The Poem

E. E. Cummings’s brief lyric “pity this busy monster,manunkind” is a fourteen-line poem and is thus a sonnet, at least in Cummings’s deliberately broad definition of that poetic form. Though the punctuation (and certainly the capitalization) is unconventional, the poem clearly breaks into four sentences. This grammatical division is not reinforced by the line or stanza breaks, however; stanzas vary from one to four lines and begin in mid sentence. In many respects, the poem is typical of Cummings: It presents some of his favorite poetic devices and themes.

The opening sentence urges the reader not to pity the “busy monster” of humanity, or, rather, in Cummings’s invented term, “manunkind.” The next sentence describes progress as a disease of which humanity is the victim unaware. Then the poet asserts the distinction between natural and artificial: “A world of made/ is not a world of born.” The reader is thus invited to pity, instead of humankind, the defenseless things of the organic world—from trees to stars—which are, presumably, victims of the increasing artificiality of progress. The disease metaphor is invoked again in the concluding sentence of the poem where doctors declare the modern world to be a “hopeless case” and invite the reader to join them in the “hell of a good universe next door.” The force of the concluding line is ironic; the reader knows that there is no alternative universe to which one can escape.

Cummings’s poem, like so many of his lyrics, is an eloquent protest against what he saw as dehumanizing trends of contemporary culture. Its eloquence resides not in complex argument or traditional poetic elevation, but in the value-laden wordplay that strives to expose the myths of modern society as life denying. Thus humankind is rendered as a self-important monster, spreading incurable disease and worshiping false gods (“electrons deify one razorblade/ into a mountainrange”). The term “monster” calls to mind the frightening perversion of the natural; the conglomeration of innocent and natural individual beings forms a whole (“this busy monster”) that is neither innocent nor natural. Cummings’s humor and playfulness, however, keep the poem from becoming a tract or a tirade. Amused irony tempers his righteous indignation.

Forms and Devices

Readers are struck first by Cummings’s unorthodox use of lowercase letters. Indeed, he even signed his poems “e. e. cummings.” His avoidance of initial capital letters takes one step further the modernist tendency to capitalize only the first words of sentences, not the first word of each poetic line. In this poem, Cummings does use initial capital letters for new sentences, except in the title and first line. In any case, his unconventional punctuation (including the absence of spaces after commas and semicolons) reflects essentially the same tendencies throughout his career. First, the typographical idiosyncrasies call attention to the poem as the product of the typewriter, a machine-age self-consciousness apparent (through different means) in the poetry of William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore as well. In addition, the typographical unconventionality asserts a larger unconventionality of values that the poet wishes to reflect in the poem. “I oppose the staid and traditional” is what Cummings’s poems seem to say by their very look on the page.

Similarly, Cummings invents his own comic compound words—in this poem as in many others. These compounds assert a desire for linguistic freedom and a willingness to play with forms of contemporary rhetoric: from advertising lingo to political neologisms to scientific coinages. A phrase such as “hypermagical/ ultraomnipotence” mocks the pretensions of science to magic and religion in form as well as content. The prefixes “hyper-” and “ultra-”...

(The entire section is 626 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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

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

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