Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1051
“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, sometimes foolish love, and so the speaker implicitly presents himself as a figure full of the kind of enthusiastic, youthful passion that most people can understand even when they can’t quite remember it.
The speaker doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is willing to mock himself and confess himself a fool, so that his endorsement of passion sounds humorously appealing rather than selfishly lecherous. All he seeks, apparently, is to kiss (not even so much to be kissed, but mainly to kiss). Nothing more erotic or suggestive is mentioned. This is a seduction poem that seems quite mild compared to some of the more famous examples of this sub-genre, such as Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” The speaker in Cummings’s poem speaks for the values of the young and vigorous, but he is never crude or disrespectful or slyly calculating or lewd. Indeed, he calls the woman “lady” and swears “by all flowers” (10)—phrasing that is at once comical, polite, and humorously archaic, as if the speaker were a character in a decorous Elizabethan pastoral poem or an amusing Shakespearean pastoral comedy such as As You Like It. The speaker proclaims that kisses are better than “wisdom,” but he hardly seems irrational in any extreme or negative sense.
Why does the lady begin to “cry” (10)? Not, apparently, because she is upset with the prospect of being kissed. (If that were the case, she could easily and simply refuse him.) Instead, she seems genuinely touched by the speaker’s apparent love for her. He, at least, thinks that her “eyelids’ flutter” (12) implies that they are “for each other” (13)—a nice bit of phrasing not only because “other” echoes “flutter” but also because “for each other” sounds like modern slang, in comic contrast with the earlier, old-fashioned-sounding statement “lady i swear by all flowers” (10).
Life, the speaker ends by asserting, is “not a paragraph” (a phrase that echoes, in Cummings’s playful fashion, the word “laugh” in the preceding line). Life, in other words, does not follow set rules; it is not neat and tidy. The rules for writing paragraphs in Cummings’s era would have been much more conventional and logical than they tend to be today, especially in argumentative writing. Just as Cummings violates the rules considered proper in his day when composing poetry, so the lover apparently ignores the rules of “proper” courtship, perhaps by seeking to kiss the lady before he and she have become well acquainted.
The poem’s final line—“And death i think is no parenthesis”—is both clever and slightly ominous. The line not only further develops the poem’s main “conceit” (or extended comparison) likening life to writing, but it also clearly places the poem in the tradition of “carpe diem” verse—poetry in which a speaker (usually a male) urges an addressee (usually a female) to “seize the day.” Such poems seek to remind the woman that time doesn’t last forever, that death is approaching more rapidly than anyone would wish, and that the opportunity for sex should therefore not be neglected or rejected. Even by the standards of most carpe diem poems, however, this poem is pleasant and playful—less a threat, a warning, or even a serious attempt at full-blown seduction than merely a comical request for a kiss.
Part of the poem’s playfulness results from its sound effects, some of which have already been mentioned. Others include the heavy use of alliteration and assonance in line 1 (“since feeling is first”), the repetition of “wholly” in lines 4-5, the playing with “while” and “world” in line 6, the internal rhyme of “best” and “gesture” in line 11, the playing with alliteration and assonance again in “laugh, leaning back” (14), and so on. All in all, the poem evokes in the reader the same kind of amusement the speaker tries to evoke in the lady.