Summary and Analysis

“since feeling is first” is a short lyric by the American poet E. E. Cummings (1894-1962). Written in the author’s trademark style, featuring unconventional syntax and unpredictable punctuation, the work might most accurately be labeled a seduction poem. The speaker tries to justify offering the “lady” (10) passionate “kisses” (8), implicitly arguing that deeply felt passion is better than merely correct or conventional behavior.

Ironically, the first word in a poem endorsing passion is a word (“since”) that implies a rational argument (1). This word begins by taking for granted that “feeling” is somehow “first” (1). First in what ways? First in importance? First in time? Either of these possibilities would fit the context, and perhaps both meanings are relevant. Part of what makes Cummings’s poems interesting to read, in fact, is precisely this kind of ambiguity. The style of his poems typically forces the reader to pay close attention to their content or meaning, so that the style is indeed part of the content or meaning: the two are inseparable.

Typical of Cummings’s innovative syntax is line 2: “who pays any attention....” Where is this line leading? It seems to begin to ask a question, but no question mark ever appears, and by the time we reach line 4 we understand that the apparent question is not a question at all but a statement. It means, roughly, “A person who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” Cummings could easily have made this meaning clear, but, instead, while discussing unconventional syntax he actually employs unconventional syntax—one more way in which the meaning of his poems is often directly and cleverly reflected in their style.

When using the word “syntax” in line 3, the speaker uses an intriguing, inventive metaphor that seems to suggest that the opposite of strong passion is an excessive concern with rules (that is, with what is proper, precise, and approved). The word “syntax” here seems associated with reason; to be kissed by someone concerned with “syntax,” the speaker seems to suggest, is to be kissed “by the book,” as Juliet memorably puts it in Shakespeare’s play (Romeo and Juliet 1.5.110). Instead, the speaker is willing “wholly to be a fool” during springtime (5)—that is, he is completely willing to seem irrational, to follow his emotional impulses, and to run the risk of appearing foolish. “Spring,” of course, is the season associated with love (6), particularly young,...

(The entire section is 1051 words.)