Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Cummings’s poetry is essentially a poetry of oppositions, and this poem dramatizes two of the most important of those oppositions: the individual against the collective, and the organic or natural against the artificial. Cummings deplored the trends in modern society toward the conquest of the natural environment by the human-made and synthetic and toward the destruction of the individual by the mass. The busy monster of “manunkind,” is pictured as a society frenetically engaged in subverting the natural (“poor stones and stars”) in the name of progress. This progress that supposedly advances the good of the collective, however, ignores the vitality of the individual and thus fails miserably. Such is the motivation behind the incipient metaphors of the body politic pictured as terminal patient: “your victim (death and life safely beyond)/ plays with the bigness of his littleness.” Society has moved “beyond” life and death because, in treating the mass, the individual has been dehumanized (an experience Cummings witnessed in both world wars).

This metaphor continues in the glib talk of the experts—the doctors—that concludes the poem. The body politic, stripped of the individual and the organic, becomes “a hopeless case.” Faced with the reality of death, the technology-driven doctors seek, in imperialist fashion, to find new territories to conquer, and they set off for the universe “next door.” The final invitation—“let’s go”—works in two ways. First, it forms the ironic conclusion of the progress worshipers faced with the corpse of a society: They go off into the optimistic utopia of tomorrow that will prove to be (as “utopia” suggests) nowhere. The poet is also a doctor of sorts here, diagnosing the ills of society, and his invitation to move to another universe may be a serious call to reimagine the world through poetic sensibility. If people follow the poet’s advice and save their pity for the natural world and learn to cherish it, then their future might indeed promise a “hell of a good universe.” Such is the faith that Cummings extolls throughout his poetry.