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E. (Edward Estlin) Cummings is a poet known to many readers as E. E. Cummings, and is remembered for his innovative, playful spirit, his celebration of love and nature, his focus on the primacy of the individual and freedom of expression, and for his treatment of the themes, in his own words, of ”ecstasy and anguish, being and becoming; the immortality of the creative imagination and the indomitability of the human spirit.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Artistic Youth and Harvard Education
Cummings grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father was a sociology professor at Harvard and a noted Unitarian clergyman. Demonstrating a strong interest in poetry and art from an early age, Cummings enjoyed the full support and encouragement of his parents. He attended Harvard from 1911 to 1915, studying literature and writing. He eventually joined the editorial board of the Harvard Monthly, a college literary magazine, where he worked with his close friends S. Foster Damon and John Dos Passos. In his senior year he became fascinated by avant-garde art, modernism, and cubism, an interest reflected in his graduation dissertation, ”The New Art.” In this paper, Cummings extolled modernism as practiced by Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and Pablo Picasso. He also began incorporating elements of these styles into his own poetry and paintings. His first published poems appeared in the anthology Eight Harvard Poets in 1917. These pieces feature experimental verse forms and the lower-case personal pronoun ”i”—symbolizing both the humbleness and the uniqueness of the individual— that became his trademark. The copyeditor of the book, however, mistook Cummings’s intentions as typographical errors and made “corrections.”
World War I Service
In 1917, Cummings moved to New York, was employed very briefly at a mail-order book company, and soon began working full-time on his poetry and art. With World War I raging in Europe, he volunteered for the French-based Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service. World War I produced over forty million casualties during trench-warfare mostly occurring in Europe, and resulted in large-scale disillusionment with technology and the idea of progress. Cummings spent time in Paris upon his arrival and was completely charmed by the city’s bohemian atmosphere and abundance of art and artists. He was particularly impressed by the sketches of Pablo Picasso, whose cubist techniques later helped shape much of his own work.
Because of a misunderstanding involving his disregard of regulations and his attempts to outwit the war time censors in his letters home, Cummings spent four months in an internment camp in Normandy on suspicion of treason, an experience documented in his prose work The Enormous Room (1922). Making use of his contacts in government, Cummings’s father was able to secure his son’s release. Cummings was drafted shortly after he returned to New York in 1918 and spent about a year at Camp Danvers, Massachusetts. Beginning around this time, Cummings, with the knowledge and approval of his friend Schofeld Thayer, had an affair with Schofeld’s wife Elaine. Cummings’s daughter Nancy was born in 1919, but she was given Thayer’s name. Cummings and Elaine Thayer married in 1924, at which time Cummings legally adopted Nancy. The marriage ended in divorce shortly thereafter.
European Travels and Growing Fame
During the 1920s and 1930s, he traveled widely in Europe, alternately living in Paris and New York, and developed parallel careers as a poet and painter. Politically liberal and with leftist leanings, Cummings visited the Soviet Union in 1931 to find out how the system of government subsidy for art functioned there. Eimi (1933), an expanded version of his travel diary, expresses his profound disappointment in its indictment of the regimentation and lack of personal and artistic freedom he encountered. From that time, Cummings abandoned his liberal political views and social circle and became an embittered, reactionary conservative on social and political issues. He continued to write prolifically and reached the height of his popularity during the 1940s and 1950s, giving poetry readings to college audiences across the United States until his death in 1962.
Cummings’s innovative and controversial verse places him among the most popular and widely anthologized poets of the twentieth century. While linked early in his career with the Modernist movement, he wrote poems with themes that more closely resemble the works ofthe New England Transcendentalists and English Romantics. Rejecting what he perceived as the small-mindedness of “most people,” Cummings’s work celebrates the individual, as well as erotic and familial love. Conformity, mass psychology, and snobbery were frequent targets of his humorous and sometimes scathing satires.
Cummings was also a painter and a student of such modernist art forms as cubism, an early twentieth-century avant-garde art form that depicts images angularly and from multiple perspectives. Pablo Picasso was an innovator of cubism, and he greatly influenced Cummings’s work. Cummings’s knowledge of the visual arts led him to experiment with punctuation, idiomatic speech, com pressed words, dislocated syntax, unusual typography, line division, and capitalization to capture the particulars of a single movement or moment in time. Discussing Cummings’s technique, critic Randall Jarrell explained:
Cummings is a very great expert in all these, so to speak, illegal syntactical devices: his misuse of parts of speech, his use of negative prefixes, his word-coining, his systematic relation of words that gram mar and syntax don’t permit us to relate—all this makes him a magical bootlegger or moonshiner of language, one who intoxicates us on a clear liquor no government has legalized with its stamp.
Works in Literary Context
Modernist art and writing became popular in Europe and America between 1910 and 1920. Concerned with the individual’s role within a society that was increasingly technological and often destructive, modernist writers included T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Like other modernist poets, Cummings was well-schooled in traditional verse but then chose to experiment with nontraditional styles. Although more playful in his language than many other modernists, Cummings was one of the earliest modern poets to introduce typographical eccentricities into writing. His linguistic experimentation was in fact painstakingly measured to control sound—pacing, syllable stress, juncture—and sight.
The strong visual character of Cummings’s writing owes much to his parallel development as a painter. Indeed, his alteration of syntax derived from the advances in contemporary European visual art, particularly cubism. M. L. Rosenthal wrote in The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction: ”The chief effect of Cummings’ jugglery with syntax, grammar, and diction was to blow open otherwise trite and bathetic motifs. . . . He succeeded masterfully in splitting the atom of the cute commonplace.”
Individualism and Romanticism
The American Romantic period occurred during the nineteenth century and involved writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. To many Romantic writers, all truth, beauty, and transcendence are attached to the individual rather than an institution, such as a government or a church. However modern the stimulus for and the superficial appearance of his writing may have been, much of Cummings’s work arises from this nineteenth-century romantic reverence for natural order over man-made order, for intuition and imagination over routine-grounded perception. He echoes these romantic ideals in his poems as his attacks on concepts like the mass mind, conventional patterns of thought, and society’s restrictions on free expression, were born of his strong commitment to the individual. In the “nonlectures” he delivered at Harvard University Cummings explained his position: ”So far as I am concerned, poetry and every other art was, is, and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality.”
”Cummings’ lifelong belief,” Bernard Dekle stated in Profiles of Modern American Authors, ”was a simple faith in the miracle of man’s individuality. Much of his literary effort was directed against what he considered the principal enemies of this individuality—mass thought, group conformity, and commercialism.” For this reason, Cummings satirized what he called “most people”—that is, the herd mentality found in modern society.
Works in Critical Context
Critical opinion of Cummings’s poems is markedly divided. Beginning with Tulips and Chimneys, reviewers described Cummings’s style as eccentric and self-indulgent, designed to call attention to itself rather than to elucidate themes. Some critics also objected to Cummings’s explicit treatment of sexuality, while others labeled his depictions of society’s hypocrisy and banality elitist. When his Collected Poems were published in 1938, Cummings’s sharp satires caused some reviewers to call him a misanthrope. His later, more conservative poetry came under attack for anti-Semitism, a charge that is still debated.
Critics have noted, too, that Cummings’s style did not change or develop much throughout his career. Some commentators speculate that Cummings found a style early on that suited him and simply continued with it; others, however, have faulted the author for insufficient artistic growth. For example, many critics censured 50 Poems, accusing Cummings of relying too much on formulaic writing and habitual stylistic mannerisms. A group of scholars posited that Cummings’s verbal experimentation and idiosyncratic arrangement of text actually draw readers’ attention from the poetry itself.
Despite these negative assessments, Cummings remains an extremely popular poet, and his poems are widely anthologized. By the time of his death in 1962, Cummings held a prominent position in twentieth-century poetry. John Logan in Modern American Poetry: Essays in Criticism (1970) called him ”one of the greatest lyric poets in our language.” Stanley Edgar Hyman wrote in Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (1966): Cummings has written at least a dozen poems that seem to me matchless. Three are among the great love poems of our time or any time.”
”anyone lived in a pretty how town”
Cummings’s famous poem details the generic lives of people in a generic town, using the progress of the seasons to represent the passage of time. Cummings writes: Women and men (both little and small) / cared for anyone not at all / they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same / sun moon stars rain.” B. J. Hunt explains that, although the rhythm of the poem is light, the subject matter is considerably darker. He writes:
On one hand, the playful rhythm and sound complement nature’s sequences where life cycles rotate throughout the nine stanzas like a merry-go-round, life on a proverbial fast-paced playground. Masked, however, is life’s monotony and death’s certainty as the four-line stanzas, mostly tetra meters that mirror the four seasons, lead, perhaps, to an immutable certainty: everyone dies.
- Dekle, Bernard. Profiles of Modern American Authors. Rutland, Vt.: Chas. E. Tuttle, 1969.
- Hyman, Stanley Edgar. Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time. New York: Horizon, 1966.
- Jarrell, Randall. The Third Book of Criticism. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.
- Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. New York: Liveright, 1980.
- –. E. E. Cummings Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994.
- Mattson, Francis O. E. E. Cummings @ 100: With a Checklist of the Exhibition. New York: New York Public Library, 1994.
- Mazzaro, Jerome. Modern American Poetry: Essays in Criticism. New York: McKay, 1970.
- Rosenthal, M. L. The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.
- Friedman, Norman. ”E. E. Cummings and the Modernist Tradition.” Forum (Houston) 3, no.10 (1962): 39-46.
- Hunt, B. J. ”Cumming’s ‘Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town’.” Explicator 64, no. 4 (2006): 226-228.
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