Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 449
The Great Depression
When cummings wrote his poem in the early 1930s, America was in the grips of the Great Depression, a massive economic disaster that affected the entire country. As a result, many people did not have the luxury of being in awe over love, as cummings is in the poem. Most were focused on basic survival. Although the exact causes of the Great Depression are still debated, most historians agree that the Stock Market Crash of 1929 helped to usher in this huge economic downturn. As the country began to have increasing financial troubles, however, President Herbert Hoover, along with many others, refused to provide federal aid to struggling individuals. The Hoover administration felt that the crisis was only temporary, and that in any case, it would not help Americans to give them handouts. Unfortunately, the situation only got worse. As the jobless rate rose, starvation and suicide became an issue for many families. Millions of families migrated to try to find a better life and available work in other regions of the country, but in many cases, they found neither, and instead set up shelters on vacant lots in other cities and towns, which came to be known as Hoovervilles—after President Hoover, who many blamed for the depression.
The Rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party
At the same time, the world was recovering from the financial and emotional impact of World War I, while trying to prevent another world war. Although war was technically outlawed by the Kellogg- Briand Pact, some countries refused to disarm, while others had disarmed and wished to arm again for their own protection. In addition, Germany, one of the primary aggressors in the First World War, was made to pay large reparations for its role in the war. Unfortunately, when the Great Depression hit America, it also affected other countries, including Germany, which was having its own financial problems. The Germans, inspired by Adolf Hitler and frustrated over their own rising unemployment, became increasingly hostile on the issue of war reparations payments. This issue helped Hitler and his Nazi Party gain in popularity, especially when the worldwide depression in the early 1930s affected Germany’s ability to make its reparations payments. In addition to rebelling against making reparations, Hitler also spoke out against Jews, blaming the rising rate of German unemployment on Jewish businessmen. This was the beginning of an ethnic-cleansing policy that would eventually take the lives of millions of Jews. Following such horrific acts, many felt that the innocence of humanity was gone. After the war’s end in 1945, however, many Americans tried to avoid these unpleasant thoughts and focus on the simple things in life, including love.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621
For a reader who is new to cummings, or who is new to poetry, this poem may seem confusing at first. While the poem contains concrete images of objects such as eyes and roses, the ways that the poet chooses to describe them are often unusual or contradictory. For example, in the first stanza, the speaker talks about things that he “cannot touch because they are too near.” This seems paradoxical at first, and hard to imagine, because if something is very close to somebody, that person should be able to touch it. When the reader realizes that cummings is speaking in metaphysical terms, the poem starts to make more sense, as do its image systems, which collectively evoke a sense of intense love and passion. Cummings uses two main image systems in his poem—human anatomy and nature. The poem’s focus on anatomical imagery is apparent from the second line, when the speaker discusses his beloved’s eyes. These eyes have such a power over the speaker that one look can easily “unclose” him. Likewise, a “frail gesture” made by the woman evokes powerful feelings from the speaker. The poem ends with anatomical imagery, as the speaker discusses “the voice of your eyes” and “small hands” that rival the manipulative powers of nature.
While even nature is ultimately shown to be inferior to the speaker’s beloved in this final stanza, it plays an important part in the poem’s imagery in the second and third stanzas. Here, the speaker uses the natural image of nature controlling a flower’s lifecycle—opening in spring; dying in winter—to express the power that his beloved has over his own life. By using natural images to first establish the power of nature, these final images indicate even more effectively that the woman’s powers are superior to those of nature.
A symbol is a physical object, action, or gesture that also represents an abstract concept, without losing its original identity. Symbols appear in literature in one of two ways. They can be local symbols, meaning that their significance is only relevant within a specific literary work. They can also be universal symbols, meaning that their significance is based on traditional associations that are widely recognized, regardless of context. In this poem, cummings relies mainly on universal symbols, which add a subtext, or second meaning, to the poem. As with the imagery, these symbols are taken from nature. The rose is a flower commonly associated with love and romance, so the blooming roses help to symbolize the speaker’s blooming love. The flower symbolism runs deeper than that, however. Budding flowers are also a common symbol used to signify sexual love. Since many of cummings’s poems, especially his early works, were erotic in nature, his use of a known sexual symbol was probably intentional.
Yet, cummings flips the common sexual symbolism around. Generally, when a writer uses a budding flower to symbolize sexual love, it is associated with women, who physically open themselves to men during sexual intercourse. Cummings seems to hint at this symbolism, when he organizes one of the lines in the second stanza as follows: “you open always petal by petal myself.” The first two words, “you open,” at first seem to be talking about the woman opening up. As the line progresses, however, the reader can see that it is the woman doing the opening. Cummings could have been grammatically correct and written the line as follows: “you always open me petal by petal.” By structuring the line as he did, however, cummings gives the line, and the poem, a unique symbolism that, once again, underscores the power that the woman has over the speaker.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 192
Late 1920s–Early 1930s: The world escalates toward a world war, in large part due to the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Today: The world is engaged in a war on terrorism, in large part focusing on Middle Eastern figureheads such as Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
Late 1920s–Early 1930s: During the Great Depression, most Americans focus on the struggle to survive and feed their families, so there is little time for quiet reflection about love and other feelings.
Today: Despite a massive recession that leaves many Americans jobless, people take time out to appreciate love and other feelings. In fact, although some men still fit the stereotype of being a tough-guy male who bottles up his feelings, the self-help revolution of the late twentieth century has encouraged everybody, men included, to get in touch with their feelings.
Late 1920s–Early 1930s: Americans are encouraged to be conservative with their sexuality.
Today: Despite the very real threat of lethal venereal diseases like AIDS, it is a very sexually free time. Sensual images and words can be found in most major media, including television, radio, and print ads.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 79
E. E. Cummings: A Poetry Collection is an audiocassette that gathers selections from the poet’s work. Published in 2001, the collection features poems read by cummings. It is available from HarperAudio.
The Great Voices Audio Collection (1994) is an audiocassette that gathers selections from four writers: Ernest Hemingway, Anais Nin, James Joyce, and cummings. Each writer reads his or her own work. In the case of cummings, the poet reads from his XAIPE collection. The audiobook is available from HarperAudio.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 400
Baum, S. V., “E. E. Cummings: The Technique of Immediacy,” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 1, January 1954, pp. 70–88.
Blackmur, R. P., “Notes on E. E. Cummings’ Language,” in the Hound & Horn, Vol. 4, No. 2, January–March 1931, pp. 163–92.
Bode, Carl, “E. E. Cummings: The World of ‘Un,’” in Critical Essays on E. E. Cummings, edited by Guy Rotella, G. K. Hall, 1984, p. 83.
cummings, e. e., Complete Poems, 1913–1962, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
—, “somewhere i have travelled,gladly beyond,” in 100 Selected Poems, by e. e. cummings, Grove Weidenfeld, 1959, p. 44.
Dembo, L. S., “E. E. Cummings: The Now Man,” in Critical Essays on E. E. Cummings, edited by Guy Rotella, G. K. Hall, 1984, p. 177.
Hafiz, The Gift: Poems by the Great Sufi Master, translated by Daniel Ladinsky, Penguin/Arkana, 1999, p. 88. Harvey, Andrew, Love’s Fire: Re-Creations of Rumi, Meeramma, 1988, p. 22.
—, The Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi, Frog, 1994, p. 105.
Johnson, Robert K., “Somewhere I Have Never Traveled, Gladly Beyond: Poem by E. E. Cummings, 1931,” in Reference Guide to American Literature, 3d ed., edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994.
Johnson, Will, Rumi: Gazing at the Beloved, Inner Traditions, 2003, pp. 2–3.
Kidder, Rushworth M., E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1979.
Maurer, Robert E., “Latter-Day Notes on E. E. Cummings’ Language,” in the Bucknell Review, May 1955.
Friedman, Norman, ed., E. E. Cummings: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1972. Friedman, a noted cummings scholar, offers a selection of critical essays that examines several aspects of cummings’s work.
Kennedy, David M., Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945, Oxford History of the United States series, No. 9, Oxford University Press, 2001. Kennedy, a Stanford history professor, chronicles the years during the Great Depression and Second World War, at times posing theses that directly contradict established views. This accessible, comprehensive study relies on an extensive number of both published accounts and primary sources to recreate this formative period in America’s history.
Kennedy, Richard S., Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings, Liveright, 1980. Kennedy’s critical biography is noted for its insights into cummings’s life. The comprehensive biography also includes drawings by cummings, comments from his daughter, and some previously unpublished poems.
Marks, Barry, E. E. Cummings, Twayne’s United States Authors Series, No. 46, Twayne, 1963. Published shortly after cummings’s death, this book gives a biographical and critical overview of the author’s life and work.