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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In only twenty-four lines, E. E. Cummings captures both the feeling and the meaning of spring. Only in spring, or “just” in spring, is the world a kind of wonderful mud bath for children. Spring rains make puddles in which children love to play. Spring is a carnival season—a time to celebrate nature—which accounts for the appearance of the “balloonman,” who adds a festive air to the season.

The first stanza and the next line also suggest that adults spring to life “in just,” or precisely in, spring. The balloonman may be little and lame, but he is whistling and apparently happy to be out and about. Cummings suggests the enthusiasm of children and the childlike enthusiasms of adults in his first use of the word “wee” in line 5. The word “wide” is expected after “far and,” but Cummings changes this clichéd expression to convey the “wee” of the fun that spring represents.

In the second stanza, the childlike speaker of the poem revels in playmates and their games. Playing marbles and pretending to be pirates are examples of the energy and imagination that spring stimulates. The poem itself is a manifestation of vigor; it is at once a description, celebration, and evocation of what spring feels like.

Line 10 suggests that spring turns the world into a splendid playground. The balloonman enters the poem again—this time described as “queer” and “old” but still whistling, as if in spring he forgets his age and his difference from others. In spring, everyone shares the same feelings about being alive and enjoying it. Just as the boys play marbles and pirate games, the girls play hopscotch and jump-rope, and the poem—mimicking their animation—proclaims once again that it is spring.

The innocent games of the children are followed in line 20 and in the last stanza by the antics of the “goat-footed/ balloonMan,” who is still whistling “far and wee.” In this third appearance, he is no longer lame or old, but spry, having come back to life. The image of the goat suggests nimbleness—one thinks of goats threading their way along mountain passes and rocky cliffs. But goat is also a term that connotes a horny or lecherous man. In other words, in spring the lame old man is aroused sexually, and he recovers some of the same spirit and drive that the children channel into their games.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Cummings has been justly praised for his innovative use of typography. Beginning with the poem’s title, “in Just-,” which begins in the lower case and ends with a hyphen, the poet is evoking a fresh way of rendering the freshness of spring. The season is a part of the unending cycle of nature, and the poem’s title is an expression of that ongoing cycle. Spring is both a season and an action (a noun and a verb), and to capitalize it—or to capitalize the first word of the title “in”—would be to make spring as a season and a state of mind conform to typography. Cummings takes the opposite approach, making typography conform to the feeling of being in the season of spring.

Similarly, by ending the title with a hyphen (a punctuation mark that usually connects two words) Cummings is emphasizing that spring is connected not to one word or idea but to many—to a sense of the wide world, of its possibilities. Spring makes people feel expansive and connected to each other and to the rest of the world, the poem implies. Finally, “Just” is capitalized because of the poem’s insistence that it is “just” in spring that people feel so in touch with everything.

Note also that there are gaps or spaces between words in lines 2, 5, 13, and 21. These intervals between words are filled, so to speak, with the actions and feelings of the poem, with its springing words that imitate the jumping and playing of the children and the balloonman. The gaps also provide a kind of imaginative ground on which the balloonman is whistling and going about and of the children playing. Giving the words more room also makes the words...

(The entire section is 1,036 words.)