Themes

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

Language and Meaning
At the heart of “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” is the question of language’s capacity to sufficiently name the world. Cummings’s associative imagery and unconventional syntax present not a literal picture of the world within McSorley’s saloon, as much as it does the speaker’s emotional and subjective response to that place. That response is depicted in a rush of concrete images that are not spatially ordered or tied to narrative. The effect of this kind of description is an impressionistic rendering of the saloon, where no clearly defined shapes come into focus. The blurry nature of the picture is illustrated in the first lines of the second stanza, when cummings writes “the slobbering walls filthily push witless creases of screaming warmth chuck pillows are noise funnily swallows.” Such an impressionistic representation of the physical world suggests that the role of language is not simply to name what is out there but also to question what is out there. By calling attention to language’s incapacity to provide an objective depiction of the world, cummings asks readers to think about their own relationship to words and the things they represent. Language is more a prism than a window, cummings’s poem suggests, and once readers acknowledge their part within that prism, they can participate in the poet’s vision of the world as he sees it.

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Humanity and Human Nature
Cummings has long been known as a poet who loathed the masses but loved the individual. This view of people is strikingly evident throughout the poem, as he describes McSorley’s as a kind of hell and its customers as demonic and disfigured creatures. He emphasizes the “evil” nature of the saloon in his descriptions of its “slobbering walls” and its “witless creases.” The people in the saloon are described in similarly unattractive terms. He writes that one of them has “a bald greenish foetal head”, and he describes someone else as “a vast wordless nondescript genie of trunk.” The world outside the saloon, he describes as “New York and beautifully snowing,” highlighting the contrast between the world of human beings and the world of nature. The speaker confirms his own self-loathing when he describes his vision of humanity inside the bar as “this instant of semiluminous nausea.” The final image readers are left with is that of a bar full of emotionally and spiritually disfigured people who choose to be inside “snugandevil” and drinking, giving vent to their baser human emotions and qualities. The innocence and purity of nature, represented by falling snow, is an ironic reminder that goodness exists but that humanity doesn’t necessarily have access to it.

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