The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.