E. E. CUUAINGS: THE MlEANING OF THE SONNETS
DAVID G. MEAD
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
For Ay wife Joan
I would like to thank Dr. Gordon Bigelow, the Chairman of my
dissertation committee, for his kindness and patience, and Dr. John
Nims and Dr. Ashby Hammond, the other members of the committee, for
their generous efforts on my behalf.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Abstract ..................................... ........... .....v
Chapter One The Formal Dimension ...........................6
Chapter Two The Early Sonnets .............................30
Chapter Three The Middle Sonnets .........................67
Chapter Four The Later Sonnets...........................122
Bibliography of Works Consulted............................182
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate Council
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
E. E. CUMMINGS: THE MEANING OF THE SONNETS
David G. Mead
Chairman: Gordon E. Bigelow
Major Department: English
E. E. Cummings' sonnets are studied as a representative sample of
the poet's work which provides a significant insight into the develop-
ment of his mature lebensphilosophie, defines an aesthetic stance a-
gainst which his whole achievement can be measured, and reflects his
innovative poetic technique.
Cummings defined the sonnet minimally as "a poem of fourteen iam-
bic pentameters, none of them unrhymed." Aware of the sonnet tradition
but unwilling to be restrained by it, he uses the form eclectically and
experimentally, and his sonnets reflect his innovative handling of syn-
tax, diction, punctuation, and typographical arrangement. His sonnet
technique indicates his basic belief that the artist must be true to his
own creative impulse without regard to the aesthetic dictates of tradi-
tion or form.
Beginning as a Platonic idealist, Cummings, in his early sonnets,
conceives of existence as divided into two dichotomous yet related
realms; a temporal world bounded by birth and death, and an infinitely
superior, timeless realm of the spirit. The phenomenal world is a cor-
rupt, fallen version of the "actual" world of transcendence. "Most-
people" live unhappily in the derived world, while the pure, perfect
transcendental realm is felt to be remote, unattainable, and infinitely
desirable. Cummings' early impulse is to satirize the corruption of
the phenomenal and to seek escape into the noumenon. As he matures, he
explores the problem of conducting his mortal life properly in order to
attain transcendental life, and he discovers that moments of transcend-
ental being may be gained through love, through the surrender of ego-
istic demands on others, and through the selfless acceptance of the re-
ality of the phenomenal world. Such moments convince him that the phe-
nomenal and noumenal are copresent, and that transcendence may be at-
tained only through life in the phenomenal. He accepts death, once
feared as the cessation of all being, as a necessity for transcendental
birth, and he discovers that love, once a private spiritual and emotion-
al state, is the binding force which unites all creation. The final
phase of Cummings' philosophical growth is marked by his absolute ac-
ceptance of life in the temporal world. He accepts wholeheartedly the
unity of temporal and timeless which he has felt from the beginning,
and he learns that transcendence and living transcendentally in the phe-
nomenal are the same. He now submits himself entirely to the necessity
of embracing all aspects of life, including failure and death, in or-
der to achieve transcendence.
His final surrender to the reality of life in time and his
abandonment of the will to power over things place Cummings in the
mainstream of modern literary thought and affirm his significance in
modern American poetry.
It is my intention in this study to make a critique of the sonnets
of E. E. Cummings, and it is my thesis that these poems reflect, as a
kind of microcosm of his whole work, his major themes as well as the
growth of his vision of the way a man ought to conduct his life in the
world. I believe that Cummings' sonnets provide a significant insight
into the development of his mature lebensphilosophie and define an aes-
thetic stance against which his whole achievement can be measured.
In his second "non-lecture" at Harvard University in 1952, entitled
"i and their son," Edward Estlin Cummings told his audience how he had
been introduced to the sonnets of Dante Gabriel Rossetti: his Cambridge
neighbor, the renowned Josiah Royce, having learned that the youth Cum-
mings liked and wrote poetry, had invited him into his study, where he
intoned "lovingly and beautifully, his favorite poems." Cummings ad-
mitted to the suspicion, although not to the certainty, that this ex-
perience was the reason he had written sonnets throughout his career.
He had, in fact, known about sonnets for some time before Royce's
invitation. Not only had his mother kept and read aloud from a common-
place book containing her favorite verse, but his Uncle George had given
1E. E. Cummings, i: six non-lectures (New York: Atheneum, 1965),
him a copy of Tom Hood's The Rhymester, a handbook which discusses the
sonnet in some detail. Cummings told his Harvard listeners that it had
been the experience of reading this book, subtitled "The Rules of Rhyme,"
that first introduced to him the concept of poetic form.
That Cummings found the sonnet a congenial medium is attested to by
the frequency with which he wrote and published poems in this mode.
Every volume of his poetry, from Tulips and Chimneys (1923) to the post-
humously-published 73 Poems (1962), and including his contribution to
Eight Harvard Poets (1918), contains sonnets. Roughly a quarter of Cum-
mings' published verse consists of sonnets (208 of 770 in Complete Poems
1913 1962) a surprising number if one recalls that Cummings is known
primarily for his antitraditional innovations of form, and especially
for his experiments in typographical arrangement, rather than for his
thought or traditionalism.
That is not to say, of course, that Cummings has been dismissed as
simply a clever technical innovator, nor that his sonneteering has gone
unnoticed. By and large, Cummings has been blessed with sympathetic and
perceptive critics who have done justice to his art. But most of the
analytical criticism of Cummings' poetry has been devoted either to gen-
eral studies, such as Norman Friedman's E. E. Cummings: The Art of his
Poetry or Robert Wegner's The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings, or to
1All quotations from Cummings' poetry are taken from E. E. Cum-
mings, Complete Poems 1913 1962 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1972) hereafter cited as CP.
limited studies of individual poems, such as Barry Marks' E. E. Cum-
mings. The general studies are necessarily broad; the specific analyses
tend to focus either on typographically interesting poems or on partic-
ularly challenging instances of Cummings' radical diction and syntax.
The sonnets in themselves have attracted very little attention, al-
though many of Cummings' best-known and critically appreciated poems
The criticism directed to the sonnets has been superficial or sum-
mary a paragraph here and there. For example, Norman Friedman, per-
haps Cummings' most comprehensive critic, discusses the poet's use of
the sonnet in three paragraphs in The Art of his Poetry. And even here
the comments are based on only two examples. Haskell Springer, in his
article "The Poetics of E. E. Cummings," notes that the sonnets show Cum-
mings' "desire to make the formal appear deceptively free and irregular,"
that although his sonnets differ "in various degrees from the sonnet of
tradition, they can be recognized as containing the essence of sonnet,"
and that Cummings' sonnets reflect his "practice of poetry" so much for
a quarter of the poet's published verse. Other critics are equally
Yet a curious phenomenon exists in the criticism which is devoted
1Norman Friedman, E. E. Cummings: The Art of his Poetry (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins Press, 1960), pp. 100-103 hereafter cited as The Art.
2Haskell S. Springer, "The Poetics of E. E. Cummings," South Atlan-
tic Bulletin, xxxii (November, 1967), p. 8.
to Cummings' poetry, a kind of statistical imbalance in the selection
by the critic of sample passages to illustrate his points about Cum-
mings' stance as a writer. What has happened, almost universally, has
been that Cummings' sonnets have been used, far beyond their numerical
importance, to illustrate and define Cummings' rhetorical technique,
diction, themes, and philosophy. It is only in discussing typographical
innovation and visual form that the critics customarily have turned to
poems other than the sonnets for illustration. For instance, Friedman's
sympathetic "E. E. Cummings and the Modernist Tradition" cites eight
poems by Cummings; of the eight, five are sonnets, and of the ten cita-
tions from Cummings' verse and prose, fifty percent are from sonnets.
One finds this tendency, if not the percentage, throughout the serious
criticism. Since a writer's reputation depends on his best work, since
he lives or dies as an artist by those creations which are singled out
for intense and continuing critical scrutiny or which supply the critic
repeatedly with significant insights into the artist's achievement, it
is clear that Cummings' sonnets are a far more meaningful element of his
work than has been recognized.
Chapter One of this study will treat the formal aspects of Cum-
mings' sonnets, examining the sonnet form as he used it and relating his
work to the sonnet tradition. The remaining chapters will examine the
sonnets as expressions of Cummings' lebensphilosophie, his conception
1Norman Friedman, "E. E. Cummings and the Modernist Tradition,"
Forum, III (1961), pp. 40-46.
of the relation of man to external nature and to the realm of tran-
scendental reality. Chapter Two will treat the early sonnets those
found in Tulips and Chimneys, And, XLI Poems, Is 5, and Viva. Chapter
Three will examine the sonnets of the middle years No Thanks, "New
Poems" of Collected Poems (1938), 50 Poems, and 1xl. Chapter Four will
examine the sonnets of the final phase of Cummings' career Xaipe, 95
Poems, and 73 Poems.
In exploring the philosophical implications of the sonnets, I have
tried to let the poems speak for themselves whenever possible. I have
not attempted to impose upon them a pattern of philosophical growth, nor
have I tried to use them to make a point to which they do not immedi-
ately address themselves.
Like all recent readers of Cummings' work, I am profoundly indebted
to the formative and informative criticism of Norman Friedman, whose
studies of Cummings' art and thought have become the starting point for
all serious investigations of the poetry. I am also in debt to the work
of J. Hillis Miller and L. S. Dembo, whose studies of the "poetry of
reality" (Poets of Reality and Conceptions of Reality in Modern American
Poetry respectively) have both inspired and guided my work here.
THE FORMAL DIMENSION
In March 1957, Cummings responded to a letter from the photographer
Douglas Faulkner, thanking him for some kind praise and for a poem
Faulkner had included. Cummings said that he would not call Faulkner's
poem a sonnet "because for me 'sonnet' implies a poem of fourteen iambic
pentameters, none of them unrhymed."
For Cummings, the sonnet is defined by its rhyme scheme and meter,
but his requirements are loose indeed. A sonnet's lines should rhyme -
but in no set pattern; its lines should be iambic pentameters but these
could be subject to myriad variations. Cummings established no criteria
for stanzaic subdivision, although he tends in practice to favor an Ital-
ianate organization; he requires neither the three quatrains couplet
scheme of the Shakespearean mode nor the octave sestet scheme of the
Petrarchan mode. He requires no particular "logic" or progression of
1E. E. Cummings, Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings, ed. F. W. Du-
pee and George Stade (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969), p. 261.
In a letter to Carol Poulin, Cummings says "a sonnet has 2 parts,
the octave (lines 1-8) & the sestet (lines 9-14)" (Selected Letters, pp.
270-271). Since he is explaining the meaning of No Thanks #7 (CP 390),
a sonnet clearly divided according to the Italian scheme, it is hard to
tell if he is defining a characteristic of his form or speaking only of
this sonnet. He implies a predilection for a two-part structure.
thought, nor does he limit his subject matter. As a consequence of
this lack of strict definition, anything may be expected of a Cummings
sonnet as long as it rhymes and has fourteen, primarily iambic penta-
Cummings' definition of the sonnet is radical. Even the most lib-
eral sonneteers and critics of sonnets before him would have hesitated
to endorse it. Charles Lamb, conservative in matters of poetic form,
would have called Cummings' sonnets "quatorzains" fourteen-line poems
which approximate the sonnet but do not meet the more exacting tradi-
tional requirements of rhyme pattern, logic, and subdivision. A more
demanding critic, such as T. W. H. Crosland, would require absolute con-
formity to the Petrarchan model, and would refuse the name sonnet to any
poem, including Shakespeare's sonnets, not so constructed. More liber-
al writers, Leigh Hunt for instance, would accept variations of form if
a genius were making them and if the variations were felicitous. Yet
Hunt would bar Cummings' definition for a number of reasons, not the
least being his rule that a sonnet, to be "legitimate," must follow "pro-
per Italian fashion; that is to say, with but two rhymes in the octave,
and not more than three in the sestette." In contrast, Sidney Lanier
See Tom Hood, The Rhymester: or, The Rules of Rhyme, edited, with
additions, by Arthur Penn (New York: D. Appleton, 1886), p. 89.
2T. W. H. Crosland, The English Sonnet (London: Martin Seeker, 1917).
3Leigh Hunt, "An Essay on the Cultivation, History, and Varieties
of the Species of Poem Called the Sonnet," in The Book of the Sonnet,
ed. Leigh Hunt and S. Adams Lee, Vol. I (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1867),
argued in his Peabody Lectures that "in the English or Illigitimate
sonnet there is no restriction as to the position of the rimes except
that the last two lines must rime together." Lanier goes so far as
to quote approvingly "A Proper Sonet," from The Gorgious Gallery of Gal-
lant Inventions, which contains but twelve lines.
If Cummings' definition of the sonnet form may be traced to any
single influence or justified by a critical authority, that source may
well be his first poetic handbook, Tom Hood's The Rhymester. Hood says:
"a sonnet is a poem containing one, and only one, idea, thought, or sen-
timent, and consisting of fourteen lines of equal length so much is
admitted by all. There are those who consider any poem of fourteen lines
a sonnet" (p. 86). Although he goes on to note that some critics re-
quire that a correct sonnet must conform to the Petrarchan model and to
imply that the "Guittonian arrangement" is the highest sonnet form, he
also defends the Shakespearean practice as "sanctified by genius" (p. 89).
A reader of Hunt's essay or of Crosland's book might imagine that
poets who write sonnets pattern their work not only after the practice
of their literary forebears but also after a scheme of abstract rules
which have been long established and universally acclaimed. In sonnet
criticism, the Ancients have dominated; a sonnet is what Dante or Pe-
trarch wrote do thou likewise or be branded "irregular," "incorrect,"
or "illegitimate." Historically, however, sonnets have been written in
ISidney Lanier, Shakespeare and his Forerunners, ed. Kemp Malone
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1945), p. 109.
various forms, and the critics have then deduced the "rules" govern-
ing their formation. There has never been an overpowering informing
convention at work regarding the formal elements of sonnets. Each
writer, be it Dante, Petrarch, Wyatt, Sidney, Shakespeare or Milton,
has made the sonnet his own, and the critics' rules are but descrip-
tions of the best practice, and often exercises in critical rigor or
If one grants that sonnets have been written in forms so various
as those by Shakespeare, Wordsworth et al., then one is more or less
bound to assent to the proposition that any fourteen-line, rhymed poem
which focuses on a single idea, thought, or feeling is a sonnet. And
that is precisely the substance of Cummings' definition and practice.
It is the "essence of sonnet" that counts: "economy, unity of effect,
concentration and precision."
In matters of form, Cummings' practice is essentially beyond sum-
mary. It is so varied each sonnet is so formally unique that one
can do little more than indicate the fact of variety. The two critics
who have dealt in any detail with Cummings' handling of the form have
recognized this, although both agree that a general tendency toward reg-
ularity developed as Cummings aged. Norman Friedman says: "in his ear-
lier sonnets, Cummings varied the standard rhyme schemes beyond recog-
nition, roughed up the meter, broke up the lines spatially, and ignored
the standard stanzaic divisions, all in an effort to make them look as
1Springer, p. 8.
unsonnet-like as possible. As a result, they were frequently mistaken
for irregular free verse poems, and he was fond of pointing out to peo-
ple who complained of his typographical 'eccentricities' that he often
wrote in the sonnet form..." (The Art, p. 100). Quoting Realities XX
of And (CP 149), Friedman notes that the meter is extremely irregular,
that the rhyme scheme is "distorted" (i.e. neither Petrarchan nor Shak-
spearean), and that the "syntactical or typographical breaks" fail to
match "the stanzaic divisions, such as they are..." (The Art, p. 101).
In contrast, "his more mature sonnets are more regular in spacing, meter,
rhyming, and dividing; but he has, by way of compensation, taken more
and more to coined words and half-rhymes..." (The Art, p. 102). Fried-
man surmises that Cummings' early experimentation with the form of his
sonnets reflects "the buoyancy of his youthful temperament as well as
the general suspicion of regularity among the poets of his day" (The Art,
p. 102). Cummings' later shift "reflects a changing interest in sub-
ject matter I.e. away from the demimonde toward love and transcendence
as well as a more maturely developed set of moral values" (The Art, p.
Robert L. Beloof is essentially in agreement; in his doctoral
study of Cummings' prosody, Beloof says that there is "a generally
applicable contrast between the early and the later sonnets, not only
in typography, but also in the handling of rhyme. Perhaps a greater
indirection in rhyme compensated (consciously or unconsciously) in Cum-
mings' mind for the greater degree of formal regularity in other pro-
sodic aspects. In any case, it is true that for the first three books
there is a negligible amount of slant rhyme, and it is in those first
books that the bulk of the sonnets with highly dramatic visual elements
are to be found." Beloof notes as well that the rhyme schemes of Cum-
mings' sonnets are not predictable; "few (and those in the later books)
are of the regular Shakespearean or Petrarchan mold, and there occasion-
ally occur sonnets with thorn lines in them" (p. 78).
While Beloof and Friedman are correct in saying that Cummings' ear-
ly sonnets do not always look like sonnets and that they feature innova-
tive typographical technique, their remarks are somewhat misleading be-
cause a substantial number of the sonnets in Tulips and Chimneys, And,
and XLI Poems are rhymed traditionally; that is, a significant percent-
age (9 of 17 in Tulips and Chimneys, 8 of 45 in And, 9 of 16 in XLI
Poems) follow Petrarchan, Shakespearean, or Wordsworthian octave rhyme
patterns, and still more are obvious variants of the Petrarchan or Shak-
spearean forms (for instance, Cummings sometimes uses two alternately-
rhymed quatrains with a sestet of the Italian sort. See note 2, page 6).
The thematic concerns of these traditionally-rhymed sonnets are
sometimes quite unexpected, since the form is so clearly associated with
the theme of ideal love. Cummings frequently plays off thematic content
against the romantic implications of the form. For example, in Realities
VII of And (CP 136) the romantic aura suggested by the Italian rhyme
scheme (with a Miltonic enjambment of the eighth and ninth lines) ironi-
Robert L. Beloof, "E. E. Cummings: The Prosodic Shape of his
Poems," doctoral dissertation (Northwestern University, 1954), p. 81.
While neither 95 Poems nor 73 Poems had been published at the time of
this study, Belbof's remarks hold true for the sonnets in these volumes.
cally counterpoints the theme of the spiritual despair generated by
The traditionally-rhymed sonnets of these early volumes tend to
treat "realistic" or sordid themes, while the innovatively-rhymed son-
nets usually praise the beauty and purity of nature or treat transcen-
dental themes. As Friedman says, there seems to be an element of de-
liberate iconoclasm in Cummings' handling of the form; he is tradition-
al in his handling of unconventional or unexpected material and innova-
tive in his treatment of more traditional ideas. This tendency dimin-
ished as Cummings abandoned the demimonde as a subject and as he con-
centrated on clarifying and defining his ideas of the way one lives
transcendentally in the world of time.
Both Friedman and Beloof note that the later sonnets tend to look
like sonnets; a substantial percentage of the middle and late sonnets
follow the Shakespearean rhyme scheme (although as Beloof points out
"not all are printed in the traditional manner"), and many of them,
regardless of rhyme pattern, are printed in what Beloof calls "visual
stanzaic patterns" (p. 82). That is, the lines of the sonnet are group-
ed stanzaically according the an abstract pattern; for example, the
lines of Cummings' last sonnet #73 of 73 Poems (CP 845) are arranged
all worlds have halfsight,seeing either with
life's eye(which is if things seem spirits)or
(if spirits in the guise of things appear)
death's:any world must always half perceive.
Only whose vision can create the whole
(being forever born a foolishwise
proudhumble citizen of ecstasies
more steep than climb can time with all his years)
he's free into the beauty of the truth;
and strolls the axis of the universe
love. Each believing world denies,whereas
your lover(looking through both life and death)
timelessly celebrates the merciful
wonder no world deny may or believe
In this poem, which has been frequently anthologized and cited as
an instance of Cummings' mature art, the visual stanzaic pattern sug-
gests by its orderliness an orderliness of thought. But there is no
internal evidence to suggest that the pattern is an organic product of
the thought or theme. The first line of the sonnet is set off from the
three which follow and which complete the initial sentence, but nothing
useful is gained by the separation. Line one ends with a preposition
which gains nothing from being visually isolated (and consequently
emphasized), and a profitless tension is generated by the typographical
separation; that is, the syntax of the sentence carries the eye past
the point of enjambment and creates a desire to discover the object of
the preposition, but the typography implies that the isolated first line
ought to be fully cherished before the reader continues.
The visual stanza is not often, or merely, an arbitrarily imposed
pattern. Frequently the stanza is functional and acts to intensify the
meaning of the isolated line or line group. The linear arrangement of
#71 of 73 Poems (CP 843) is a case in point.
how many moments must(amazing each
how many centuries)these more than eyes
restroll and stroll some never deepening beach
locked in foreverish time's tide at poise
love alone understands:only for whom
i'll keep my tryst until that tide shall turn;
and from all selfsubtracting hugely doom
treasures of reeking innocence are born.
Then,with not credible the anywhere
eclipsing of a spirit's ignorance
by every wisdom knowledge fears to dare,
how the(myself's own self who's)child will dance!
and when he's plucked such mysteries as men
do not conceive-let ocean grow again
Here the isolated lines are made more significant by their isolation;
in the fourth line, the sense of the speaker's spiritual paralysis is
drawn out, while the joy and ecstasy of his release is intensified by
the isolation of line twelve.
Cummings' visual stanza seems to be the mature version of his
youthful typographical experimentation. It is less obvious and less
startling, and perhaps as painterly, but it performs the same function:
to intensify meaning by forcing the reader to attend not only to the
sense of the whole but also to the meaningfulness of the parts as they
become the whole.
Related to the technique of the visual stanza is the technique of
line-breaking, of spacing the words and phrases of a single verse verti-
cally on the page. Cummings generally employs line-breaking to accen-
tuate the significance of the words or phrases which have been typo-
graphically isolated and to govern the pace of his expression. The
line-breaks are a form of silent punctuation and force the reader to
arrest his progress slightly; they act both as unobtrusive guides to
the proper speed of reading the poems and as devices to momentarily
focus the reader's attention on a particularly meaningful element. In
Actualities XII of And (CP 163), the ninth line "dribbles" down the
page, suggesting the visual appearance of the wind-blown blossoms as
they tumble to earth "in the woods
ever, do the sonnets contain this
not usually contain word-pictures
grammes or of Cummings' own poems
typographical arrangement is the
More often, the line-breaks work
sing." Seldom, how-
sort of mimetic typography; they do
on the order of Apollonaire's Calli-
such as #1 of 95 Poems, where the
primary poetic element (CP 673):
Like the one in line twelve of Reali-
ties VIII of And (CP 137):
the harsh erecting breasts and uttering tits
punish my hug
The poet's exclamation gains from its isolation.
Sometimes the line-breaking creates ambiguity. For instance, line
1For an analysis of ambiguity in Cummings' poetry, see Louis C. Rus,
"Structural Ambiguity in the Poetry of E. E. Cummings," doctoral disser-
tation (University of Michigan, 1955).
two of Realities II of And (CP 131) is broken to emphasize the compar-
ison of the girl to the leaf:
my strength becoming wistful in a glib
girl i consider her as a leaf
of the sky,my mind takes to nib
-bling,of her posture.
Were the line printed conventionally, the reader would not apprehend
the girl as a leaf, and the comparison of the speaker to the wistful-
ly dreaming leaf would be emphasized. By breaking the line, Cummings
manages to retain and accentuate the leaf-like quality of both the
speaker and the girl.
Cummings' sonnets are of a piece with the rest of his work in
matters of technique. While they do not spectacularly illustrate the
entire range of his typographical effects, they do embody most of them.
Rudolf Von Abele lists eleven specific techniques of typographical
rhetoric employed by Cummings to demand the reader's ocular participa-
tion or to control the "attitudes" the reading voice must take. In
addition to line-breaking and the visual stanza, and except for the use
of extremely short lines, which the formal structure of the sonnet pre-
cludes, the sonnets employ "rhetorical punctuation" (CP 166), "mimetic
typography" (CP 163), "irregularities of line arrangement" (CP 843),
"word-dismemberment" (CP 330), "word-mixing" (CP 442), the regular use
of the lower-case "i" for the personal pronoun, the elimination of
-- Rudolf Von Abele, "'Only to Grow': Change in the Poetry of E. E.
Cummings," Sewanee Review, LIX (1951), pp. 914-918.
capital letters except for rhetorical emphasis (CP 206), "typographical
irony" or the use of "numerals, ampersands, equalization signs and the
like where one would ordinarily expect the dignity of words" (CP 74),
and "syntactic dislocation" or the "distortion of 'normal' English
word-order even beyond the distortions usually acceptable in verse..."
Rhetorical punctuation is used in Actualities XV of And (CP 166)
to suggest the rhythmic motion of "the, negress, in the, rocker by the
curb, tipping / and tipping." And in Realities I of the same volume
(CP 130), the punctuation of the eleventh line, which describes the act
of sexual congress, clearly indicates the spasmodic process:
my gorgeous bullet in tickling intuitive flight
The techniques of word-mixing, word-dismemberment, and syntactic
dislocation play a vital role in the success of Viva XXI (CP 330).
The sonnet describes a group of drunken revelers staggering from a
speakeasy at dawn. Their alcoholic confusion and spiritual illness
are made vivid by the carefully disordered spelling, punctuation, and
helves surling out of eakspeasies per(reel)hapsingly
proregress heandshe-ingly people
trickle curselaughgroping shrieks bubble
squirmwrithed staggerful unstrolls collapse ingly
flash a of-faceness stuck thumblike into pie
is traffic this recalls hat gestures bud
plumptumbling hand voices Eye Doangivuh sud-
denly immense impotently Eye Doancare Eye
And How replies the upsquirtingly careens
the to collide flatfooting with Wushyuhname
a girl-flops to the Geddup curb leans
carefully spewing into her own Shush Shame
as(out from behind Nowhere)creeps the deep thing
everybody sometimes calls morning
The use of capitalization here emphasizes the trivially obscene lives
of these persons and suggests as well their eye-rolling, clumsy stum-
bling. The clarity of the last two lines is in clear contrast to the
fetid confusion of the first twelve, and as a result the purity and
cleanliness of nature is implicitly contrasted with the dirty and pro-
fane world of man.
No Thanks 57 (CP 442) also successfully employs a number of tech-
niques of typographical rhetoric, including line-breaking, word-dis-
memberment, word-mixing, rhetorical punctuation, and the rhetorical use
from a sidewalk
out of(blown never quite to
-gether by large sorry)creatures out
of(clumsily shining out of)instru-
ments ,waltzing;undigestibly :groans .bounce
lo-ras-ourh an-dorg-an ble-at-ssw-ee-t-noth ings orarancidhurd
ygurdygur glingth umpssomet hings(whi,le sp,arrow,s wince
among those skeletons of these trees)
furnished rooms through whose foul windows absurd
clouds cruise nobly ridiculous skies
(the;mselve;s a;nd scr;a;tch-ing lousy full.of.rain
o my love
immortal Always & lewd shy New
and upon the beyond imagining spasm rise
The typographical arrangement of lines four through six suggests the
cacophonous squealing of the handorgan, while the punctuation of lines
ten and eleven exactly captures the movements of the lice-ridden beg-
gars as they awaken to Spring. The word-mixing of "yaw:nstretchy:awn"
intensifies the action described; the "yaw...awn" is stretched or ex-
tended just as the beggars' yawns are extended as they stretch and gape.
By combining these three words, Cummings precisely and vividly captures
the essence of this commonplace action. Furthermore, by writing
"around(me)you", he creates a complex typographical irony. That is,
the lady is, according to the sense of the words, surrounded by the
speaker, but the typography reverses the topology of the relation by
placing the "me" in the midst of the phrase "around...you." This ar-
rangement suggests the sexual and spiritual coalescence of the lovers,
but keeps them typographically and realistically discrete. This
coalescence is restated by the typographical fusion of "I" and "You"
into "IYou." And the capitalization emphasizes the importance of this
union as well as its enlarging effect on both individuals. The line-
break in the last line enhances the sense of the process by which the
poet and his lady grow into "IYou."
Realities III of And (CP 132) provides an excellent instance of
Cummings' clever use of typographical irony to achieve a meaningful
ambiguity. Describing the act of coition, he says he feels the woman's
belly's merry thrust
Boost my huge passion like a business
and the Y her legs panting as they press
proffers its omelet of fluffy lust)
The use of the capital "Y" has two effects. It is an abbreviation for
"YMCA," an organization noted for its "boosting" of traditional social
and economic customs, and it is also an apt typographical representa-
tion of the woman's groin.
Both Friedman and Beloof note that Cummings' lines, particularly
in the early sonnets, are frequently only loosely iambic, that his line
is subject to wide variation in stress. Beloof goes so far as to assign
a number of the sonnets poems labeled sonnets by Cummings to the
category of prosodically "anomalous poems" because of their excessive
irregularity (usually shortness) of line length. Cummings admitted
such "variations of the typical iambic pentameter" in a letter to
Beloof, but continued to consider his poems sonnets, apparently on the
basis of their general iambic tendency. Actualities I of Tulips and
Chimneys (CP 82) is a case in point. I have regularized the spacing
of the lines to facilitate the scansion.
/ / / / /
a thing most new complete fragile intense,
/ / / / /
which wholly trembling memory undertakes
1 / / / 1
your kiss, the little pushing of flesh, makes
/ f / I /
my body sorry when the minute moon
is a remarkable splinter in the quick
/ / / / I
of twilight....or if sunset utters one
unhurried muscled huge chromatic
I / s / I
fist skilfully modeling silence
/ / / I /
to feel how through the stopped entire day
J / J /
horribly and seriously thrills
/ o ss s
the moment of enthusiastic space
is a little wonderful, and say
/ / / j '
Perhaps her body touched me; and to face
/ 4 / / t
suddenly the lighted living hills
Seven of the lines of this sonnet are not clearly pentameter, although
they read as pentameters if a medial stress is given full stress value.
The real peculiarity is the presence of seven lines with eight, nine,
or eleven syllables, since sonnets are usually syllabically strict. In
general, the poem's meter is iambic, and the variations of meter and
syllabification are not extreme; such variations of form are found, as
Joseph Vogel points out in his study of Rossetti's prosody, in the work
of every sonnet writer. What matters is that from the first Cummings
accepted such variations as compatible with the sonnet form, that he
allowed for flexibility of stress and syllabification as well as for
innovation in typography and syntax.
While the critics are unanimous in agreeing that there are no
thematic limitations on a sonnet, that these little rooms of rhyme may
be furnished however the poet chooses, the sonnet has achieved fame
mainly as a love poem. Indeed, to many readers "sonnet" is synonymous
with "love sonnet." The first great sonneteers Dante and Petrarch -
wrote love sonnets in praise of their ladies, immortalizing their own
devotion and praising the glories of Beatrice and Laura. They also
shaped, by virtue of their success, the subsequent history of the son-
net; it became the primary medium in Renaissance Europe and Elizabethan
1Joseph F. Vogel, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Versecraft (Gainesville:
University of Florida Press, 1971), p. 49.
England for the expression of personal, although frequently conven-
tionalized, love, and it has remained an appropriate vehicle for that
emotion to the present day. It is to this sonnet tradition that Cum-
mings most belongs, and his love sonnets have been responsible for his
reputation as the foremost lyric love poet of our century.
That is not to say that Cummings wrote in imitation of Petrarch,
Sidney, or the other great love sonneteers. Indeed, Cummings wrote
three distinct kinds of love sonnets, none of them fully traditional.
Most of the great love sonneteers addressed their poems to a Lady
to whom they had committed their love. Dante sang of Beatrice, whom
he loved from the instant he set eyes upon her. Petrarch sang of Laura
in life and in death. And Sidney wooed "Stella" with his poems. Cum-
mings too has a lady whose beauty and spiritual glory inspire him to
song but Cummings' lady has no name. And with the exception of cer-
tain spiritual characteristics, she is virtually unknown to the reader.
We do not know if her breast is fair or dun, if her breath gently per-
fumes the air or reeks, whether golden or copper or black wires crown
her head. Cummings' lady has no sidereal age, although she is always
"young" in the sense of responding to life with the spontaneous open-
ness of childhood.
Lu Emily Pearson notes that many critics believe that both Love
and Beatrice are often highly allegorical in Dante's love sonnets.1
1Lu Emily Pearson, Elizabethan Love Conventions (Berkeley: Univer-
sity of California Press, 1933), p. 12.
Cummings' lady frequently seems so. A good example of Cummings'
allegorizing treatment is found in 1xl #19 (CP 559):
when you are silent,shining host by guest
a snowingly enfolding glory is
all angry common things to disappear
causing through mystery miracle peace:
or(if begin the colours of your voice)
from some complete existence of to dream
into complete some dream of to exist
a stranger who is i awakening am.
Living no single thing dares partly seem
one atomy once,and every cannot stir
imagining;while you are motionless -
whose moving is more april than the year
(if all her most first little flowers rise
out of tremendous darkness into air)
Here the lady is not the epitome of but is epitomized by Nature. The
speaker goes beyond praising her transcendental effect on him; the lady
takes dominion everywhere. Her silence makes common things disappear;
her voice wakes the poet from a dream-life into transcendental wakeful-
ness; her motionlessness renders all things still.
Cummings' lady is not always so formidable; frequently she is far
more human, fearing death, needing reassurance and instruction, pro-
viding companionable friendship and sexual pleasure to the poet. In
95 Poems #71 (CP 743), for example, the speaker comforts her implied
1See Norman Friedman, e. e. cummings: The Growth of a Writer (Car-
bondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964), p. 136 hereafter
cited as The Growth.
fears of mortality:
how fortunate are you and i,whose home
is timelessness:we who have wandered down
from fragrant mountains of eternal now
to frolic in such mysteries as birth
and death a day(or maybe even less)
And in No Thanks #3 (CP 386), he puns on the slang phrase "die for" to
imply not only that he and the lady will find timeless union with tran-
scendence through death, but also, at least momentarily in life, through
their sexual joy. Often Cummings will instruct his lady in the nature
of Nature and in how to live transcendentally in time. Such sonnets are
a reflection of his maturing understanding of life and occur in the
middle and late periods of his career. 95 Poems #78 (CP 750) is a good
example of Cummings' interpreting life for his beloved.
all nearness pauses,while a star can grow
all distance breathes a final dream of bells;
perfectly outlined against afterglow
are all amazing the and peaceful hills
(not where not here but neither's blue most both)
and history immeasurably is
wealthier by a single sweet day's death:
as not imagined secrecies comprise
goldenly huge whole the upfloating moon.
Time's a strange fellow;
more he gives than takes
(and he takes all)nor any marvel finds
quite disappearance but some keener makes
-lovelif a world ends
more than all worlds begin to(see?)begin
Early in his career, Cummings wrote a second kind of love sonnet.
This sort, frequently found under the heading "Realities" in Tulips and
Chimneys and And, celebrates the physical joys and spiritual despairs
of loveless sexual encounter. These sonnets are often records of the
spiritual inanition or despair generated by therold lust, although some-
times the subject is treated with ironic levity, as in Realities I of
And (CP 130). More typical is Realities VII of the same volume (CP 136):
an amiable putrescence carpenters
the village of her mind bodily which
ravelling,to a proud continual stitch
of the unmitigated systole
against my mind,the eyes' shuddering burrs
of light stick on my brain harder than can twitch
of groping mucous)in my mouth occurs
hopelessly. While grip Hips simply. well
fused flesh does surely to mesh. New
and eager. wittily peels the. ploop. -OOc h get:breath
once,all over,kid how,funny Do tell
. . sweat,succeeds breathing stopped
hear,in darkness,water the lips of death
Cummings distinguished between the first two kinds of sonnets in
Tulips and Chimneys and And. In these volumes the sonnets in praise of
the poet's lady are found under the headings "Unrealities" and/or
"Actualities" (the sonnets praising the lady as a transcendental muse
are always "Actualities"). The sonnets treating loveless fornication
are always "Realities." The distinction implies that Cummings, at least
in his youth, felt the need for a mediating spiritual being a Beatrice,
as it were who would inspire him and lead him in the paths of tran-
scendental "actuality," but encountered only spiritual enervation in
his day-to-day "real" existence. In his later sonnets, the lady remains
the poet's muse, but she also becomes increasingly human; Cummings
ceases writing about loveless fornication but does invest his true lady
with fear and desire, and so combines the two early views of woman into
a more mature, less unrealistic synthesis. 73 Poems #37 (CP 809) re-
flects this fusion; here the speaker tutors his lady in the nature of
Nature, but still finds through her kiss the transcendental life which
subsumes hugestt whole creation":
now that,more nearest even than your fate
and mine(or any truth beyond perceive)
quivers this miracle of summer night
her trillion secrets touchably alive
-while and all mysteries which i or you
(blinded by merely things believable)
could only fancy we should never know
are unimaginably ours to feel -
how should some world(we marvel)doubt,for just
sweet terrifying the particular
moment it takes one very falling most
(there:did you see it? )star to disappear,
that hugest whole creation may be less
incalculable than a single kiss
The third kind of love sonnet that Cummings wrote praises Love as
the "axis of the universe" (73 Poems #73, CP 845). Although they are
sometimes intended to instruct his lady, such sonnets are usually de-
tached from a particular event or moment. Perhaps the best-known of
these sonnets is 95 Poems #94 (CP 768):
being to timelessness as it's to time,
love did no more begin than love will end;
where nothing is to breathe to stroll to swim
love is the air the ocean and the land
(do lovers sufferall divinities
proudly descending put on deathful flesh:
are lovers glad?only their smallest joy's
a universe emerging from a wish)
love is the voice under all silences,
the hope which has no opposite in fear;
the strength so strong mere force is feebleness:
the truth more first than sun more last than star
-do lovers love?why then to heaven with hell.
Whatever sages say and fools,all's well
Sentiments such as these clearly link Cummings to Rossetti and Dante;
his treatment of love in what amounts to Platonic terms is particularly
reminiscent of Rossetti's sonnet "Through Death to Love" and of Dante's
general conception of love in La Vita Nuova (Realities VI of Tulips and
Chimneys, CP 75, seems a clear parody of Dante's apostrophes to Love).
Cummings does not write "conceited" or conventionally metaphorized
sonnets. A few of his poems apologize to his lady for his inevitable
failure to capture her beauty in his verse (Is 5, Five V, CP 306) or
promise her literary immortality (Tulips and Chimneys, Actualities II,
CP 83), but he does not employ received conventions of diction or im-
agery. He rarely addresses his lady as anything but a lady, and his
favorite metaphors for her power over him are drawn, quite without
"wit," from the natural world: she is rain to his parched earth, snow
bringing peaceful oblivion to his troubled world, spring bringing him
to life after dormancy. The only traditional conceit I have found in
the sonnets is in Actualities V of And (CP 156), where Cummings de-
scribes Spring, not his lady, as a "galleon" which brings spiritual
rebirth to him as well as vegetative rebirth to Nature. Cummings'
avoidance of conceits reflects his general attitude toward life;
that is, he stresses throughout his writings the moral obligation of
every individual to test the truth and usefulness of all received
ideologies, concepts, or systems, and he refuses to be enslaved by
Cummings wrote only one sonnet sequence, and that entitled "Five
Americans" in Is 5 is a portrait gallery of five prostitutes. The
love sonnets do not comprise a sequence. The poet's lady is unnamed,
and for the large part his conception of her is only selectively,
perhaps vaguely, developed. One cannot even be sure that Cummings has
a lady, that his lady is always the same; his biography reveals no
Beatrice (he had three wives, and his sonnets imply a number of youth-
ful affairs), and one can even argue that the lady-as transcendental-
power differs from the lady-as-mistress. Cummings' sonnets may suggest
the unity of a madrigal, but they are truly monuments to moments of
In the final analysis, Cummings' use of the sonnet form is eclec-
tic. Without being slavishly imitative, he drew upon the sonnet lit-
erature of the past, employing those elements which furthered his im-
mediate creative aims and ignoring those which restricted them. One
characteristic is obvious: Cummings refused to be bound by conventions
created by preceding sonneteers. Just as he refused to submit to
I am indebted to Professor Michael O'Neill for this suggestion.
established conventions of typographical arrangement, syntax, and
punctuation, so he refused to accept the necessity of writing after
the manner of Petrarch, or Shakespeare, or Rossetti. Cummings' hand-
ling of the form indicates not only his awareness of his participation
in a tradition but also reflects his basic artistic stance, his belief
that the artist must be true to his own creative impulse and must re-
fuse to submit mindlessly to the aesthetic dictates of others.
THE EARLY SONNETS
Cummings' early sonnets are found in five volumes: Tulips and Chim-
neys (1923), And (1925), XLI Poems (1925), Is 5 (1926), and Viva (1931).
Nearly all of the sonnets in the first four volumes were written before
1923 and were originally contained in the manuscript version of Tulips
and Chimneys which Cummings' friend Stewart Mitchell submitted to the
publisher Thomas Selzer in 1922 while the poet was abroad. Selzer re-
duced substantially the number of poems in his printed edition of Tulips
and Chimneys, but the omitted poems were later included in And, XLI
Poems, and Is 5. The sonnets in these four volumes include some that
were originally published separately (in such places as The Dial) as
well as those appearing in Cummings' part of Eight Harvard Poets. Since
most are undatable, I have treated this group of sonnets as contempo-
raneous. And while the sonnets of Viva may be considered transitional
poems, I treat them in this chapter because they mark the close of rough-
ly the first third of Cummings' life as a professional writer, because
they reflect the general attitude toward life that is found in the ear-
lier volumes yet imply that his thought is evolving, and because the
See Charles Norman, The Magic Maker: E. E. Cummings (New York:
Macmillan, 1958), p. 173. The standard bibliography of Cummings' work
is George J. Firmage, E. E. Cummings: A Bibliography (Middletown, Conn.:
Wesleyan University Press, 19bU).
sonnets of Cummings' sixth volume No Thanks (1935) reflect a sig-
nificant advance in his lebensphilosophie. In Cummings' first three
volumes, the sonnets are explicitly set off from his other poems and
labelled sonnets. In Tulips and Chimneys, the poems are divided into
two groups, "Tulips" and "Chimneys"; the sonnets comprise the "Chimneys."
Friedman suggests that the sonnets are called Chimneys because they are
"fixed" or "artificial structures," while most of the "Tulips" are free
verse poems (The Growth, p. 38). Following the pattern established in
the first volume, the sonnets of both And and XLI Poems are the final
poems in the volume, and they too are clearly labelled sonnets, while
the other poems are grouped as "post impressions," "portraits," "songs,"
or are merely collected in numbered groups.
The sonnet-groups of the two earliest volumes are further subdi-
vided according to theme. In Tulips and Chimneys, the sonnets are clas-
sified as "Realities," "Unrealities," or "Actualities." Friedman notes
that the "Realities" sonnets "deal primarily with sexual love and the
demimonde" in a "mixed and violent" style, while the "Unrealities" treat
"romantic love...and the world of nature's seasons, the night, the sea,
death, and time" in a less experimental style (The Growth, pp. 41-42).
He also says that the "Actualities" sonnets "combine a treatment of
ideal and sexual love, the seasons, places, time of day, dream, and death.
Their style is tender, paradoxical, whimsical, and more experimental than
Although I classify the sonnets of Viva as "early," I do not mean
to imply a radical break in the fabric of Cummings' thought; a good argu-
ment can be made that Viva belongs to the middle period on the basis of
its structure and the distribution of the sonnets in the volume.
in the other two groups" (p. 42). The distinction between the "Un-
realities" and "Actualities" is not exact; the sonnets of "Unrealities"
blend the sexual interest of the "Realities" poems with the transcen-
dental concerns of the "Actualities," but they are far more like the
latter than the former.
Cummings eliminates the category of "Unrealities" in And, classi-
fying the sonnets as "Realities" and "Actualities" only. The "Realities"
sonnets here, without exception, treat the demimonde of thugs and prosti-
tutes, and the spiritual effects of theroid sexuality. The "Actualities"
sonnets are devoted to praise of the poet's lady, to celebrations of
scenes of nature, to the treatment of love, death's meaning, and the way
to conduct one's life to gain transcendence.
The subdivision of the sonnets is dropped altogether in XLI Poems,
although the sonnets are still set off from the other poems, perhaps
because they do not naturally divide into two thematic groups. The demi-
monde ceases to be a topic; in fact, one senses that the sonnets here,
with the exception of the last, are leftovers which were somehow unsuit-
able for inclusion in And. That is, several of the sonnets were very
early productions originally printed in Eight Harvard Poets, and many of
the sonnets seem to reflect the dreamy romanticism that characterizes
the poet's earliest work.
Cummings uses his sonnets to "frame" the contents of Is 5. This
collection begins and ends with groups of five sonnets. The initial
group satirically describes "Five Americans," all prostitutes in a broth-
el, while the last five treat transcendence and love. The pattern of
beginning with sonnets treating sordid "reality" and closing with hymns
to transcendental "actuality" which was begun in Tulips and Chimneys is
continued in this volume although the sonnets are not all together or
even labelled sonnets.
Unlike those of earlier volumes, the sonnets of Viva are not sepa-
rated from the other poems; instead, Cummings finds a new way of using
them to organize the volume. In Viva, every seventh poem is a sonnet,
and the volume concludes with a group of seven sonnets. The general
pattern of movement from mundane to transcendental themes is maintained,
however, as it will be in later volumes until Cummings loses interest in
the demimonde, and the general moral condition of mostpeople, to concen-
trate on his own spiritual condition.
The classification of the early sonnets into two general categories,
and the pattern of thematic movement in the sonnets, reflects a profound
dichotomy in Cummings' early conception of existence; being is divided
into two general realms: a "fallen" phenomenal state or "unworld" and a
transcendental noumenon or world of "dream." Mostpeople or the mass of
mankind live in a "world of made" a world of created objects and ab-
stract systems of thought and perception; modern man is alienated from
both Nature (the world is too much with mostpeople) and the noumenal
world because of his corrupt conceptions and treatment of life and him-
self. Man fears death, repudiates "mystery," distrusts emotion while
exalting reason, and thinks himself "lord of creation." But as a self-
proclaimed Platonist, Cummings also posits a higher spiritual realm of
timeless perfection, a world of dream, mystery, and imagination in which
all things are perfectly unified and harmonious yet ever-growing. This
realm of original, indescribable wholeness subsumes the phenomenal yet
is felt to be ineffably beyond it. Only through love and through un-
corrupted Nature can one apprehend the essential qualities of the tran-
scendental condition; love between man and woman is seen as an earthly
analogue to the spiritual unity of transcendence, while Nature's proc-
esses mirror the harmonious operations of the transcendental realm.
Cummings' attitude toward the nature of death is ambiguous in the early
sonnets; death is seen and feared as the cessation of being in the sonnets
which deal with brute sexuality, but it is also apprehended as a gateway
to transcendental life in many of the "Actualities." Sexual activity is
both dispiriting (when it is loveless and egotistical) and an earthly
counterpart of transcendentally loving union (when it is shared selfless-
ness and giving).
The two realms of existence are implicit in Cummings' first pub-
lished sonnet, the famous description of "the Cambridge ladies who live
in furnished souls" (CP 70). These complacent women, living in a re-
ceived world, are cut off from nature and wholesome intercourse with life
outside their minuscule circle; they "do not care" about anything out-
side themselves. Even their charitable activities arise from selfish mo-
The speaker's image of the moon, rattling like a "fragment of angry
candy" in its "box of sky" implies Cummings' apprehension of a greater
existence beyond the ladies' comprehension. The surrealistic imagery
is, of course, intended to contrast with their stuffy complacency, but
it is also meant to suggest that the larger world of nature is dynami-
cally alive. The fancifulness of the image, and the imputation that the
moon is angry at its neglect, implies it is essentially beyond the
framing imagination of man, and reminds us that the poet is as yet very
young; he is still a petulant rebel, angry at his elders' blindness.
Moreover, merely the fact of an independent, higher existence is mani-
fest; its quality or nature is largely undeveloped.
Cummings' openness to nature, and through nature to the noumenal
world, is made explicit in a later sonnet of Tulips and Chimneys, Un-
realities IV (CP 79). Here the speaker addresses the "tremendous" flower
of the night, whose "petals" or stars "torture" his spirit "with the ex-
quisite froms and whithers of existence." Comparing himself to an "un-
speaking watcher who adores/perceived sails whose mighty brightness dumbs/
the utterance of the soul," the speaker feels "the delicious smart/of
thrilled ecstasy" as he detects "the white ship" of night's heart the
moon "on frailer ports of costlier commerce bent."
Here too the moon is a symbol now of a realm of romantic adventure
and sensual ecstasy. And again the nature of this realm is essentially
indefinite. The sonnet simply records the speaker's rather fanciful
apprehension of the existence of "frailer ports of costlier commerce"
somewhere beyond the sky.
Unrealities VI (CP 81) celebrates a night whose "temporal splendor"
contains a "connotation of infinity." It is on such a night as this
when souls which have forgot frivolity
1Cf. Friedman, The Growth, p. 44.
in lowliness, noting the fatal flight
of worlds whereto this earth's a hurled dream
down eager avenues of lifelessness
consider for how much themselves shall gleam,
in the poised radiance of perpetualness.
When what's in velvet beyond doomed thought
is like a woman amorous to be known;
and man,whose here is always worse than naught,
feels the tremendous yonder for his own.
Here the poet's ideas about the nature of "infinity" are more explicit.
It is a realm of radiance and perpetualness, and it is beyond the power
of thought or analytic ratiocination to measure or classify. It is like
a woman amorous to be known, and like a woman, the natural object of
man's aspirations. It is, as Cummings will say later in Actualities IV
of And, the world of "dream."
Cummings also finds the promise of a transcendental realm in the
cyclical processes of nature. For instance, in Unrealities V of Tulips
and Chimneys (CP 80), the speaker is in a state of spiritual dejection.
"A wind" has blown away the rain, sky, and all the leaves; only the bare
trees remain. The speaker, who feels he has "known autumn too long,"
calls on death to finish the job and bring "doom's integration" to all
things, including himself. Unable to bear his loss of "summer" longer,
he seeks oblivion. Yet even as he calls on death, he senses it will
bring not only an end but also a beginning; he sees that the trees "sud-
denly wait against the moon's face."
The implication of rebirth is, of course, inherent in the natural
imagery Cummings employs here. Because the seasons, the trees, and the
moon are elements in cyclic processes, their use implies the world of the
poem is also cyclical, and that rebirth is also in the nature of things.
That does not mean in itself that rebirth into transcendence is
inherent in dying. However, this idea is implicit in several other of
the early sonnets. In Actualities XVII of And (CP 168), the "murdering
coolness" of falling snow at dusk brings the "radiance" of transcendence
and frees the world to "dream." Night and winter combine to bring
"peace" and "ecstasy" to the city of man. In Actualities VII (CP 158),
the speaker becomes "quietly amorous...of death's big rotten particular
kiss" because he has discovered the virtues of autumnal destruction. He
discovers reflected in a portrait of Goethe belonging to a friend the
knowledge that the world of dream is attainable through death.
That is not to say, however, that the early sonnets are unanimous
on this point. Cummings finds death, even as it promises rebirth,
"hideous" because it entails the destruction of natural beauty. And,
more often than not, death remains a feared phenomenon which signifies
absolute dissolution of soul and self.
In Unrealities II (CP 77), Cummings personifies the sea and the
land as sexually infatuated lovers and their interaction as a kind of
coition. Even while the sea "gloats" upon the "stunning flesh" of his
mistress, and her hunger "leaves his smile wan," he discovers and is
terrified by the awareness that his continuing exploration of "her green
body" is "hideous work," for it means her destruction and the "freeing
of ghostly chaos."
Cummings is not only saying that love can bring about its own loss
but also symbolizing the idea a particularly modern idea that the
processes of nature are entropic: the phenomenal world is inherently
self-destructive. Even when they are at their most harmonious when
they are in "love" the elements of nature are "battening" on one
another, reducing themselves to chaos.
In Actualities II (CP 83), the poet assures his lady that her
smile will hang "breathless" in his art, even though she will be har-
vested by "Farmer Death." Likewise, the speaker in Actualities II of
And (CP 153) assumes his lady's mortality. And in Actualities IX (CP 160)
the speaker urges his lover to "live suddenly without thinking" for he
is oppressed by his intuition that death and chaos are imminent and
unavoidable: "Whirl's after all."
In the following sonnet, Actualities X (CP 161), which might aptly
be entitled "Memento Mori," Cummings urges his lady to "get another man
with firmer lips" if he should leave her to "sleep with a lady called
death." In spite of his apparent unselfishness, he seems disturbed by
his lady's thoughtless pleasure-seeking. Pretending to speak from be-
yond the grave, and imagining that he is observing "how the limp hud-
dling string" of her smile "squirms kissingly" over her new lover's
body, the poet promises to bring her "every spring/handfuls of little
normal worms." He also says he understands why her new lover will laugh
at the lady's careful attempts to beautify and preserve herself, and
he promises to bring her "something which is worth the whole" of her
efforts at preservation: "an inch of nothing for her soul." He knows
1Charles E. Stetler, "A Study of the Transcendental Poetry of E. E.
Cummings," doctoral dissertation (Tulane University, 1966), pp. 13-14,
rightly finds an obscene pun on "whole." Cummings clearly wants to link
the lady's pleasure-seeking with sexuality, and sexuality with mortality.
that she is inclined to ignore the unpleasant, or to seek refuge from
it in physical pleasure, so he reminds her that she too must die.
Wise in his knowledge of life and death, he promises her a gift for
her soul's health a salutary draught of nothingness to prepare her,
like Mithridates, for the greater oblivion to come.
Death is again assumed to be final in the eleventh sonnet of XLI
Poems (CP 215). Here Cummings assures his lady that he loves her and
will be with her as they both face death's scythe. And in Sonnet XIV
(CP 218), Cummings despairingly wonders if spring and rebirth will ever
or will the fleshless moments go and go
across the dirtied pane where softly preys
the grey and perpendicular Always.
There is a curiously puritanical relationship between the oblivion
of death and loveless sexual activity in these early sonnets. That is,
Cummings frequently implies that sexual congress is the path to absolute
spiritual inanition. In a number of the sonnets, the speaker discovers
death's reality through engaging in loveless intercourse; his post-coital
depression is often the occasion of dispiriting insight.
The most conspicuous examples of the deathful effects of lust are
found in the poems describing prostitutes. For instance, Realities V of
Tulips and Chimneys (CP 74) portrays "Kitty," a sixteen year-old whore
"whose slippery body is Death's littlest pal." Helped by "clever drolls"
who ply her with liquor, Kitty has come to the oldest profession be-
cause she refuses to meet life honestly, to be responsible for herself
and responsive to others; she avoids "always the touch of must and shall."
Kitty, like all prostitutes, reduces her relations to men to a matter of
her own profit; the unspontaneous "quick softness" of the sex she
retails is the antithesis of sincere sexual love, and is therefore the
avenue to death. Kitty is death's pal because she seduces men into
thinking that life is a matter of mere commerce.
Like Kitty, the "irreproachable ladies" of Realities IX of And
(CP 138), inmates of a house of prostitution, are "ladies with whom
time/feeds especially his immense lips" and "on whose deep nakedness
death most believes" because they sell themselves lovelessly in an
attempt to defy time and remain perpetually girls. They too scatter
the "pink propaganda of annihilation" by reducing human relations to
In Realities I of And (CP 130), the speaker celebrates the plea-
sures of copulation. Yet even as he delights in "supreme sex," he be-
trays an awareness of decay and death that implies his sexual behavior
is predicated on fear. Cummings implies here that there is something
corrupt and ephemeral about sex; fornication is riantt," but it is also
"slipshod" and "fooling" and something like "hell." Even as his "gor-
geous bullet in tickling intuitive flight" plunges into his mistress,
the speaker, like Andrew Marvell in "To His Coy Mistress," is aware of
the imminence of "worms." Moreover, in describing sex as a "summer"
activity, Cummings suggests that sex becomes for some a momentary escape
or refuge from death.
Realities III (CP 132) returns to this theme, portraying the di-
spiriting effects of simple fornication. In bed with his mistress
again, the speaker is spiritually depressed by the sordidness of his
current sexual encounter; his "seeing blood" is "throttled" by the
"dirty colours of her kiss." Moreover, the message is repeated in the
following sonnet (CP 133), where the speaker's sadness contrasts strong-
ly with the professional satisfaction of his French whore; although she
murmurs her delight at his performance and assures him that they are
"heureux" (happy and successful), he wants to die, feeling his "soul a
limp lump of lymph."
In Realities VII (CP 136), the speaker momentarily finds as "well/
fused flesh does surely to mesh" escape from the terrors of death and
decay through intercourse with his mistress. But his sexual delight is
soon replaced by a clear and immediate awareness of his own certain mor-
tality; he now hears "in darkness, water the lips of death." The speak-
er's lady is also seeking a stay against mortality in sex; in Realities
XVIII (CP 147), Cummings explains why his girl, when they go to bed,
"begins to heave and twine" about him and to kiss his face and head.
Although she is "hard," she is "just like a vine/that's spent all of its
life on a garden wall/and is going to die." Passion is her mode of
escape; she tries to find stability and safety by clinging to the speak-
er, but he knows that like a vine she will die. He also knows sex is
only a temporary refuge from the icy winter winds of death.
Sometimes the poet is defiant of death and finds sexual activity
a brave gesture. Even though he and his lady may be "lost bodies" in-
evitably doomed, they have the illusion, in their "futile lovemaking,"
of controlling their mutual "death," i.e. petit mort or sexual climax
(CP 214). On another occasion, he says they can get a "bulge" on death
through their lovemaking (CP 84).
By my count, a little less than a third of the early sonnets (28
of 89) deal with the demimonde and with dispiriting, essentially erotic
sexual encounters. Cummings seems to have been unusually interested in
the world of whores, madams, and crooks. Frequently his speaker is pre-
sented as being involved, either as a customer or as a participant.
The world view implied in these sonnets is sombre fearful, despairing,
hopeless; it is a world of disease and physical corruption a place
where all relationships are commercial, egocentric, and loveless.
Is 5 begins with a series of five sonnets entitled "Five Ameri-
cans." The ladies described in these poems are whores, apparently all
inmates of a house of prostitution. I infer from the title "Five
Americans" that Cummings may have intended these women to be representa-
Certainly "Liz," the subject of the opening poem (CP 225), seems
to embody a version of the American Dream. She complains that "business
is rotten," but doesn't really care; she is supremely bored with her
life. Yet the speaker detects in her an imaginative life that belies
her idle toe-tapping and bored yawns. Although "no one knows" what Liz
thinks of, the speaker suggests that it would be appropriate
if it were a kiss)
distinct entirely melting sinuous lean ...
whereof this lady in some book had read.
1The brothel may be owned by "Dick Mid," who is described in Real-
ities XX of And (CP 149), and the madam who welcomes "smeestair steevun-
sun" in Reallties-TV of Tulips and Chimneys (CP 73) may operate it.
As a consequence of the speaker's conjecture, the poem vibrates
between two poles the image we have of Liz and the implications of
her Romantic medievalism. The first contrast is that between Liz's
physical grossness (she is ponderously thick) and her sinuous lean
dream. A second polarity is temporal; the sleazy, corrupt present is
set against the "noble, chivalrous" past. A third contrast is between
the living and the read; the grossness and corruption of living flesh
is countered by the perfect beauty of art.
Liz seems to embody the American Dream as Cummings sees it at this
time. She markets her wares in order to attain her ideal life, believ-
ing in the received myth that through industry and perseverance she will
find that lean and sinuous romance she dreams of. Cummings implies that
Liz's dream is founded on a lie, on the fantasies of "some book." And
because her Romantic dream has led her into a corrupt, self-destructive
life, we may infer that Cummings thinks the same of the lives of Ameri-
cans in general.
The double nature the attractiveness and corruption of modern
life is also suggested in the second sonnet (CP 226). "Mame" is a
whore with a tooth of gold. Proud of her endurance, she tilts back
her head to show the speaker a new gold crown on a wisdom tooth, brag-
ging that she had the work done without anaesthesia. The speaker looks,
but ceases to breathe. Mame is not unattractive; her bragging is done
with good nature. But she is as corrupt as her breath and teeth, and
she reminds us of another famous diseased whore the poule Georgette
in The Sun Also Rises. Mame is a jolly soul until she opens her mouth
and betrays a physical corruption commensurate with her moral dis-ease.
The third sonnet (CP 227) tries to portray "Gert," for whom the
speaker can find no "sharpest neat word." Gert is a gruesome-voiced
"trull" who loves "uh swell fite" and who has a "tall corpsecoloured
body." But while Gert is little more than a mindless hedonist, Marj,
who is featured in the fourth sonnet (CP 228), is a naive philosopher
who believes, or claims to believe, that life is a dream and that every-
one is really "asleep." Unlike Wordsworth, Marj finds no intimations
of immortality or of any sort of awakening. She dismisses "Gawd" as a
"damn gink" and finds the madam of her brothel a far more real power in
her life than He.
Marj's remarks may not be meant seriously. She takes a feline
pleasure from toying with the speaker's "illusions," and her raucous
laughter and "permanent" smile impute a degree of facetiousness to her
philosophy. Although we cannot know how sincere Marj is, one senses
she is putting up a comic front and that she is profoundly afraid of
reality. She may be hiding from the plain facts of her existence, and
despair, by calling life a dream and laughing at it.
In the final sonnet of "Five Americans" (CP 229), Cummings reflects
on the "brittle whore" Fran, who is a curious mixture of attractiveness
and danger. Fran is sexually exciting, but "her tiniest whispered in-
vitation/is like a clock striking in a dark house." The speaker knows
she is corrupt and is to be avoided; he knows that if he should ask God
IBarry Marks, E. E. Cummings (New Haven: College & University Press,
1964), p. 80, says Marj's strength is her unwillingness to take either
the world or herself seriously.
about Fran, God would tell him to "go in peace" and to "always try/
to not wonder" about her. Yet he is unable to do that; even as he
is being told to shun the Frans and the questions about them, he is
thinking about them. He knows her invitation is a call to eternal
death, but he is attracted nevertheless.
While this poem clearly refers to the attractiveness of sin, it
may also refer to the American Dream, and to phenomenal life in gen-
eral. Cummings may be saying that life is a mixture of ecstasy and
corruption, and that it is not easy to escape its lures. The dream is
an illusion, then, which leads man into moral suicide.
In a number of these sonnets, Cummings' speaker is engaging in
coition and describing his responses. Almost without exception, he
both enjoys and is disgusted by his actions. I noted earlier that
these encounters sometimes end with the speaker's apprehension of death
as a finality. Frequently they are felt to be sordid and disgusting
throughout. A good example of such sonnets is Realities VI of And
the poem her belly marched through me as
one army. From her nostrils to her feet
she smelled of silence. The inspired cleat
of her glad leg pulled into a sole mass
my separate lusts
her hair was like a gas
evil to feel. Unwieldy ....
in her fierce laziness tried to repeat
a trick of syncopation Europe has
One day i felt a mountain touch me where
T stood(maybe nine miles off). It was spring
sun-stirring, sweetly to the mangling air
muchness of buds mattered, a valley spilled
its tickling river in my eyes,
world wriggled like a twitched string.
In contrast to the inspiring effect of nature, which seems to vivify
"the killed world," the woman is a murderous army of occupation. There
is no joy in their encounter, only a kind of silent, selfish war in a
bed. Realities III of And (CP 132) presents another instance of sordid
sexuality. There is nothing elevating or redeeming here:
the dirty colours of her kiss have just
my seeing blood,her heart's chatter
riveted a weeping skyscraper
i bite on the eyes' brittle crust
(only feeling the belly's merry thrust
Boost my huge passion like a business
and the Y her legs panting as they press
proffers its omelet of fluffy lust)
at six exactly
the alarm tore
two slits in her cheeks. A brain peered at the dawn.
she got up
with a gashing yellow yawn
and tottered to a glass bumping things.
she picked wearily something from the floor
Her hair was mussed,and she coughed while tying strings
Sexuality, however, is not always spiritually destructive. When it is
associated with sincere love, it is frequently the avenue which leads
the poet to a new vision of nature and of the transcendent.
Actualities I of Tulips and Chimneys (CP 82) describes the revolu-
tionary effect of the speaker's lady's kiss. "A thing most new complete
fragile intense," it makes the speaker's life in the phenomenal world
of space and time meaningful for the first time by magically bringing
the world alive for him. Where before phenomenal life was "worse than
naught," now, as a result of these "little pushing of flesh," the
speaker's body is "sorry when the minute moon/is a remarkable splinter
in the quick of twilight." That is, the world of day has become "a
little wonderful" through her kiss, and the speaker more responsive to
his earthly life; he now faces "lighted living hills."
Similarly, Actualities I of And (CP 152) praises the speaker's
lady by reflecting on her power to make him "something suddenly lumi-
nous and precise." Not only does she bring sensual beauty ("music,"
"curving colour," "a wonderful smell") into his life, but also radical
spiritual transformation; her beauty "murders" the speaker in order to
bring to birth a new entity, which is the union of the speaker and his
lady: from "I" and "she" comes "we." The poem concludes with the inti-
mation that the lady, and transformation, are imminent once again.
Actualities IV (CP 155) is more explicit about sex. Stimulated by
the beauty of the dusk, and by his awareness that night is about to
fall, the speaker tells his lady that this night they will "trace" the
1Julia P. Stanley, "An Analysis of E. E. Cummings' 'Actualities:
I'," College Composition and Communication, XVII (1966), pp. 130-134,
offers an interesting but inconclusive transformational analysis of
"alert willing myth of body" until the "final silence." Like many of
the early sonnets, this poem suggests that sexual desire is a function
of one's awareness of death. However, the speaker implies here that
there is a state beyond the body wherein nature exists in the unity
suggested by sexual conjuction, and that through sex they can become a
part of that harmony. Similarly, Actualities VI (CP 157) explains how,
in moments of sexual release, the speaker not only feels that "the fool-
ing world" swims beautifully in his "blood," but also that "his chat-
tering self perceives with hysterical fright" that he is "a comic tad-
pole wriggling in delicious mud." Even as he embraces the physical life
in the person of his lady perhaps even because he embraces it he
discovers that his existence in the phenomenal world is an immature
state, a larval form of being as it were, and implies that humans, like
tadpoles, can outgrow the delicious mud of phenomenal life.
The sonnets of XLI Poems also begin with a love poem (CP 205)
which praises the speaker's lady. Here the poet tells her that his life
centers on her, and that if she were to spend "the cold perfect night"
with him, at dawn his life would be transfigured and the world rendered
a possibly unbearable "marvel." The poem is not only an invitation to
carnal delights; this is a cold perfect night of spiritual love, and it
is the poet's soul that finds rapture. If this night of love were to
occur, not only the speaker's life but also the phenomenal world would
be transformed; hitherto a fallen world of "frailties of dimension," the
world would become for him a strangely exciting place where "birds known,
scarcely" "begin to sing."
Sonnet IX of XLI Poems (CP 213) asks the lady to come to the
speaker when "the small spiritual cry of spring/utters a striving
flower" to draw him from his "sleep" or half-life in the world of
vilest "mind" and "thoughtful war." Her love frees him from the il-
lusion that he is subject to time. And because they are timeless
through their love, he and the lady can love the evanescent beauty of
the purple roses more than those who themselves come within time's
bending sickle's compass.
The lady does not have to be present for her transforming power
to work its magic on the speaker. In Actualities XIV of And (CP 165),
for instance, the speaker rhetorically addresses his absent lady, for
whom he is grieving and faint, asking that his memory ("the ivory per-
forming rose") of her, which has been in his dreams all night, remain
with him in the "unkind dawn." Only her memory "pricks with minute
odour" the "gross days" of his "unlife" without her, and he desires to
keep it "until/with neat obscure obvious hands/Time stuff the sincere
stomach of each mill/of the ingenious gods" who have stolen her away.
That is, he wants her memory to remain eternally. In Actualities XVIII
(CP 165), she is described, though absent, as his "accurate key" to the
"palace" of transcendence.
Patricia B. T. Cline has pointed out that Cummings' view of love
and sexuality is essentially Platonic: "the beast with two backs from
Plato's dissertation of love, halved into male and female by Zeus, in
his infinite wit, is a serious metaphor in Cummings' love poems."
This is particularly true with respect to the love sonnets addressed
to the poet's lady; sexual contact is the analogue in the fallen
world to noumenal unity, and consequently one avenue to the apprehension
of the existence of that state for those existing in the unworld.
Two sonnets describe the speaker's expectations as a result of the
love of his lady. In Actualities V of Tulips and Chimneys (CP 86), the
final poem of that volume, Cummings adumbrates the details of an evening
walk he intends to take with his ladylove. On this moonlit night, they
will "choose the way to the forest," following a houselesss wisping
rune/of road" by fields filled with the "microscopic whithering" of the
"Black People" until they "pass the simple ugliness/of exact tombs,
where a large road crosses/and all the people are minutely dead." Only
then will she "slowly kiss" him.
It seems clear that theirs is to be a journey symbolic of the
course and pattern of their lives. They will have a natural life, in-
dependent of the "white town" of human society. Sharpened by their
contact with nature, they will be at one with the teeming life in the
fields and unafraid of the chthonic forces of creation (the Black Peo-
ple). As a result of their love, they will pass or transcend death,
finding the beginning of their fulfillment in the forests of the night.
In the very similar sonnet "Five" II of Is 5 (CP 303), the speaker,
liberated from the limitations of the diurnal by his lady's touch and
1Patricia B. T. Cline, "The Whole E. E. Cummings," E. E. Cummings:
A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Norman Friedman (Englewood Cliffs,
N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972), p. 62.
the spring night, invites her to "go a very little beyond/the last
road" with him. But the lady hesitates, afraid because "everything
turns into something else and slips away." She fears external reality,
which becomes dream-like when it is freed from the usual conventions of
the phenomenal world. The poet, rather protectively, tries to calm her
fears by asserting his shaping, metaphorical imagination; he says the
moon is like "a big yellow dog" following them through the night. But
even as he tries to frame externality, it evades his metaphors, becoming
first "a big red dog that may be owned by who knows," then simply it-
self the moon, something "faithful and mad." Like a mad dog, reality
is uncontrollable by the human mind, or at best is controllable only
by those who "know" as a consequence of their transcendence; reality is -
and the mind can only distort, canalize, or pattern it temporarily. It
is, however, "faithful" and ever-present to the lovers.
It is interesting to note that while the lady is to the poet's
spirit as the spring rain is to parched fields (CP 163), the lady her-
self does not necessarily know of transcendence. In the last two poems,
the speaker assumes a tutorial pose, instructing her in the nature of
Norman Friedman has pointed out that Cummings' satirical vision is
only lightly represented in the very early volumes, and becomes apparent
only in Is 5, where roughly a fifth to a third of the poems are satiri-
cal (The Growth, p. 48). The sonnets reflect this proportion.
Typical of Cummings' early satirical efforts is Realities XIII of
And (CP 142), which addresses a whore who has been allowed to freeze to
death on the morning of Christmas Eve, and which satirizes the Christmas
season as a spiritually empty commercial enterprise. Cummings also
attacks sexual hypocrisy in Realities XVII (CP 146). But perhaps his
best-known satirical sonnet, other than "the Cambridge ladies," is
"next to of course god america i" (CP 268), the widely-anthologized
portrait of a jingoistic super-patriot.
A case can be made for the view that Cummings' poems in general
contain satirical elements. Certainly the sonnets frequently imply a
comparison of what is with what ought to be. However, the general
thrust of most of the early sonnets is not satirical, and straightfor-
ward satires do not become frequent until Cummings' middle period.
The infrequency of explicit satire in the early sonnets implies
that Cummings had not arrived at a firm moral, political, or social
position. This indecisiveness is also reflected, I believe, in his
curiously sympathetic attitude toward the inhabitants of the demimonde.
Although he recognizes their moral decay, he is fascinated by them, and
he places himself among them as a participant and co-conspiritor in the
general folly. His moral ambivalence is matched by a philosophical
vagueness; one senses that he is groping in the early sonnets toward a
unified view of life, death, and transcendence, yet his vacillations
clearly indicate that he has not yet achieved it.
Viva, Cummings' fifth volume of verse, is structured by the ar-
rangement of its sonnets. Every seventh poem is a sonnet, and the vol-
ume ends with seven sonnets. These poems taken together act as an
ideational spine from which the whole volume depends. Moreover, the
more-or-less familiar sonnet form provides a kind of traditional founda-
tion for the reader, a base from which he can safely explore the less
In a letter to Francis Steegmuller in 1959, Cummings noted:
"all of my booksofpoems after the original T&C manuscript published
as Tulips and Chimneys, AND, XLI Poems start with autumn (downgoing,
despair) & pass through winter (mystery, dream) & stop in spring (up-
coming, joy). But as I glance over the index of Poems '23-'54, find
few hints of this progression; beyond a tendency to begin dirty (world:
sordid, satires) & end clean (earth: lyrical, lovepoems)" (Selected
Letters, p. 261). The latter tendency is fairly evident in Viva, where
three of the first four sonnets are satires (XIV, XXI, and XXVIII) and
the fourth deals with the dispiriting effects of lust. Moreover, the
last nine sonnets treat love, transcendence, and the transforming power
of the speaker's lady.
Cummings' satirical vein, which was only briefly revealed in the
earlier sonnets, becomes more evident in Viva. The first sonnet of
the volume, #VII (CP 315), is an angry satire on the "Serene, Illus-
trious, and Beatific/Lord of Creation, MAN." Cummings is outraged by
the assumption that God is dead and that man is master of the universe,
particularly as that mastery is demonstrated by the conversion of
"earth's most terrific/quadruped" to "BilliardBalls."
Cummings' awareness, as well as his hatred, of the doctrines of
relativity, materialism, and existentialism is evident in this frequently
anthologized poem. He reviles them because they reduce all things to
1Cummings' self-proclaimed "totem" was the elephant, and this fact
may explain the intensity of his outrage at their conversion. See The
Magic Maker, pp. 22-24.
the limits of human intellect, and Cummings abhors any philosophy
which presumes man the measure of all. The double pun on "inTerred"
(1. 10) reflects his attitude: God has not only been brought down to
earth (in-Terre-d) in order to be buried (interred), but also and con-
sequently covered by dung (in-turd). Cummings is reminded that walls,
or limitations, are, as Frost said, unnatural and manmade creations;
any abstract philosophy is a limitation of reality.
Cummings pursues this theme, which was touched on in "Five" II of
Is 5, in the second sonnet, #XIV (CP 322). This poem begins with the
speaker and his mistress engaged in desultory, disjointed post-coital
conversation. The woman wants to know the time; when the speaker tells
her to "consider rather heavenly things," she misinterprets his admoni-
tion, saying that the stars, like everything else, are "planned." He
tries to show her that the patterns she finds in the stars (i.e. the
constellations, specifically Cassiopeia's chair) are arbitrary creations
of the intellect in its attempt to power over things. Indeed, Cummings
implies that all things in the phenomenal, not just the overtly mythic,
are partly constructed by the mind. That includes the speaker's emo-
tional relation with his woman; he discovers in the course of the con-
versation that his feelings for her have been framed by "lust" rather
than love, and that he cares naught for her. His lust has created a
connection between them as much as mind creates a constellation from
Here, as in many of the early sonnets, sexuality motivated by
simple lust is spiritually depressing. That the moon is, at the mo-
ment of the speaker's discovery, "thinner than a watchspring," suggests
that he is not only emotionally depressed but also waning spiritually -
even he has fallen prey, in imagining the moon like a watchspring, to
the temptation to reduce external reality to a telling mechanism.
Viva XXI (CP 330) vividly and dynamically satirizes a crowd of
drunken revelers staggering out of a speakeasy at dawn.
helves surling out of eakspeasies per(reel)hapsingly
proregress heandshe-ingly people
trickle curselaughgroping shrieks bubble
squirmwrithed staggerful unstrolls collapse ingly
flash a of-faceness stuck thumblike into pie
is traffic this recalls hat gestures bud
plumptumbling hand voices Eye Doangivuh sud-
denly immense impotently Eye Doancare Eye
And How replies the upsquirtingly careens
the to collide flatfooting with Wushyuhname
a girl-flops to the Geddup curb leans
carefully spewing into her own Shush Shame
as(out from behind Nowhere)creeps the deep thing
everybody sometimes calls morning
As Rudolf Von Abele points out, this sonnet provides a good example of
Cummings' use of "anagramming and spoonerism" to intensify meaning (p.
914). The word arrangement in lines one through twelve reflects the
shameful confusion and unnatural distortion of the celebrants, while
the final couplet, stated in clear, exact syntax, captures the contrast-
ing crisp precision of the dawn. Here the "dirty" world of men is set
against the clear yet indescribable deep thing of nature as it rises
"out from behind Nowhere."
Cummings' satirical voice intensifies in #XXVIII (CP 337), which
calls for chaos to come again, bringing cleansing destruction to an in-
sane world. The speaker describes a female motion-picture "star,"
perhaps Jean Harlow, whose "vast one function," he notes acidly, is to
make real women look bad to real men. She represents the first cause
of the speaker's ire: "the movies"; they have perverted the sensibility
of modern man by creating a "believably enlarged" but distorted vision
of life. They have almost subliminally rendered the real world an un-
satisfactory place to mostpeople by misleading them into judging the
real as a Douglas Fairbanks or Mary Pickford might respond to the con-
trived, fictional world in which they "exist." Moreover, the artists -
those whose job it is to create healthy guiding fictions have "napped,"
thereby allowing the movies to become a perverse rather than a sanitive
art. Hence the poet's call for chaos; Cummings implies that only out of
the complete destruction of the old illusions and social myths can a
revolutionary art emerge to restore man to woman and mankind to nature.
All good satire has traditionally had an explicitly stated or
clearly implied "code" to which moral or social behavior is compared;
Cummings' code is becoming more evident. In these sonnets his main
target is modern man's arrant and egotistical assumption that he is
lord of creation. In assuming dominion over all, and believing only
in his own powers to reason and imagine, man has distorted reality by
imposing on it, and on himself as a part of nature, patterns or myths
which prevent him from fully perceiving the whole or even from per-
ceiving accurately. He has cut himself off from his natural partici-
pation in the life deep down things by surrendering to his desire to
power over them.
Cummings' interest in the demimonde waned in the five years which
separated Is 5 and Viva. With the exception of Viva XXI, which por-
trays a gang of drunken revelers staggering from a bar at dawn, the
only other "dirty" sonnet is #XLIX (CP 358), which treats a loveless
but sexually fulfilling encounter. As he did in the early sonnets
dealing with loveless fornication, Cummings finds simple lust a self-
destructive and deathful act. In this sonnet, simple sex is a sort of
"salute" to Aphrodite, the "once and once only, Queen" of lust. Not
only does the single-minded mechanicity of the speaker's attentions to
his unnamed bedmate, who is very likely a whore, betray the absence of
love in their relation, but also the woman's cries of unwillingness
suggest a semi-ravishment. The speaker is wryly aware of his brutal
behavior, although his awareness doesn't prevent him from continuing;
he knows that the emotion possessing him is not love, "love being some-
thing possibly more intricate." He recognizes in his behavior an in-
stance of the primal force or emotion mythicized as Aphrodite, the
foam-born goddess of sexual passion who rose to "undeath" from the
"deeplyness" of the elemental human psyche. He also knows that his
salutes to lust lead inevitably to "doom."
The maturation of his satirical vision may explain Cummings' de-
clining interest in the demimonde and fornication. As he enlarges the
scope of his criticism to include man's deceptive mythmaking, his con-
cern for smaller, less universal targets dwindles.
In the early sonnets, sexual union is sometimes treated as a
phenomenal analogue to transcendent unity, and coition as an avenue
into timelessness. Through the sexual metaphor, Viva XXXV (CP 344)
tells us how to live rightly in time. Cummings' message is that one
must embrace the present moment utterly and selflessly, as one embraces
his beloved, if he is to live fully. The vehicle for this theme is a
version (an inversion, really) of the myth of Leda and the Swan. In
this sonnet the traditional roles have been reversed; the Leda-figure
here the "what is" or present moment lives and dies passionately
("strictly fiercely and wholly"), while the Swan-lover is a coldly im-
personal intelligence. Solemn, impeccable, and "feathered with green
facts," he suggests to us the analytic or scientific faculty of modern
man. That is, he separates himself from life and death through the
operation of the rational intellect. But awakened like Sleeping Beauty
by a "little fluttering" of life at his lips, he reacts keenly "to
dreamings more than truth untrue," becoming aware of the "illustrious
unknown" life of the present. Once awakened, he is as emotionally
transformed as Robinson Crusoe was when he discovered the proof of a
new life amidst a barren, self-created world. As Stetler says, the
lover's "self-contained existence" disappears as a result of his mirac-
ulous discovery (p. 49). He learns that one must live in the "what is,"
which though mortal and external to him is as alive as anything can be,
if one is to find the true happiness symbolized by the sexual thrill
implicit in the myth.
The illuminating aspect of sexual love is also treated in Viva LXIV
(CP 373), the first sonnet of the final group of seven which ends the
volume. Addressing his lady, the speaker begins by dismissing the ma-
terial universe that dresses "its soullessness by lovely/antics of ri-
diculous molecules." He asserts that it must ultimately "unexist" or
1cf. Stetler, pp. 48-50.
fade into nonbeing. The only exception to this assumption is the
permanence of their "young kiss," for it is the outward and visible
manifestation of a spiritual fusion which aims at a perfectly spirit-
ual, timeless union the "most precise essential flame/never which
waked." Forgetting the world of time and space, "nakedest" and "per-
fectingly," they "dive out of tinying time" into "supreme Now" and
forgetting their former existence, find "new textures of actual cool
stupendous is." They selflessly plunge into the transcendence which
subsumes the phenomenal, touching the "Yes" that exists "behind each
That the speaker and the lady find transcendence through the gate-
way of sexual union is implicit. Their kiss and the complementary
operations of her "fate" and his "life" suggest that Cummings is de-
scribing in terms of the spirit the ecstasy produced by their physical
As he did in the earlier sonnets, Cummings continues to praise his
lady's power over him in Viva. In #LXIII (CP 372), he implores her to
be unto him "as rain is unto colour," to "create" him by her very pres-
ence. His "how," "where," and "still invisible when" are entirely in-
spired by her. Yet their love is a mutual sharing, and he makes her
world too; he is "like a sun which must go/sometimes, to make an earth
gladly seem firm" for her. And he also shares her "dearest fears" com-
Cummings seems to have become firmer not only in his satirical
vision but also in his formulation of the nature of life, death, and
transcendence. His assertion of equal power in this sonnet is matched
by a more authoritative, tutorial pose in LXIV, LXVII, LVIII, and LXIX.
He instructs and defines more explicitly now, implying a firmer grasp
of the nature of being.
In sonnets LXV and LXVI, Cummings praises his lady by imagining
what life would be like should he and she be "not amazing" (i.e. "with-
out love"). In #LXV (CP 374), he knows that she would marvel at his
disappearance, wondering what has become of her lover, who with "gradual
acute lusting glance" hunted "the beast Tomorrow." More significantly,
he knows, and wants her to know also, that he would be completely dis-
oriented without her love; he would become a stranger to himself, won-
dering who the "creature of shadow" is that "washes my nightmare from
his eyes." In #LXVI (CP 375), he describes his life in her absence as
a nightmarish detachment from the world about him. In his lady's ab-
sence, he is cut off from free contact with external reality; in fact,
externality becomes merely the mirror of his psyche. Without the lady's
mediating influence, he not only finds himself locked in the house of
his mind but also becomes mildly schizophrenic. He literally terrorizes
The final sonnet of Viva, #LXX (CP 379), praises the speaker's
lady's transcendental power.
here is the ocean,this is moonlight:say
that both precisely beyond either were -
so in darkness ourselves go,mind in mind
which is the thrilling least of all(for love's
secret supremely clothes herself with day)
i mean,should any curious dawn discuss
our mingling spirits,you would disappear
unreally;as this planet(understand)
forgets the entire and perpetual sea
but if yourself consider wonderful
that your(how luminous)life toward twilight will
dissolve reintegrate beckon through me,
i think it is less wonderful than this
only by you my heart always moves
The essence of the speaker's thought is that the lady "moves" his heart
not only when she is with him and making love but also when she is not
with him and when the activities of the day and life would appear to
have made her disappear. As Norman Friedman says, "the speaker repre-
sents himself and his heart as the sea, and his lady as the moon, the
point being that, although the moon can be seen chiefly at night, his
heart keeps following her influence even during the day when she is
generally invisible" (The Art, p. 94). The point should be made that
the speaker sees that the lady also finds her life in him; he knows
that their love is a synergetic relation which is "precisely beyond"
either of them individually.
Interestingly, the speaker recognizes that their relation is the
"least" elevated stage of true love. He knows that they are at best
benighted. But he also implies that love's day will come for them.
For Cummings, "love" means not only a profoundly tender and
passionate affection for his lady but also the condition of "perfect
givingness" and interpenetration that characterizes the transcendent
world of dream. He attempts to define the omnipresence and omnipotence
Cf. The Growth, pp. 10-11.
Cf. The Growth, pp. 10-11.
of the latter kind of love in Viva LXVIII (CP 377).
but if a living dance upon dead minds
why,it is love;but at the earliest spear
of sun perfectly should disappear
moon's utmost magic,or stones speak or one
name control more incredible splendor than
our merely universe,love's also there
Love is the ultimate binding force of existence; it subsumes all. It
not only encompasses the phenomenal "Love" is outside the final paren-
thesis in line fourteen but is also copresent with the world of time
and space; it is both here and beyond. Thus, while love is beyond the
power of man to measure, it may, like Christ, be "here imprisoned" and
"tortured here." When love is abused or repressed, it explodes violent-
ly; it "maims and blinds" because we have not made ourselves capable of
dealing freely with it, because we are afraid or incapable of allowing
it free expression. If we give ourselves to love, however, we will find
"living"; we will transcend the grave and break the only parenthetical
bounds of the phenomenal.
I noted earlier that Cummings' conceptualization of the nature of
transcendence was rather vague and often fancifully romantic. The tran-
scendental sonnets of Viva imply he has become firmer in his vision.
Viva LXIV (CP 373) is very explicit on the spiritual composition of tran-
scendence. The soullessnesss" of "ridiculous molecules" is doomed to
absolute oblivion, while transcendence is imaged as "a most precise
essential flame." Transcendence is a timeless continuum of "supreme
Now" and "actual cool stupendous is." It is no longer a trivial, fanci-
ful elsewhere or elsewhen of "costlier ports of commerce."
In Viva LXIX (CP 378), Cummings' speaker attempts to instruct his
beloved in the existence and nature of transcendence. By pointing out
to her how the "keen ship" on which they are sailing "lifts (skilfully/
like some bird which is all birds but more fleet)/herself against the
air," he provides her with a metaphor which will facilitate her con-
ceptualization of transcendence. His second step is an instructive
whose do you
suppose possibly are certain hands,terse
and invisible,with large first new stars
knitting the structure of distinct sunset
driving white spikes of silence into joists
hewn from hugest colour
(and which night hoists
miraculously above the always
beyond such where and fears or any when
unwondering immense directionless
-do you perhaps know these workmen?
Even as he asks, the speaker tells her that there is an existence beyond
the phenomenal world of where and when, and that this state is reachable
(it is populated by workmen) through night and death. He implies that
she must imitate the ship and the sunset, and face night bravely if she
is to sail beyond the horizon. And she must, like the invisible workmen,
participate in transcendence; it is an active, though paradoxically
The moon remains Cummings' premier symbol of transcendence.
structure,miraculous challenge,devout am
upward deep most invincible unthing
1Stetler cites this poem and these lines as evidence of R. P.
Blackmur's mistaken judgement of Cummings (p. 51).
stern sexual timelessness,outtowering
this noisy impotence of not and same
prouder than all mountains,more than all
and while everywhere
beneath thee and about thyself a small
(moult beyond difficult moult)amazing doom
who standest as thou hast stood and thou shalt stand.
Nor any dusk but kneelingly believes
thy secret and each morning stoops to blend
her star with what huge merciful forms presume
Here in Viva XLII (CP 351), Cummings praises the moon as a living, yet
timeless presence reminding man of the existence of a vital state of
being towards which he must strive, "moult beyond difficult moult."
Like all of the transcendent, the moon is an "am," a living identity,
and an "unthing" or spiritual entity. The moon is proud, for it is
self-reliant and whole, and beyond the trivial, impotent lies of "not
and same" that so attract rational man.
In Viva XIV the speaker discovered that trivial sex led to doom.
In Viva LXVIII (CP 376), he reiterates the insight of Donne's "Holy
Sonnet" X ("Death Be Not Proud"). In Cummings' poem, the speaker dis-
covers that "darkness" shall not "quite outmarch forever" that death
itself shall eventually be dead.
The occasion of the speaker's discovery is a day when death's
triumph seems complete; he is sure that even death "must remember" this
day when he has taken to himself not only "Life's animals" but also
"angry seasalt" and "indignant clover." Yet even as he recognizes the
power of death, the speaker apprehends the reaper's failure; he perceives
"several smoothly gesturing stars" beyond the "transparent walls"
surrounding the deathful world, and this perception generates the con-
viction that death's day is truly over. As a result of his insight,
the speaker senses he has become one of the few "most rare perfectly
dear" souls who, having transcended the mutable world, live in the
timeless and deathless realm of "Love."
The sonnets of Viva clarify a number of aspects of Cummings' vision
of the phenomenal and the transcendental, as well as the "mechanisms"
which make passage from the one to the other possible. They tell us a
great deal about Cummings' conception of transcendence. It is the con-
dition of being in a harmonious and uncontrived relation to physical
nature. That is to say, the transcendent individual accepts nature
without demanding that it conform to the dictates of the ego. Un-
fortunately, such selflessness is a rare quality in mostpeople, who
demand that life conform to received, socially inculcated patterns.
Transcendence is also a timeless noumenal condition of being a non-
material, spiritual unity of all things. This realm is reached, it
seems, only through physical death and only by souls which have achieved
the first kind of transcendence; it is a sort of heaven.
"Death" itself has several distinct though clearly related mean-
ings. It is first physical mortality, the final end of all matter.
This sort of death is the destiny of those who cannot free themselves
of the unworld. But because death is a natural phenomenon and an in-
trinsic element in the cycles of nature, it may be seen as a passageway
to Spring and dayspring to rebirth. Death becomes a metaphor for the
necessary destruction of the derived elements which imprison the human
spirit; only as received "perceptual sets" are eliminated can one
attain transcendental vision. Not infrequently, Cummings implies
by death the little death of sexual climax. If the climax is the
consequence of a loveless coition, it can generate an intuition of
ultimate, spiritual obliteration. If it comes as an element of true
love, it can illuminate the participants, making them aware of the
greater fulfillment and release that characterizes transcendental being.
Cummings' idea of love is also clarified in these sonnets. It is
not only a deep and tender regard for another human but also a recogni-
tion and wholehearted acceptance of the individuality, the "thou-ness"
in Buber's terminology, of the "not-I." Love is the way to both earth-
ly and heavenly transcendence, for in both realms the transcendent exist
in a condition of loving acceptance.
It also becomes clear that one attains wholeness and complete free-
dom of self only as one submerges one's egocentric, "framing" demands
on the world only as these "die." Only in transcendence, and only
through love, can one fully become oneself because only in the realm of
dream is true becoming possible; in the unworld one shapes and is shaped,
one bullies and is bullied, by self-created and received patterns of
perception and behavior.
1See Marvin Price Garrett, Jr. "Death and Love in the Poetry of
E. E. Cummings," master's thesis (University of Florida, 1965), pp. 5-6.
THE MIDDLE SONNETS
No Thanks (1935), Cummings' sixth volume, is, like Viva, organized
by the arrangement of its sonnets; they form a very regular, symmetrical
framework for the volume as a whole. Eighteen of the seventy-one poems
in No Thanks are sonnets, and these are arranged to form two overlapping
groups of nine poems each. Beginning with #3, the second poem from the
beginning, every fourth poem is a sonnet. This group of nine ends with
#35. The second group of nine begins with #37 and ends with #69, the
second to last poem; again, every fourth poem is a sonnet. The first
group, those found in the first half of the volume, are generally worldly
or satirical "dirty" in Cummings' terms. The second group, those
found in the second half, treat spring, love, and transcendence; they
are "clean." In order to prevent a strong thematic division of his vol-
ume, Cummings links the two groups by making #35, the last of the son-
nets in the first half, a transcendental poem, and by giving #37, the
first sonnet of the second half, a worldly theme. By inverting the
themes, and by separating #35 and #37 by only a single poem, Cummings
maintains the unity of the volume and effects a smooth transition from
one thematic group to the other.
Unlike Viva, however, the sonnets of No Thanks begin on a tran-
scendental note. No Thanks #3 (CP 386) records a moment when the speak-
er, after tentative, groping thought, after discovering the reality of
transcendence through love, and after apprehending the evanescence of
mortal existence, explains his insight to his lover.
The sonnet develops the affirmation: "that which we die for lives/
as wholly as that which we live for dies." In the first eight lines,
the speaker is in the process of enunciating and clarifying his thought.
Lines one through four define the speaker and his lover; they are "alive
in spite of mirrors" and yet "have died beyond the clock." What is
more, through their love they are at one with themselves and each other.
Through love, in both its carnal and spiritual manifestations, the
speaker and his lady have broken the chains of sterile, narcissistic
egoism and clock time (i.e. the man-made impress of sequence and division
upon an organic indivisible process) to become a new, compound entity -
timeless in time, single yet double. The next four lines resume the
enunciation of the "kernel" sentence ("that which we die for..."), only
to break off to explain the process of dying. There is no ambiguity
to "die for," although there are several different, clearly functional
"Die for" is slang for "desire strongly," and transcendence is the
condition desired. "Die for" is also literal; the lovers must die in
order to attain eternal life: "that which lives." "Die for" is meta-
phorical; the speaker and his lady are reborn through the redemptive
power of love; they have "died" from one state of being to be born in
a better. Finally, "die for" suggests sexual release, and that which
the lovers die to attain is mutual sexual ecstasy. Whatever the case,
the speaker hastens to note that their dying is achieved spontaneously,
and "not when or unless/if or to prove, imperfectly or since." That is,
their dying is selfless rather than selfish, uncontrolled by time or
condition, uncaused and perfect.
Yet dying entails "horrors" of loss, for it is hard agony to give
or commit oneself to another wholeheartedly to break out of one's
mirror-like ego-shell. Stars, being transcendent and complete, cannot
observe this agony, and roses can only "wince" in sympathy, so close
are they to transcendence themselves. It is through the agony of dying,
however, that passage is made, and the sonnet's structure reflects the
transition; line nine states the speaker's vision completely for the
first time: "that which we die for lives."
In the last six lines, the speaker praises the new, timeless exist-
ence he has found, ecstatically rejoices with his lover in their love,
and closes with a restatement of his theme and its corollary ("that
which we live for dies").
In Viva, the thrust of the initial sonnets was essentially satiri-
cal. In No Thanks, the satirical sonnets are accompanied by sonnets
which explain or teach how to live rightly in time. For instance, #23
(CP 406) is a mild satire of America, as it is embodied by a man named
Smith, who the poet concludes is a "death" and a "marvel." Smith has
become an unnatural marvel suffering death-in-life because he has abdi-
cated feeling for thought and thought for knowledge: "he does not have
to feel because he thinks"; "he does not have to think because he knows."
Because he has accepted, apparently unconsciously, a set of fixed opin-
ions, conventions, and "facts," Smith "cannot understand" his life. And
feeling a gulf between what he "knows" and what he intuits, he drinks to
escape. He is married, but "lies afraid" of life, love, and death. He
is quintessentially "American."
"Little Joe" Gould, on the other hand, the subject of the next
sonnet, #27 (CP 410), offers a complete (and deliberate, I believe)
contrast to the Smiths of America. A scion of one of America's great
families and a graduate of our oldest university, Gould has the poten-
tial to be a Smith, to live within received ideas and traditions, yet
he is portrayed as utterly self-reliant and free. Because he is happy
to be himself to love and to feel he becomes for Cummings a symbol
of the right way to live (the hexameter lines suggest Gould's heroic
nature), and his legendary Oral History a record of his continuing re-
birth "by innumerable kinds-of-deaths." It is "more fun to be more,"
like Gould, than to be, like America, "fooled" by false, self-contrived
No Thanks #11 (CP 394) contrasts Cummings' view of modern mankind
with his vision of the ideal man. Modern man is a "Foetus (unborn to
not die/safely whose epoch fits him like a grave)." Caught up with the
desire for political and material power over things ("money men motors
'my'/yachts wolfhounds women"), modern man has lost his soul and become
an unholy ghost, "fleeing himself for selves more strangely made." In
fear of life and his own nature, he has hidden behind masks made by
society and history; reduced to the most elemental existence, he merely
"answers eats moves remembers is afraid."
1Charles Norman's description of Gould illuminates many of the
poem's allusions (The Magic Maker, pp. 143-148).
Seeing that which he longs to become but cannot be, he comes to
hate instead of love; each disassociated modern "hates a Man" because
he cannot be one himself. That is, he not only comes to hate the idea
of complete organicity, which he knows he cannot attain, but also he
hates the man who, unlike himself, lives in harmony with himself and
his environment. Modern man hates him who has integrated the elements
of foetus and ghost and who
would rather make than have and give than lend
-being through failures born who cannot fail
having no wealth but love,who shall not spend
my fortune(although endlessness should end).
Norman Friedman cites the lines above as an example of Cummings'
conception of the truly alive and self-reliant man: "this is a man who
knows death but chooses life, who knows grief but chooses joy, who knows
fear but chooses love; one who, in imitation of Christ (whom a Unitarian
Cummings reveres with a personal devotion ...), redeems chaos by remain-
ing true" (The Art, p. 12).
No Thanks #31 (CP 414) presents Christ as a pattern for those who
would attain transcendence. Cummings observes that true men, like
Christ, remain true to themselves amidst the chaos and decay of time.
All temporal things are corruptible: "yesterday's perfection" loses its
cleverness; "things whose slendering sweetness touched renown" come to
"stink of failure"; dreams are unmade, leaving a "most smashed unworld."
To the true man, knowledge of such mutability is "anguish" so great (a
star could not contain it) that he does not know if he can bear more
and live. Yet in spite of his agony, this man an "eternal mere one
bursting soul" likes the world only, embracing his anguish as an
organic part of his life. As a result, "comes peace unto men who are
always men," and a man shall become that "which a god sometimes is" -
a truly alive transcendental being: an "IS."
In the satirical sonnets of No Thanks, Cummings remains concerned
about the debilitating fictions which man has interposed between himself
and reality. #15 (CP 398) is a good example of Cummings' hatred of
deceptive myths. Here the speaker attacks "scientific" parenthood and
the elevation of scientific myth over more wholesome myths of imagina-
tion. Cummings takes his stand with those "joybegotten whelps" who
are raised on and soothed by "myths like Jonah and the Whale," and
against those who would make Santa Claus a "criminal concept" and re-
place him with Charles Darwin. Cummings chooses myths which teach us
of selfless love and rebirth, and reviles those which teach that the
world rewards selfish behavior.
One of the interesting features of this poem is Cummings' use of
distorted, pseudo-scientific jargon to suggest the distortions of the
modern parents. Friedman notes that the poet, in contrast, speaks in
"the language of the gutter modified by the locutions" of George Herri-
man's Krazy Kat, perhaps to emphasize "the distinction between them and
others like himself who are more old-fashioned" (The Art, p. 77). Krazy
Kat's language is fantastic and imaginative, given to suggestive comic
puns ("sin silly"), and appropriate for one taking his stand with the
imaginative and traditional against the modern, rational, and scientific.
Cummings offers two sonnets early in No Thanks which specifically
attempt to tell his readers "how to run the world." The second sonnet
of the volume, #7 (CP 390), is a delightful last will and testament in
which Cummings marshals eight pieces of advice on how to run the world,
lists his debts, and names his heirs.
The octave is organized, appropriately, along the lines of a
child's "ABC" book. The lessons the speaker professes are not un-
expected; he advises against the desire to power over things, recom-
mending instead openness to love and feeling and escape from egoism.
One point is made for each line of the octave, although there is no
strict line-to-point correlation.
The sestet consists of two parts, the title and the speaker's
designation of his heirs. The title of the sestet is divisible into
three statements: 1) "grass is flesh" 2) "swim/who can and bathe who
must" 3) "any dream means more than sleep as more than know means guess."
These affirm the unity of nature, admonish each man to live according
to his individual lights, and urge man to dream and guess rather than
sleep and know. That is, man is to live imaginatively and emotionally
rather than automatically and analytically.
The second part of the sestet, the "will" proper, has only two
parts. Here the poet recognizes that he owes "dying one life" (but
implies he has more lives) and wills his "rest" to children building
a "rainman out of snow." At this point, the ambiguous diction creates
a field of meaning which adds depth to the speaker's earlier playfulness.
1Friedman suggests that the organizational principle is a "kind of
mock-agenda format" which parodies those who think the world needs a kind
of program (The Growth, pp. 85-86). I feel the nature of the poet's
heirs supports my interpretation.
We may take his "rest" to mean the speaker's poetic and artistic achieve-
ments, and understand that he sees his work as valuable to either future
generations or to the innocent. If we take "rest" to mean his other
lives, then he leaves them all the life-possibilities he did not use
or the encapsulated "lives" recorded in his poems. Finally, "rest" may
mean the tranquil peace which the speaker has now attained and which he
desires for them also. The children are the poet's chosen heirs because
they have the creative, unfettered imagination to build a "rainman" from
snow. They are not daunted in their efforts by the thought of the sure
dissolution of their creation, by the adult knowledge of failure in time;
rather, they live and build in the moment. They live "suddenly without
thinking," imaginatively transforming snow into men ("grass into flesh").
In being aware of the underlying unity of snow and rain, the children
seem to have instinctively apprehended the transcendental wholeness of
No Thanks #19 (CP 402) provides further insight into Cummings' view
of how one attains transcendence by participating fully in the present
moment, the "Now."
who before dying demands not rebirth
of such than hungrily more swiftness as
with(feel)pauseless immeasurably Now
cancels the childfully diminishing earth
-never whose proudly life swallowed is by
(with hope two eyes a memory this brow
five or three dreamfuls of despair that face)
large one coloured nonthings of gluttonous sky-
nor(as a blind,how timidly,throb;which
hints being;suggests identity)breathes fleet
perfectly far from tangible domains
rare with most early soul
him shall untouch
meaningless precision and complete fate
(he must deny mind:may believe in brains.
The proper manner of living in the phenomenal world is defined here
negatively four ways. First, Cummings says one must live and die in
time without demanding an instant rebirth. Second, one must swallow
life that is, embrace fully the multiform totality of phenomenal exist-
ence if one is not to be swallowed by "nonthings of gluttonous sky."
Third, one must not view phenomenal life as a kind of insignificant
larval stage proceeding a transcendental soul-state (of. Actualities VI,
CP 157). And finally, he advises that one "must deny mind," the trap
of scientifically reducing life to sterile abstraction. If one can ac-
complish these tasks, he shall transcend untouched by "meaningless pre-
cision and complete fate."
Cummings digs deeply into his bag of syntactical and grammatical
tricks in this poem. I believe his dislocations and distortions fail
to enhance either the quality of his thought or our perception of it.
But the question of why he chose to write in his most linguistically
complex style remains. It may be that the fluidity and indistinctness
of meaning generated by his techniques is aimed at thwarting our rage
for order, completeness, and precision (i.e. conventionality) of state-
ment. We must deny that in ourselves ("mind") which seeks to make easy
1Friedman correctly says that Cummings is describing a "useless
failure" who is worthy of our admiration and imitation (The Art, p. 13).
He is a failure in the world's eyes, and therefore triumphantly alive
and successfully independent in Cummings'.
sense of an irreducible mystery, but we are, therefore, constrained to
use all of our powers (perhaps to puzzle out Cummings' meaning in this
#37 (CP 420), the first sonnet of the second group of sonnets in
No Thanks, defines a true man. Couched as a challenge to the reader
and the world, the poem tells us how to "conceive a man."
conceive a man,should he have anything
would give a little more than it away
(his autumn's winter being summer's spring
who moved by standing in november's may)
from whose(if loud most howish time derange
the silent whys of such a deathlessness)
rememberance might no patient mind unstrange
learn(nor could all earth's rotting scholars guess
that life shall not for living find the rule)
and dark beginnings are his luminous ends
who far less lonely than a fire is cool
took bedfellows for moons mountains for friends
-open your thighs to fate and(if you can
withholding nothing)World,conceive a man
The true man is totally independent of his possessions and utterly un-
selfish: "should he have anything," he "would give a little more than
it away." He is unafraid of winter and death because they are to him
new beginnings, his "autumn's winter being summer's spring," and con-
versely, "dark beginnings are his luminous ends." He moves toward his
"ends" paradoxically by "standing"; that is, he does not seek irritably
after a preconceived goal, some future bliss, but rather has a kind of
negative capability to simply be (cf, Garrett, p. 51). He has the ca-
pacity to accept life without demanding that it conform to his expecta-
tions; he takes "bedfellows for moons mountains for friends." As Fried-
man says, this "is a man in harmony with nature, not demanding a death-
less life on earth" (The Art, pp. 12-13).
The true man's life is a mystery beyond analysis and biography,
incomprehensible to those who attempt to assess from outside his milieu.
Neither patient minds nor all scholars can learn from his "rememberance,"
for the true man's life is not lived according to "rule." His "life,"
existence or history, cannot be abstracted; it is irreducibly what it is
when it is.
Cummings closes the sonnet with an apostrophe to the world, here
both mankind and nature, to "open your thighs" and "conceive a man."
That is, he desires us to both comprehend the nature of a true man and
to bring one forth. It is in the nature of things for true men to be,
and the poet wants the world to bring them to birth, "withholding no-
Friedman says that the "really significant development" in No
Thanks "is the large and clear group of poems devoted not so much to
subjects having transcendental aspects as to transcendentalism as a
subject in itself" (The Growth, p. 84). Certainly the thrust of the
sonnets which are discussed above has been to explore how to live tran-
scendentally in time. Both the satires, which deal with men and soci-
eties which live wrongly, and the poems which tell us how to run the
world properly are concerned with establishing principles by which we
can transcend the limitations of our preprogrammed perceptions and re-
sponses. Cummings is clearly interested now in coming to grips with
the basic problem of discovering how to live in the phenomenal world of
death and time. His sonnets have become more practical.
Of the nine sonnets in the latter half of No Thanks, four deal
explicitly with transcendence and the other five touch on that topic.
#35 and #37 act as transitional sonnets, combining both Cummings'
concern with living rightly in the phenomenal and his exploration of
transcendence in and beyond time.
No Thanks #35 (CP 418) describes a symbolic landscape. We see a
seashore at nightfall, but the poet sees in the relations of earth, sea,
and oncoming night a paradigm of life, death, and transcendence. The
earth is a symbol of transcendent man (the poet), who, proud and alone,
gives "more than all/life's busy little dyings may possess." The speak-
er is awed by "how sincere large distinct and natural/he comes to his
disappearance." Only those who are themselves enormous failures, in
Cummings' sense (cf. #19, #31), can understand the earth's calmness in
the face of death. The sea, symbolizing death and time, measures the
earth, like a mortician, easily; time will swallow the earth, and all
phenomenal things, as critics will "feast" upon a poet's remains, yet
it will not conquer the earth nor subdue the poet, for beyond earth and
sea, encompassing both, is "the unimaginable night not known" of tran-
Cummings again goes out into the night in #45 (CP 428). This son-
net describes a moment between evening and night when the speaker, lying
1Cf. Stetler, pp. 55-56. Although I think he underestimates the
certainty of transcendence implied in the poem, Stetler makes the good
point that it is a "ghost" that "goes under" and that "what is buried
is only the shell" of a man whose "real essence is what he accomplishes
with his life."
out watching the stars, attains an insight into transcendence. Such an
insight occurs "sometimes in)Spring"; the condition within the speaker
must be right; he must be in a loving, "ignorant" and selfless state.
When insight is achieved, a "someone," a man in a non-transcendent state,
becomes transformed into an "i," a true man who in the moment, feeling
"vastness of love," breathes a timeless perfection, forgets the unworld
of time, and attains a peace that "outthunders silence."
Such moments of transcendence as may be attained in the temporal
world are evanescent, passing in a "heartbeat." But in that moment
exists a kind of timelessness. Cummings, like William Blake, seems to
find heaven by holding "eternity in an hour."
These magical moments of transcendence prepare the speaker for the
"deathless life" of transcendence much as a waterpump might be primed
for continuous operation by the addition of several buckets of water.
These priming moments make us aware of and prepare us for transcendence
beyond the phenomenal.
No Thanks #49 (CP 432), like #35 and #45, also records a moment of
insight. Again the poet speaks with assurance; he is able now to teach
his lady the proper way to apprehend her life and death. The poem de-
scribes a violent storm that has struck unexpectedly and frightened the
poet's lady with its catastrophic fury. Recognizing her bewilderment,
the poet creates his sonnet, which recalls and interprets their experi-
ence, in order to reassure her and remind her of the necessity to com-
prehend existence "under imagination."
silent unday by silently not night
did the great world(in darkly taking rain)
ing through touch
among what ghostly never of again)
silent not night by silently unday
life's bright less dwindled to a leastful most
under imagination. When(out of sheer
nothing)came a huger than fear a
white with madness wind and broke oceans and tore
mountains from their sockets and strewed the black air
with writhing alive skies and in death's place
new fragrantly young earth space opening was.
Were your eyes:lost,believing;hushed with when
The poem begins on a calm note; night has slowly fallen, and rain
has been falling gently (the typographical arrangement of lines 3-4
suggests the gentleness). The "great earth" has drowned, "falling with
touchless stillness" into the night (death, the past, "ghostly never
of again"). The poet and his lady have been content as "life's bright
less dwindled to a leastful most," accepting calmly the death of the
world and finding in that death a "most" of transcendence.
But suddenly and violently a windstorm strikes; "white with mad-
ness," it breaks oceans, tears mountains up by the roots, and strews
"the black air/with writhing alive skies." The lady is apparently
frightened and unable to bear this catastrophe with equanimity. The
speaker feels it necessary to remind her that "in death's place/new
fragrantly young earth space opening was," and to ask her gently, half-
disbelievingly, if she were really "lost," unable to feel the joy of
rebirth because of the catastrophe of death.
The significance of this sonnet is that it reflects Cummings'
growing assurance of his own transcendental vision. He has moved from
a concern for his own vision of life to a concern for his lady's. The
viability of his own ideas is not in doubt; certain of his own stance,
he can now reassure his lady's fears without self-doubt or supposition.
In the final sonnet of No Thanks, #69 (CP 454), the speaker re-
sumes the role of spokesman for or embodiment of both worldly and tran-
scendent existence to instruct his lady in the proper way to achieve
"the awful mystery of light." First, he advises, "reason let others
give and realness bring." She must neither seek for rational explana-
tions of life nor treat the phenomenal world as if it were ultimately
real. Rather, the lady must "ask the always impossible" of her lover
and existence. She must not be content with the world as it exists
within the limitations of a particular "wherewhen," but seek its perfec-
tion. She must "ask" without making selfish demands, without forcing
the world to be solely for her. She must ask and be open to the answers.
Louis Rus has pointed out that the ambiguous syntax makes "the
sentences in lines three through twelve ... both statements and questions."
He says that these questions "are asked and there is always something of
the poet's positive answers contained within the questions; he gives pos-
itive answers yet there are always questions within the statements. The
effect attained is a vagueness that hints at things beyond understanding;
this is entirely different from the "reason" which others give and the
"realness" which they bring" (p. 73). In giving the lady four examples
of the kind of impossible questions she must ask in order to achieve
transcendence, the poet is also providing insights into transcendence.
He both urges and encourages. This double movement, generated by the
ambiguous syntax, makes her questions the speaker's assertions and his
conclusion both contingent and fixed.
This sonnet, like many of the earlier sonnets in the volume, re-
flects Cunmings' awareness of an antagonism that exists, actually or
potentially, between himself and his lady and those "others" who are
content with reason and realness. However, while his antipathy does
not change, he moves from a stance of active confrontation and attack
(of. #7, #11, #15, #23) to dismissing the others as irrelevant to the
individual in search or transcendence. The others are now a "small
million" futilely denying the "awful mystery." Cummings is now able to
abjure them serenely and dispassionately.
Cummings touches upon the theme of death in a number of the sonnets
of No Thanks. In #65 (CP 450), he affirms that transcendence is con-
tingent upon death. If one is to ascend the "steep fragrance of eter-
nity," adventure the "most not imagined life," and discover his true
transcendental self, he must die. Death again means both physical
mortality in time and a change of attitude toward life in the unworld.
Transcendence requires the death of one's preoccupation with money,
success, and reputation; fear of the night (of death, change, mystery,
the loss of "day") must be abandoned and "night's mostness" embraced.
Moreover, one must let his reliance on reason and reason's interpreta-
tion of the world (the "births of mind") go "silent," for they are dis-
tractions which seem to the this-worldly "more flowering than stars."
To climb eternity, one must approach existence prayerfully asking
rather than demanding, recognizing human imperfection, abandoning
the will to power over things.
By living in the transcendent mode in the phenomenal, one discovers
and participates in his transcendental being "behind death's death."
That is, one does not live in the world in order to get to a heaven that
lies beyond or after life (although one does exist transcendentally after
life); rather, one attains the timeless world which coexists with and
subsumes the phenomenal by selflessly embracing the phenomenal. For the
truly alive, transcendence is not "when" but "now," "whenless" and
The theme of love is also present in No Thanks, although it is not
explored here as much as in Viva. #61 (CP 446) is an explicitly philo-
sophical definition of "love's function" and lovers, and offers Cummings'
ideas on the way to solve the alienation of modern man from nature.
love's function is to fabricate unknownness
(known being wishless;but love,all of wishing)
though life's lived wrongsideout,sameness chokes oneness
truth is confused with fact,fish boast of fishing
and men are caught by worms(love may not care
if time totters,light droops,all measures bend
nor marvel if a thought should weigh a star
-dreads dying least;and less,that death should end)
1The succession of "if" clauses in 11. 1-7 and the movement of the
soul, "world by than worlds immenser world" toward transcendence, suggest
that Cummings conceived of the progress of the transcendent soul much as
Dante conceived of the movement of the saved through the spheres to the
Empyrean and God.
2Friedman says one of the crucial features of Viva is the gradual
strengthening of the transcendental treatment of love (The Growth, p. 77).
how lucky lovers are(whose selves abide
under whatever shall discovered be)
whose ignorant each breathing dares to hide
more than most fabulous wisdom fears to see
(who laugh and cry)who dream,create and kill
while the whole moves;and every part stands still:
"To fabricate unknownness" is to make life a mystery for man again.
Love creates in man the capacity for wonder, and allows man to move to-
ward transcendence by discovering himself as he discovers the world.
Love is vital because "life's lived wrongsideout" in our time; man, a
part of the wholeness of nature, has internalized the world by reducing
it to a collection of easily manipulatable facts and abstract relations
through the dark glass of knowledge and reason. He has sought to heal
the subject-object dichotomy by the power of rational analysis and
scientific explanation; he has made the world safe for himself by pre-
tending that all is ultimately knowable and measurable, by conceiving
the world solely in terms of himself. The consequence of internaliza-
tion is a perverse sterility. Man cannot interact and grow, attempt and
fail and develop, if all that he has is but a version or reflection of
himself. Love, in freeing nature from man and man from his conceptual
onanism, allows man to evolve, to struggle, to transcend.
Because love and lovers accept "whatever shall discovered be,"
Friedman says that they can transcend "so-called civilization and the
world of death and time" and "rise up to the world of dream" (The Art,
p. 46). The universe as we conceive it may change utterly: time may
totter, light droop, "all measures bend"; it may even die. But love,
because it embraces the universe whatever its condition, dreads nothing.
And lucky lovers, attempting life and death and living in the moment,
"dream create and kill/while the whole moves; and every part stands
Cummings implies, in several of these sonnets (#7, #35, #37),
that the transcendent man is a poet and that the true poet is tran-
scendentally alive. #53 (CP 437) may be read as a description of the
poet, his poem, and its effects on the lives of men.
The sonnet portrays a flower vendor and his horse as they peddle
blooms in a city street, bringing beauty into an ugly world and feeding
the citizens' hunger for "Is," "Love," and "Spring" by teaching them to
see and feel. The speaker is impressed by the grace and power of the
horse, which is no mere beast of burden but a proud individual "whose
feet almost walk air." His master is a ragged man who limps beside his
cart "crying silence upward." Like a bailiff crying a court of law to
order, he calls for silence (Cummings' term for the condition of self-
abnegation) before the beauty of his wares. The flowers themselves are
the magical force of beauty which redeems men from "dark places." Their
light "paints eyes" and "touches hands"; that is, the flowers create in
the citizens the capacity to appreciate beauty in the world and the tran-
scendent beauty of which the flowers are a temporal manifestation.
Like the flower vendor, the poet calls for our attention but is
important only as far as his wares are important. His poem, symbolized
by the horse and cart, is proud and independent, complete in itself, and
1Lloyd Frankenberg, Pleasure Dome: On Reading Modern Poetry (Cam-
bridge, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), p. 167. Frankenberg notes that
the horse "represents the precariousness of beauty in the modern world."
no mere vehicle. The flowers suggest the beauties of the poem, and
are the most significant element, of course, for they bring new life
into the chaotic city of man. Reading the sonnet this way, one sees
that Cummings is presenting poetry, and life itself, as a beautiful but
subversive force. The horse "smiles" as it "stamps" out the drab ugli-
ness of modern existence. Moreover, the central image implies that
poetry is a "trojan horse" bringing revolutionary change into the world,
"piercing clothes thoughts kissing wishes bodies" with unsuspected
The virtual absence of sonnets dealing with the demimonde, with the
dispiriting effects of lust, and with death as a terrifying finality in-
dicates, particularly when it is seen in the context of the themes which
he does explore, that Cummings' stance toward phenomenal life is becoming
more mature. He has given up childish things as he has grown wiser. He
is concerned now with discovering and exploring how he and his lady can
find the transcendence and love he knows exist.
As Norman Friedman has thoroughly noted, the poems of Viva and No
Thanks also reflect Cummings' search for a mode of expression which is
capable of reflecting the vitality and dynamic interaction of the time-
less, simultaneous world of dream (see The Growth, pp. 75, 80). Just
as he explores the nature of worldly and otherworldly transcendence, so
he explores the capacity of the language to capture his insight effec-
tively. The sonnets of both volumes reflect Cummings' experiments with
typography and, particularly, with syntax and grammar. The language,
like the minds and hearts of men, lives most fully only when it is free
of restrictive, arbitrary conventions of word order, punctuation, and
Of the twenty-two new poems which were added to Collected Poems
(1938), Cummings' first anthology, only two are sonnets. In #17 (CP
479), Cummings praises his lady and the power of her love to transform
his life from failure to joy by tracing the redemptive effects her love
has had for him and by explaining what its loss would mean. In order
to convey the magnitude and meaning of his transformation, the speaker
compares himself to a bowery bum (a failure) who has risen from the
gutter as a result of a miraculous spiritual discovery to become an
alive, transcendent individual.
The process of the speaker's redemption in #17 is clear. First,
he miraculously becomes aware of "no/Where," of the existence of a life
beyond the "flophouse" of the world. He fails to comprehend ("to map")
this newly found state, perhaps because his powers of spiritual vision
are undeveloped (they are still not "eyes") and he is trying to reduce
unmappable "no/Where" to a rational scheme. At the same time, perhaps
as a consequence of his attempt, the bum's ingrained this-worldliness,
characterized by "mind," "roots among much soundless rubbish of guitars/
and watches." Even as he is trying to explore transcendence, he grubs
like a bum in the trashheap, and, still "death's dollhead wandering
under weakening stars," settles deeper into the rubbish of the phenomen-
al world. A further miracle is required; he must learn to feel, to
empathize rather than analyze, to accept rather than manipulate. He
discovers that it is not enough to simply apprehend the transcendental.
It is only as he "Feels" existence that he is renewed, that he becomes
truly a man. If he "Feels" the capitalization of the word emphasizes
its importance a new world is born for him, one that reciprocates his
love, that cherishes and protects him as his "unlife bursts."
The speaker implies that he has suffered this process as a result
of his lady's miraculous love. He has discovered transcendence, and the
fullness of life in the unworld, through her. And he notes that the
process can be more than reversed if she "should turn the infinite cor-
ner of love" or leave him. Then his "all" would disappear, leaving "no
proof/not the least shadow of a. Not one smallest dream."
The lady is praised here, as often before, because she is the
speaker's very life; she has become not only his avenue to true being
but also life itself, and he is keenly aware of his gain. The awesome
responsibility conferred on the lady as conservatrix of the speaker's
spiritual health tends to explain Cummings' frequent didactic and con-
solatory poems; if she is to be his all, she must know how to be.
Telling his lady how and why to be is the speaker's purpose in the
other sonnet included in New Poems, #22 (CP 484). Here he tells his
you shall above all things be glad and young.
For if you're young,whatever life you wear
it will become you;and if you are glad
whatever's living will yourself become
The lady must accept the world gladly, with the openness and flexibility
of a child, if she is to become one with "whatever's alive" or tran-
scendent life. Yet she must also be fully a woman; the poet says that
although "girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need," he
can entirely her only love
whose any mystery makes every man's
flesh put space on;and his mind take off time.
Friedman, ignoring the sexual implications of this passage, says that
the fifth line means that "ordinary lovers those whose identity is
confused and indistinct may need nothing more than ordinary people to
love" and that the poet is saying he can "entirely love her only whose
mystery breaks down the usual categories and brings a man's body and
mind thereby into the transcendental world" (The Growth, p. 92).
The poet continues his instruction in the sestet by warning the
lady, Friedman also says, against "reason, the maker of categories" and
exalting "organic reality." She must abhor thinking, "for that way
knowledge lies," along with "the foetal grave called progress and nega-
tion's dead undoom." Thinking generates "lies," false abstracts of
reality, and the deathful idea that man is increasing his dominion over
nature. Thinking is saying "no" to the totality of life, separating
existence into arbitrary sets and collections, removing the mystery from
being, and results in a sterile "undoom." The poet would, and the lady
should, "rather learn from one bird how to sing/than teach ten thousand
stars how not to dance."
In a number of the sonnets of Viva, the speaker recognized and
praised his lady's power to make his life meaningful. But he also im-
plied that theirs was a mutually elevating love (Viva LXX) beyond either
of them to achieve singly. #17 of New Poems, in contrast, invests the
whole of the speaker's life in his lady, who is treated as a kind of
personal divinity in whose dispensation lies the speaker's doom. Yet
he can still instruct her, as he does in #22, in the proper way to live.
I find these points of view contradictory and mutually exclusive. The
poet does not derive from the paradox an illuminating insight into the
unity of being which transcends categories; rather, he betrays an un-
certainty of vision which undercuts the assertions contained in each
In 50 Poems (1940), as in No Thanks, sonnets comprise roughly a
quarter of the volume (18 of 50). And, as in both Viva and No Thanks,
they reflect the general concerns of the volume, although here they are
not organized as regularly as before. The satirical and worldly sonnets
are again found among the early poems, and the later sonnets deal with
"clean" or transcendental topics. However, transcendental elements
pervade the volume as a whole, and the sonnets reflect this pattern;
transcendence is a topic of several of the volume's early sonnets.
The first sonnet of 50 Poems presents a spectacular combination
of experimental technique and traditional structure.
am was. are leaves few this. is these a or
scratchily over which of earth dragged once
-ful leaf. & were who skies clutch an of poor
how colding hereless. air there what immense
live without every dancing, singles on-
ly a child's eyes float silently down
more than two those that and that noing our
gone snow gone
alive and shall be:cities may overflow(am
was)assassinating whole grassblades,five
ideas can swallow a man;three words im
-prison a woman for all her now:but we've
such freedom such intense digestion so
much greenness only dying makes us grow
Here in #5 (CP 491), the poet consoles his lady's fear of death,
,.,tolized by winter, and instructs her in the nature of their tran-
,,.ndental being. He begins by observing the deathful condition of
:.e natural world (11. 1-5); it is late autumn or winter, and the world
,sams dead ("am was"). The wind drags fallen leaves across the frozen
r-cund. All dimension and outline seem lost; all that remains is a
..ereless" region surrounded by immense expanses of "empty sky." All
signs of vitality dancing, singing seem absent until the poet dis-
covers that he and his lady are not alone in the barren landscape; a
child also watches the scene. To the speaker, the child's silent con-
templation of the cycle of natural seasons, neither ecstatic nor sorrow-
ful but simply accepting, seems a miracle and has the effect, he says,
of "noing" (i.e. negating) their fear of death and time as well as their
ezoism. They are reborn; the speaker emphasizes their new collective
life in the present by saying "we're."
Having learned from the child that rebirth and growth require the
acceptance of death, the speaker now explores and defines for the lady
:~. nature of their new dispensation. They have not only escaped the
'z.rorld of cities, ideas, and words (all unnatural, manmade abstractions
a-Ad constructs) to become at home in nature, they have also grown into
tre true, timeless world of dream by accepting and submitting themselves
to the cycle of life and death in the phenomenal. As Friedman says,
"the 'dying' refers ... to the surrender of the routine world and the
abstract categories it imposes upon the natural world, for fall is as
much a part of the cycle of growth to the transcendentalist as is spring"
(Th Growth, p. 128).
This sonnet is instructive not only because it indicates Cummings'
increasing belief in the necessity of embracing temporal existence,
but also because the poet embodies his insight in a revolutionary rhet-
oric fully appropriate to his thought. Combining distortions of normal
word order and grammar with a careful use of the period in the early
lines, Cummings creates an atomisticc syntax" which reflects the spir-
itual fragmentation of the speaker and his lady as they view a world
which seems itself to have become empty, dead, and fragmented as they
discover themselves strangers in a strange wasteland. The syntax be-
comes more regular and the fragmentation ceases as they become aware of
the child's eyes calmly taking in the winter scene that so disturbs
them (11. 6-8). Just as their apprehension of the child's acceptance
of the cycle of nature brings about their spiritual restoration and re-
ordering, so their perception of the world, reflected in the poet's
description, gradually becomes more orderly; the world flows together
without interruption or fragmentation until they arrive at the moment
of rebirth. Then, the "noing" of their fear and egoism having been
effected, a period is put to their old lives ("yours mine.") and a new
sentence, a new life, begun. This new state is described in normal word
order and punctuated with commas, semicolons, and colons. The syntax
reflects the orderliness and consistency of vision which they have
gained, and the substitution of linking punctuation for periods suggests
the larger unifying vision that has replaced their fragmented perceptions.
1"Atomistic syntax" is Friedman's term; see The Growth, p. 130.
Furthermore, the absence of final punctuation in line fourteen supports
the speaker's affirmation that they are "alive/and shall be" without end.
#16 (CP 502) is very much like #5 in technique and theme. It is
surely one of Cummings' most difficult poems, and it is nearly impossible
to be more precise than to say that this sonnet records a moment when the
speaker, finding himself amidst a landscape wherein death seems to reign
utterly, discovers that natural beauty, and therefore transcendental re-
lease, exists in death.
when what hugs stopping earth than silent is
more silent than more than much more is or
total sun oceaning than any this
tear jumping from each most least eye of star
and without was if minus and shall be
immeasurable happenless unnow
shuts more than open could that very tree
or than all life more death begins to grow
end's ending then these dolls of joy and grief
these recent memories of future dream
these perhaps who have lost their shadows if
which did not do the losing spectres mime
until out of merely not nothing comes
only one snowflake(and we speak our names
The difficulty in reading this sonnet derives from Cummings' use of
inordinately atomistic syntax. He heaps up words and phrases without
benefit of syntactical or punctuational clergy; he neither marries his
words and phrases with clarifying punctuation nor orders them according
to standard usage. Friedman compares this technique to pointillisme and
suggests that by letting each word or phrase retain an unusual degree of
freedom of meaning, a "transcendental intensity" of impression is cre-
ated rather than a specific rendering of scene and idea (The Growth, p.