dooms of love.” 1 × 1 (1944) solidified Cummings's reputation as one of America's premier poets. It presents a more optimistic, life-affirming viewpoint than do the poems written during Cummings's period of personal and political disaffection in the 1930s. Structured in a pattern of darkness moving toward light, the collection begins with poems that denigrate businessmen and politicians and ends with poems praising nature and love. In his late verse—XAIPE: Seventy-One Poems (1950), 95 Poems (1958), and the posthumously published 73 Poems (1963)—Cummings effected a softer, more elegiac note, recalling his early affinity for New England Transcendentalism and English Romanticism. In addition to his poetry, Cummings is also known for his play Him (1927), which consists of a sequence of skits drawing from burlesque, the circus, and the avant-garde, and jumps quickly from tragedy to grotesque comedy. The male character is named Him; the female character is Me. “The play begins,” Harold Clurman wrote in Nation, “as a series of feverish images of a girl undergoing anaesthesia during an abortion. She is ‘me,’ who thinks of her lover as ‘him.’” In the program to the play, staged at the Provincetown Playhouse, Cummings provided a warning to the audience: “Relax and give the play a chance to strut its stuff—relax, stop wondering what it's all ‘about’— like many strange and familiar things, Life included, this Play isn't ‘about,’ it simply is. Don't try to enjoy it, let it try to enjoy you. DON'T TRY TO UNDERSTAND IT, LET IT TRY TO UNDERSTAND YOU.” In 1952-53 Harvard University honored its distinguished alumnus by asking Cummings to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. Published as i: six nonlectures (1953), the work is Cummings’s only attempt at formal artistic autobiography. In the lectures Cummings noted that perhaps fifteen of his poems were faithful expressions of his stance as an artist and man.
Critical opinion of Cummings's poems is markedly divided. Beginning with Tulips and Chimneys, reviewers described Cummings's style as eccentric and self-indulgent, designed to call attention to itself rather than to elucidate themes. Some critics also objected to Cummings's explicit treatment of sexuality, while others labeled his depictions of society's hypocrisy and banality elitist. When his Collected Poems was published in 1938, Cummings's sharp satires caused some reviewers to call him a misanthrope. His later, more conservative poetry came under attack for anti-Semitism, a charge that is still debated. Critics have noted, too, that Cummings's style did not change or develop much throughout his career. Some commentators speculate that Cummings early found a style that suited him and simply continued on with it; others, however, have faulted him for insufficient artistic growth. A group of scholars posited that Cummings's verbal pyrotechnics and idiosyncratic arrangement of text actually draw readers' attention from the poetry itself. More recently, however, literary critics have studied Cummings’s poems from a structural viewpoint, considering his visual forms to be integral to the meaning of the poems.