E. E. Cummings Cummings, E. E. - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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 Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Enormous Room (prose) 1922

Tulips and Chimneys (poetry) 1923

& (poetry) 1925

XLI Poems (poetry) 1925

Is 5 (poetry) 1926

Him (play) 1927

W: ViVa (poetry) 1931

Eimi (travel diary) 1933

No Thanks (poetry) 1935

Collected Poems (poetry) 1938

50 Poems (poetry) 1940

1 × 1 (poetry) 1944

Santa Clause—A Morality (play) 1946

XAIPE: Seventy-One Poems (poetry) 1950

i: six...

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Patrick B. Mullen (essay date 1971)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mullen, Patrick B. “E. E. Cummings and Popular Culture.” In Critical Essays on E. E. Cummings, edited by Guy Rotella, pp. 202-14. Boston: G. K. Hall and Company, 1984.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1971, Mullen examines Cummings’s interest in and writings on American popular culture, particularly the art of burlesque.]

It is generally overlooked that E. E. Cummings had an avid interest in various forms of American popular culture, especially burlesque, circuses, amusement parks, comic strips, animated cartoons, and movies. During the 1920's and 1930's, Cummings wrote many essays on mass culture which appeared in popular magazines such...

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William E. Thompson (essay date spring-summer 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thompson, William E. “Intensity: An Essential Element in e. e. cummings’ Aesthetic Theory and Practice.” University of Windsor Review 16, no. 2 (spring-summer 1982): 18-33.

[In the following essay, Thompson discusses Cummings’s attempt to compress images and words as tightly and succinctly as possible to affect the strongest intensity of feeling upon the reader.]

Intensity was a cornerstone in cummings' vision and a primary element in his aesthetic theory throughout his career. In his Dial review of T. S. Eliot's Poems (June 1920), cummings stressed that “every [Eliot] poem impresses us with an overwhelming sense of...

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Milton A. Cohen (essay date December 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cohen, Milton A. “Cummings and Freud.” American Literature 55, no. 4 (December 1983): 591-610.

[In the following essay, Cohen addresses the influence of Freud on Cummings’s early aesthetic and technique.]

when I see you I shall expect you to be conversant with two books: The Interpretation of Dreams, and WIT and the Unconscious. Both are by FREUD. GET WISE TO YOURSELF!!1

So wrote E. E. Cummings to his younger sister Elizabeth in May 1922. In some ways, Cummings' enthusiasm for Freud was very much a part of its time: a post-war Modernist in the arts could scarcely resist Freudian theory as the...

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Norman Friedman (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Friedman, Norman. “Epiphanies Are Hard to Come By: Cummings’ Uneasy Mask and the Divided Audience.” In (Re)Valuing Cummings: Further Essays on the Poet, 1962-1993, pp. 83-98. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1983, Friedman reviews E. E. Cummings: The Critical Reception, finding the collection of early reviews of Cummings’s work helpful in gaining insight into the opinions of Cummings’s lesser-known contemporaries.]


This book [E. E. Cummings: The Critical Reception] continues the production of scholarly aids to the study of Cummings—which includes...

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Marcello Pagnini (essay date 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pagnini, Marcello. “The Case of Cummings.” Poetics Today 6, no. 3 (1985): 357-73.

[In the following essay, Pagnini argues that Cummings’s poetry was strongly influenced by Russian futurism.]

References to E. E. Cummings's relationship with the early twentieth-century avant-garde are usually rather hurried, and limited to suggesting that the poet felt the influence of Symbolist techniques (absolute metaphor), of Ezra Pound's Rispostes (1912), and perhaps of the linguistic experimentalism of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons (1914); or alternatively, that he owed much to the Dada and Surrealist movements; or again that he was influenced by the...

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Richard S. Kennedy (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kennedy, Richard S. “Tulips, Chimneys, &.” In E. E. Cummings Revisited, pp. 53-67. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

[In the following excerpted essay, Kennedy considers the significance to his career of Cummings’s original version of Tulips & Chimneys.]

Sometime in 1919 Cummings had assembled a hefty manuscript of poems entitled “Tulips & Chimneys,” which he gave to his friend Stewart Mitchell, the managing editor of the Dial, asking him to help find a publisher. Mitchell tried six publishing houses without success. Cummings then removed some of the poems that an editor might find either unpoetic or obscene, rearranged their...

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Richard S. Kennedy (essay date 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kennedy, Richard S. “Jeers, Cheers, and Aspirations.” In E. E. Cummings Revisited, pp. 68-83. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.

[In the following excerpted essay, Kennedy examines Cummings's writing during a particularly difficult period in the 1920s.]

In the midst of his efforts to publish between 1922 and 1925 Cummings faced personal problems of such gravity that they brought about a change in his personality. It all began in 1918 when he fell in love with Elaine Thayer, the wife of his best friend. The Thayer marriage of 1916 had been in trouble for some time, a situation made clear by the fact that the couple now lived in separate apartments on...

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Brian Docherty (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Docherty, Brian. “e. e. cummings.” In American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal, edited by Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty, pp. 120-30. Houndmills and London: Macmillan, 1995.

[In the following essay, Docherty discusses the paradox of modernism and traditionalism in Cummings’s poetry.]

e. e. cummings is at once the most modern of traditionalists and the most traditional of Modernists. This ironic paradox runs through both his life and his poetry. Born in 1894 to a family of impeccably New England Puritan stock, his life as a writer was to some extent a negation of his background. Like Ezra Pound, cummings never held a ‘normal’ job, but lived true to his...

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Michael Webster (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Webster, Michael. “E. E. Cummings: Romantic Ideology and Technique.” In Reading Visual Poetry after Futurism: Marinetti, Apollinaire, Schwitters, Cummings, pp. 111-40. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.

[In the following essay, Webster examines the effect of Cummings's typographical experimentation on his Romantic themes.]

Like the burlesk comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.

—E. E. C. (CP [The Complete Poems] 223)

A “simultaneity of the radically disparate” describes the poetry of E. E. Cummings (1894-1962) rather well. Critics have...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Cohen, Milton A. “Perception: Seeing the Whole Surface.” In Poet and Painter: The Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings' s Early Work, pp. 85-115. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987.

Discusses Cummings’s early interest in the science of perception and its influence on his literary and artistic aesthetic.

Cureton, Richard D. “Visual Form in e. e. cummings’ No Thanks.Word and Image: A Journal of Verbal Visual Enquiry (July-September 1986): 245-77.

Explores the meaning and significance of Cummings’s visual form in his most experimental volume of poetry.


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