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For my 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. 



Acknowledgments iii 

Abstract v 

Introduction 1 

Chapter One - The Formal Dimension 6 

Chapter Two - The Early Sonnets 30 

Chapter Three - The Middle Sonnets 67 

Chapter Four - The Later Sonnets 122 

Conclusion 176 

Bibliography of Works Consulted 182 

Biographical Sketch 186 


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 



David G. Mead 

August, 1975 

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 he measured, and reflects his 
innovative poetic technique. 

Cummings defined the sonnet minimally as "a poem of fourteen iam- 
bic pentameters, none of them un^hymed.' , 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. C uanai ngs' 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 1 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 
n 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 

E. E. Cummings, i: six non-lectures (New York: Atheneum, 1965), 
p. 30. 


h-lm 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 

^1 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 1 radical diction and syntax. 
The sonnets in themselves have attracted very little attention, al- 
though many of Cummings 1 best-known and critically appreciated poems 
are sonnets. 

The criticism directed to the sonnets has been superficial or sum- 
mary - a paragraph here and there. For example, Norman Friedman, per- 
haps Cummings 1 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 

taciturn . 

Yet a curious phenomenon exists in the criticism which is devoted 

Norman Friedman, E. E. Cummings; The Art of his Poetry (Baltimore: 
Johns Hopkins Press, I960), pp. 100-103 - hereafter cited as The Art . 

TIaskell 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 1 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 1 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 

Gorman 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, XII 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 lxl . 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. 


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." 1 

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 

E. 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) 4 the sestet (lines 9-1-4)" ( 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- 
meter lines. 

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 
d eman ding 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 1 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 I New Xork: D. Appleton, 188b), p. 89. 

2 T. W. H. Crosland, The English Sonnet (London: Martin Seeker, 1917). 

^Leigh 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), 
p. 14. 


argued in his Peabody Lectures that "in the English or Illigitimate 

sonnet there i3 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 

Sidney Lanier, Shakespeare and his Forerunners , ed. Kemp Malone 
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 194-5), 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 
prejudice . 

If one grants that sonnets have been written in forms so various 
as those by Shakespeare, Wordsworth et^aJL, then one is more or less 
bound to assent to the proposition that any f ourteen-line , rhymed poem 
which focuses on a single idea, thought, or feeling is a sonnet. And 
that is precisely the substance of Cummings 1 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 

Ispringer, 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 hulk 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- 

^lobert L. Beloof, "E. E. Cummings: The Prosodic Shape of his 
Poems," doctoral dissertation (Northwestern University, 1954), p. 81. 
While neither 95 Poems nor 71 Poems had been published at the time of 
this study, Beloof *s remarks hold true for the sonnets in these volumes. 

cally counterpoints the theme of the spiritual despair generated by- 
loveless fornication. 

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 half sight , 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 84-3) 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 bom. 

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 




sing." Seldom, how- 
ever, do the sonnets contain this sort of mimetic typography; they do 
not usually contain word-pictures on the order of Apollonaire ' s Calli- 
grammes or of Cummings' own poems such as #1 of 95 Poems , where the 
typographical arrangement is the primary poetic element (CP 673): 







More often, the line-breaks work 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 

For 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), " mim etic 
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 

1 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 ..." 

(CP 491). 

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 
aches , just , simply , into , her . 

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 collaps 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 
of capitalization: 


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 

Jo-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) 


sunbeams loot 
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 
beggars yaw : ns tre t chy : awn ) 


o my love 

it's Spring 

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 
n around(me)you n , 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." 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 
"YJCA," 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 
CVmneys (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, 

/ / t / t 

which wholly trembling memory undertakes 

/ / • / i 

- your kiss, the little pushings of flesh, makes 

my body sorry when the minute moon 

if / / J / 

is a remarkable splinter in the quick 

/ / / / / 

of twilight.... or if sunset utters one 

/ / t £ t 

unhurried muscled huge chromatic 

fist skilfully modeling silence 

/ / j ' / 

- to feel how through the stopped entire day 

/J /J / 

horribly and seriously thrills 

the moment of enthusiastic space 


J, * / 6 / 

is a little wonderful, and say 

/ / / J ' 

Perhaps her body touched me; and to face 

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 

Joseph 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. 

Lu 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 lxl #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 

See Norman Friedman, &. e. cumnrfngs: 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 (C£ 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 
losing, gaining 

-love 1 if 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 theroid 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 
its terrors; 

the , mouth ' s , swallowed ,muscle( itch 
of groping mucous )in my mouth occurs 

homelessly. While grip Hips simply, well 

fused flesh does surely to mesh. New 

and eager, wittily peels the. ploop. -00c h get:breath 

once, all over, kid how, funny Do tell 

.... sweat, succeeds breathings 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' 1 (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 "hugest 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 suffer?all 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. Cunnnings' 
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 
another ' s . 

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 mann er 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. 


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 1 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, I960 ). " ~ ' ~~ 



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 m an 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 charitible activites arise from selfish mo- 
tives . 

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 

^Cf. 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 C ummin gs 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 

^■Charles 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 
commercial transactions. 

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 "riant," 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- 
tive Americans. 

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. 

^e brothel may be owned by "Dick Mid," who is described in Real- 
ities XX of And (CP H9), and the madam who welcomes "smeestair steevun- 
sun" in Realities IV 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 
(CP 134): 

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 .... 

the bloodbeat 
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, 

the killed 

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 

in me 

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 pushings 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 

1 Julia 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 
this sonnet. 


"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 Mm 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 Curamings' 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 "houseless 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 

^■Patricia 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 J, 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 i£ - 
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 1-42), 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 
traditional poems. 


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 

ICummings' 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, Cu m m in gs 
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 
disjunct stars. 

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 collaps 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 1 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. 

C ummin gs' 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 

^f. 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, LXVTI, 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 
unreallyjas 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. 


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 1 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 "soullessness" 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 

rhetorical question. 

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 s and fears or any when 
unwondering immense directionless 
horizon ) 

-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 

timeless, realm. 

The moon remains Cummings 1 premier symbol of transcendence. 

structure, miraculous challenge , devout am 

upward deep most invincible unthing 

Stetler cites this poem and these lines as evidence of R. P. 
Blackmur's mistaken judgement of Cummings (p. 51). 


- stem sexual timelessness, out towering 
this noisy impotence of not and same 

answer, beginning, ecstasy, to dare: 
prouder than all mountains , more than all 
oceans various 

and while everywhere 
beneath thee and about thyself a small 
hoping insect, humanity, achieves 
(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 hu m a n 

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. 

^ee Marvin Price Garrett, Jr. "Death and Love in the Poetry of 
E. E. Cummings," master's thesis (University of Florida, 1965), pp. 5-6. 


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 
meanings . 

"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 4-06) 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 
fictions . 

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." 

•^Charles 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 f or tune ( 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 1 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: l) "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. 

Friedman 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 Cnmmings' 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( f eel )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 jwhich 
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 preceeding a transcendental soul -state (cf. 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 

Friedman 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 

sonnet ) . 

#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 conquor the earth nor subdue the poet, for beyond earth and 

sea, encompassing both, is "the unimaginable night not known" of tran- 

scendence . 

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 

^f . 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 he right; he must he 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) 
drown, beyond sound 

down( slowly 




ing through touch 

less stillness( seized 

among what ghostly nevers 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 nevers 
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 Cummings' 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 
(cf. #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 

"everywhere . " 

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 wishlessjbut 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) 

1 The 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. 

Friedman 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 

iLloyd 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 
sonnet . 

In 50 Poems (194-0), 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 theres what immense 
live without every dancing, singless on- 
ly a child's eyes float silently down 
more than two those that and that noing our 
gone snow gone 

yours mine 

. We're 
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 nowtbut 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, 
,,mt>olized by winter, and instructs her in the nature of their tran- 
,,. v -udental being. He begins by observing the deathful condition of 
i>* natural world (11. 1-5); it is late autumn or winter, and the world 
ffjas dead ("am was"). The wind drags fallen leaves across the frozen 
«~vund. All dimension and outline seem lost; all that remains is a 
♦^ereless" region surrounded by immense expanses of "empty sky." All 
si^ns 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 
eroism. 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 
Vie nature of their new dispensation. They have not only escaped the 
EWorld of cities, ideas, and words (all unnatural, manmade abstractions 
»M constructs) to become at home in nature, they have also grown into 
V,e 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 ijnposes upon the natural world, for fall is as 
muih a part of the cycle of growth to the transcendentalist as is spring" 
( Thg 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 "atomistic 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, 

"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 snowf lake( 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. 


One violates the poem, then, by forcing it to conform to an imposed 
order, by supplying a scheme of punctuation or rearranging the phrasing 
in order to make the poem mean. That is doing what Cummings often in- 
veighs against: reducing a mystery through the application of over- 
simplifying, analytical reason. One may, however, note some of the 
general elements which compose the field of meaning. It seems to be 
winter, with snow covering the ground and the trees utterly lifeless. 
There is no wind; the silence seems absolute. The sun is shining bright- 
ly but without force: the people "have lost their shadows." Time seems 
to stand still, creating a "happenless unnow" wherein no action seems 
possible . One senses complete stasis . The inhabitants of this waste- 
land, including the speaker and his lady, are paralyzed "dolls of joy 
and grief," who were once perhaps fully alive but who now can only 
"mime" the "losing spectres" of those dead souls who never were alive, 
who "did not do." In this moment, all of nature seems on the brink of 
absolute dissolution; it is at "end's ending." 

The spiritual desolation of the poet and the corresponding motion- 
lessness of the physical scene end in the concluding couplet with the 
arrival "out of merely not nothing" of a single snowflake and the re- 
sulting spiritual rebirth of the speaker and lady. The miraculous 
appearance of beauty in this deathful landscape redeems them from their 
spectre state, and enables them to speak their "names," to live again. 
It is fitting that their restoration be expressed by restored, normal 

Both this sonnet and #5 end with a recognition that death is an 
organic element of life; where the former poem emphasizes the necessity 


of accepting natural cycles, this sonnet acknowledges the beneficence 
of nature in supplying a sign that rebirth is inherent in nature and 
available to those who live in harmony with it. 

I believe the significant development in 50 Poems is Cummings' 
emphasis on the necessity of living in the phenomenal. He seems to 
have gone beyond the idea that death must be endured, even embraced, 
for transcendence to be attained; he has grown to understand that one 
must also embrace life. 

This concept is particularly apparent in #43 (CP 531), where Cum- 
mings affirms his faith that one must submit himself joyously to life 
in the phenomenal world, embracing both "pleasure and pain" if one is 
to transcend (cf . Stetler, pp. 89-90). For mostpeople, hate is the 
dominant emotion; they hate what they are and what they have because 
they desire only what is "green and young" and seek only pleasure. 
Consequently, their hate generates abstractions which they seek to 
realize in future time; it creates philosophical, political, and theo- 
logical systems which promise to eliminate "winter" but retain "spring." 
But mostpeople also fear the future, for it means change and death. 
Driven by their hatred to seek escape from the intolerable present and 
fearful of "tomorrow," which they fear will bury them in "woe," most- 
people turn to "yesterday" - the past - for consolation and security. 
Changeless and known, the past is their only refuge when the present 
and future are unacceptable. Unfortunately for them, events in the 
passage of time continually intrude on them, dragging them from their 
foetal sanctuary. Unable to find a tolerable life, it is no wonder 
their "hate blows a bubble of despair." 


Mostpeople err in conceiving and treating life as separable, in 
believing that pleasure and pain are discontinuous antinomies. The 
poet, seeing deeper, knows pleasure and pain to be "merely surfaces/ 
(one itself showing, itself hiding one)." Like a coin, life is double 
in aspect, single in essence; it cannot be had or spent except as a 
whole. The man who seeks a life of timeless, changeless pleasure (a 
"neverless now") and "spring" will be given "nothing" by "madame death." 
In seeking a half life, he gets none at all. Moreover, he surrenders 
his chance to grow through death to transcendence. 

To redeem himself, man needs, in Auden's words, "new styles of 
architecture, a change of heart." He needs to relearn how to see and 
accept life as a whole; he needs to "love" what is in the moment, 
accepting both pleasure and pain, winter as well as spring. He must 
accept that life means death and change, and surrender his egoistic will 
to power over life. Only through love can one accept the nothing of 
death and sing, knowing that death too is a "surface." 

#31 (CP 517), one of three sonnet-portraits in the volume, praises 
a friend whose transcendence is complete and miraculous. The speaker's 
friend's life is so astonishing that timelessness itself "floats/at ... 
the ecstatic ease" with which it "stands." Moreover, the friend is a 
spiritual guide of sorts, capable of rescuing the speaker and other 
feeling persons from unbalancing excesses of emotion ( "undering joy and 
overing grief"); "nothing arrives" but the friend - "a so prodigious am/ 
a so immediate is" - escorts them "home/through never' s always." That 
is, he redeems them from an illusory preoccupation with future events, 
teaching them to be at home in the present until they utterly forget 

their fear of change and death (which is a "guess," another illusion). 

While timelessness exists beyond time, it is, paradoxically, ap- 
proachable only through the temporal. Timelessness grows out of time 
as a tree grows skyward from the earth; it is "anchored in what moun- 
taining roots/of mere eternity," but transcends those mountains, "dis- 
coverably disappearing." Furthermore, to attain transcendence one must 
live wholly in and for the present; one must be an "am" or "is" to 
climb the tree. That means abandoning one's hope for a better future 
(which would be, of course, in time) and finding a "home" in the now. 
Also, Cummings implies that transcendent timelessness is not a static, 
fixed condition, but rather a dynamic realm of "if," of infinite possi- 
bility of becoming. Consequently, growth does not end with transcend- 
ence; for the speaker's friend, who seems already completely tran- 
scendent, timelessness is a "fingery treesoul" which continually "que- 
ries" from him "not suspected selves." 

Another indomitable soul is portrayed in #20 (CP 506). The speaker 
describes an arthritic old woman, who, on her sickbed, gives him a mo- 
mentary glimpse of transcendental equanimity in the face of earthly 
pain. In spite of being grotesquely deformed and wracked with agony, 
the woman thanks her visitor with a "small grin" and a "trembling look" 
that have the "splendor of an angel's fart"! Such graciousness and 
simplicity from one so battered by illness is a revelation to the speaker, 

The grotesque analogy here intensifies the wonder of the old 
woman's indomitability in the face of physical collapse. 


who discovers in her thanks the gesture of a soul with "more simplicity 
than makes a world." 

The other portrait in the sonnets of 50 Poems is #35 (CP 522). 
Here, however, the speaker prays for the redemption of a friend who has 
all the attributes required for transcendental life except love. The 
poet asks that "stem particular love" may come to one who has other- 
wise lived with "absolute courage" and lift him from the phenomenal into 
the world of dream. The friend has lived joyously and self-reliantly; 
he is capable of grinning "three smiles into a dead house," clutching 
"between eyes emptiness," and doing "more ... than today can guess/or 
fears to dare whatever dares to fear." Yet, in the speaker's eyes the 
friend is a "which" or unalive thing. The speaker prays that love may 
"surround" his friend's "trite/how terrible selfhood" and lift him "from 
sharp soft worms/of spiralling why out of black because." Only then 
will the friend become truly living - a "who." Lacking love, the friend 
is only a partial being; he lives only in the phenomenal unworld of 
"why" and "because." He requires love to be redeemed from his death-in- 
life and to become whole, to have "hands and feet" added to his "legs 
and arms." 

The transcendental power of love is the theme of the final sonnet 
of the volume, #50 (CP 538). Through a series of rhetorical questions 
and answers, the poet defines for his lady the special freedom which 
love confers on lovers. 

He begins by asking "what freedom's not some under 's mere above/ 
but breathing yes which fear will never no?" He desires to know the 
freedom that cannot be taken away because fear "makes oppression more 

tolerable than the thing feared" (Stetler, p. 91). What freedom dares 
to say "yes" in the face of absolute terror? The freedom conferred by 
love; love alone, as Cummings said in #43, frees one from fear and hate. 
Love alone allows one to accept life; consequently, love's "doom is 
beauty, and its fate to grow." The speaker wonders further, "shall hate 
confound the wise?doubt blind the brave?/does mask wear face?have sing- 
ings gone to say?" Not for lovers, for in love, "youngest selves yet 
younger selves conceive/here's music's music and the day of day." Still 
he persists: "are worlds collapsing?" Has the past become a refuge, a 
"glove" to insulate us from the world? Do men look to the future for 
salvation? And he answers that because they love, he and his lady are 
the "actual either hand," touching love because they accept it unafraid. 
Because they love in the present, giving themselves wholly to life, they 
stand on "forever's very now." Finally, the poet reminds his lady that 
whatever occurs in life, even if a "first rose explodes," it "shall in- 
crease whole truthful immediate us." Through their love, they have be- 
come free to grow; they accept life to attain transcendence. 

Cummings' middle period is marked by poems which find proofs and 
symbols of transcendence in natural scenes. In 50 Poems , the cycle of 
the seasons evidences the promise of transcendental rebirth. In No 
Thanks , the poet found proofs of rebirth in the cycle of night and day. 
#18 of 50 Poems ( CP 504- ) also interprets an aspect of nature. Here the 
speaker and his lady watch a bat ("Chauvesouris") dart quickly and 
crazily in a clear moonlit sky. The poet "reads" in the bat's move- 
ments a missive from the moon. 

Beginning "dearest we" and "covering/one complete miracle of 


nearest far," the moon's letter is an invitation to transcendental union: 

"i cordially invite me to become/noone except yourselves rsvp." Always 

a symbol of transcendental self-sufficiency to Cummings, the moon offers 
herself completely. To attain transcendence, the speaker and his lady 
must respond to nature's gift; they must accept the moon's invitation 
and open themselves to life. That is, the speaker says that their "time" 
becomes "forever" ( timelessness ) when they surrender themselves to na- 
ture and accept that the "place" of transcendence is "now." To become 
the moon, to find unity in and with the world of dream, they must, like 
the moon, abandon knowing and grammar and concentrate on "being" in the 
moment. This done, the lady will become the moon and wear her "silver 
shoes . " 

Cummings' friend in #35 was trapped by his need to know "why," to 
reduce life, as he has been taught to do, to simple schemes of cause 
and effect. The dangers of relying on "mind" are the subject of #40 
(CP 528), where the speaker asks himself whether society or the indi- 

^■Stetler says the letter is from the poet to himself and tells him 
to find transcendence by being truly himself (p. 82). This reading ig- 
nores the description of the moon and bat. He does point out, however, 
that "ecco" suggests both the Latin for "behold!" ("ecce") and "echo" 
( in its Middle English spelling ) . Both meanings are appropriate to my 
reading: the speaker wants his lady, and of course the reader, to see 
the bat's movements as a letter, and he also wants her to echo the 
letter, to let "the meaning of the letter ... reverbrate within" (p. 82). 

2 Cummings is probably echoing the phrase "silver shoon" in Walter 
de la Mare's poem "Silver." 

vidual consciousness shall guide our lives. Will mankind, a "people- 
shaped toomany-ness , " 

tell us who we are and will 
it tell us why we dream and will it tell 
us how we drink crawl eat walk die fly do? 

Or will we ourselves "steer" our "doom" strictly by our own wills, "a 
notalive undead toonearishness"? Cummings' rhetoric clearly tells us 
that neither of these is the answer to living rightly. Both the will 
of the mass and the egocentric will are false guides. But of the two, 
the greater danger is the ego. To rely solely on one's own desire and 
will, to know oneself and live therefrom, is fraught with spiritual 
danger, for "all knowing's having and to have is ... perhaps the very 
unkindest way to kill each of those creatures called one's self." Be- 
cause to know is to limit and control, to kill and preserve, the speaker 
imagines that he must simply let things be; he must say "yes" to life 
if he is to become himself. To say "yes" is to accept one's "doom" and 
"oneselves" a" they flower and evolve. 

The satirical sonnets of $0 Poems might more properly be consid- 
ered outraged invectives rather than ordinary, morally instructive 
criticisms of social vice. For instance, #24 (CP 510) is a biting, 
hateful attack on mostpeople - the great mass of soulless, unalive, 
thinking humanity - for whom living means merely breathing. Asking how 
they should "be" when they were not given hearts, the speaker damns them 
in order to dramatize the prospects for transcendence he and his lady 
have as a consequence of their love. Unlike mostpeople, who in all 
their "hundreds upon thousands" might be multiplied by "twice infinity" 
yet never equal one soul, the poet and his lady, who both have a "million 

selves," are capable of becoming one soul and attaining wholeness in 
transcendence (where "every sun goes round its moon") because of the 
only "mystery of love." 

#28 (CP 514) is likewise an angry invective against "mankind," 
"civilization," and the fatuous expectation of finding more than "2£ 
or impossibly 3" individuals "every several fat/thousand years." In a 
sense berating himself for his "dumb" hopes, the speaker admonishes him- 
self to remember that the passage of time does not perforce bring pro- 
gress, that "the number of times a wheel turns/doesn't determine its 
roundness." He instructs himself: "if swallows tryst/in your barn be 
gladjnobody ever earns/anything , everything little looks big in a mist." 
He realizes that he must remember to live and delight in nature, to not 
expect to get anything because he has done something, and to beware of 
the illusory problems of the phenomenal world. And finally, with an 
oath in the name of one archetypal individual - Christ - he swears to 
"kiss a Stalinist arse/in hitler's window" if occurs something "more 
small" (negligible, evil) than "all mankind" or "more distorting than 
socalled civilization." 

Like many of the poems in this volume, this sonnet reflects Cum- 
mings' hatred of the collectivities that were a plague to the civilized 
world in 1940. His certainty that life is good only when every man is 
allowed to exercise his individuality to the fullest explains the vio- 
lence of his condemnation of "mankind" and "civilization." These are 
the catchphrases of demagogues and tyrants who would reduce all men to 
units in a "state." Any group or ideology which in the name of a high- 
er good demands the surrender of freedom is abhorrent to Cummings, for 

they offer the unwary a sanctioned haven from choice, an opportunity to 
escape the process of self -discovery. 

Cummings' anger in these two sonnets is something new in his poetry. 
In No Thanks, modern man was at least a foetus with the potential to 
attain maturity; here, however, he is a nothing absolutely without re- 
deeming feature. The cause of Cummings' hardening of heart is not clear. 
It might be the pique of a radical who has failed to create new styles 
of architecture, or it might be the anger born of sheer despair. Norman 
Friedman finds it Cummings' main weakness, but suggests that "the spir- 
itual ideal needs the ordinary world as an arena in which to fulfill it- 
self" (see The Growth , p. 7 ff.). I find it partly a function of Cum- 
mings' increasing worldliness; as he discovers that transcendence is 
approachable only through the natural, he becomes more bitterly aware 
of the failures of mostpeople to live rightly in the world. The world 
had gone mad by 194-0, and Cummings must have felt his indictments mild 
in the context of a world in flames. His occasional failure to trans- 
form the unlove of the world is not a failure of vision so much as a 
failure of morale. 

In lxl (1944), a little more than a quarter of the poems (14 of 54) 
are sonnets, and they are again arranged to provide a structure of rec- 
ognizably traditional forms which counterbalance the experimental and 
impressionistic pieces in the volume. Again the satirical sonnets, and 
most of the satirical poems in the volume, are found in the first half, 
and the latter sonnets are primarily transcendental. However, as in 
50 Poems, transcendental poems are found throughout the volume. 


If any one of Cummings' sonnets may be said to contain the essence 

of his transcendental stance, it must surely be #16 of lxl ( CP 556). 

Examined by most of Cummings' major critics, this poem is particularly 

significant as a reflection of Cummings' evolving conceptions of life, 

death, and transcendence. 

one's not half two. It's two are halves of one: 
which halves reintegrating, shall occur 
no death and any quantity; but than 
all numerable mosts the actual more 

minds ignorant of stern miraculous 
this every truth-beware of heartless them 
(given the scalpel, they dissect a kiss; 
or, sold the reason, they undream a dream) 

one is the song which fiends and angels sing: 
all murdering lies by mortals told make two. 
Let liars wilt, repaying life they're loaned; 
we(by a gift called dying born)must grow 

deep in dark least ourselves remembering 
love only rides his year. 

All lose, whole find 

Essentially didactic, the poet here instructs his audience that the 
transcendental realm is a unity, and that those who love and submit 
themselves to life in the phenomenal find "no death and any quantity, but 
than/all numerable mosts the actual more." Friedman points out that the 
key metaphors here are mathematical; "one" stands for the condition of 
transcendence, "two" for the multiplicity of phenomenal existence ( The 
Growth , p. 136; cf. Stetler, p. 96). In order to attain oneness or tran- 
scendence, the "halves" of one must be reintegrated. This is achieved 
through love and "dying." We must surrender our insulating egoism (the 
ego must die) to be reborn. Paradoxically, we do not suffer "death," 
the complete annihilation of self, but rather, as Cline says, the "ex- 

pansion of the self" through complete meeting with the other, through 
love (p. 62). 

The speaker also warns those who until now have been "ignorant" of 
the truth that "one's not half two," to beware of those who are heart- 
less and who dissect life analytically, searching for reasons. They are 
anti-transcendental makers of division who, by searching for components, 
deny wholeness and create "murdering lies" which destroy our dreams, 
our intuited apprehensions of transcendence. 

Finally, Cummings says we must ignore those who have chosen to 

live by reason; we must let the "liars wilt, remembering love only rides 

his year." That is, love alone is capable of allowing us to master and 

transcend the world of time and multiplicity. Only as we reach out "to 

things or people of God in a superfluity of love" will we be able to 

"all lose, whole find," There is a strong sexual theme in this sonnet, 

and in one sense the poem is addressed to the speaker's lover as a 

seduction poem. As Cline points out in the course of discussing the 

poems allusions to Plato's Symposium , the "image of mutual interpene- 

tration carries direct sexual connotations" and "Cummings' love is a 

fusion of the mind and flesh of two people, the relationship of lxl" 

(p. 63). For C ummi ngs as for Plato, sexual congress can be the mortal 

analogue to and metaphor for spiritual union with the transcendental 

realm of to kalon . George Haines, also touching on the sexual element, 

says: "here is no possibility of confusing love with sensual pleasure 

alone; here is the more one could hardly glimpse in his earlier work. 

^line, p. 63. 


And the concluding lines contain the essence of that quotation from 

Saint John, 'Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it 

abideth by itself alone, but if it die, it beareth much fruit,' the 

truth of which, as Harry Levin noted in James Joyce , has been discovered 

by so many writers of the last half century." The poet, then, finds 

transcendence through complete submission to the pleasures and pains of 

life; love comprehends both sexual and spiritual dying, for transcendence 

comprehends both physical and spiritual being. 

Haines' reference to Levin's remark should be noted, for Cummings 
has too often been labelled escapist and immature. Here his belief in 
the necessity of life and struggle reflects his growing maturity and 
places him in the mainstream of literary thought in our time. 

In #36 (CP 576), C ummi ngs explores the relation of lovers and love 
to time. For lovers, "each happening of their hearts" is a timeless, 
infinite fusion with transcendence. Each spiritual event is a break- 
through into "forever" and "everywhere." Hence, even though they are 
physically subject to time, they "live longer" - infinitely longer - 
"than all which and every who," than mere matter or non-lovers. Since 
love encompasses all being, any "now" or moment of love is also "forever," 
and any "here is "everywhere." The passage of time in the phenomenal 
world, then, is irrelevant to lovers, who have found eternity in an hour. 
Mostpeople, on the other hand, either fear the changes that time brings 
or hope for them. For mostpeople, what they have in the present moment, 

■""George Haines IV, "2:1: The World and E. E. Cummings," Sewanee 
Review, LIX (1951), pp. 222-223. 

their past accomplishments, is either utterly precious or utterly in- 
tolerable; the fearful cling to what they have, and the hopeful reach 
out for a better future. To the poet, both are "falsest" views of life 
and fantastical figments of "mere mind's poor pretend-grim comics of 
duration." Only love is uncreated and antecedent, and love is beyond 

True lovers are beyond fear and hope because they have grown to 
accept whatever is; they have learned to say yes to life. Cosmic cata- 
clysm cannot shake them; it can only make them more true. Even if time 
should go to wrack, asking "into his was/all shall," they "would never 
miss a yes." 

The world of time and "knowledge" and the lover's relations thereto 
are the subject of #39 (CP 579), which aims at instructing and hearten- 
ing the poet's lady (cf. Friedman, The Growth , p. 137). Mostpeople - 
"every madge and mable dick and dave" - exist in a winter world of in- 
tellect and reason. Here, "ignorance" is an intolerable condition, so, 
like children at play, mostpeople plunge joyfully into knowledge: "all 
ignorance toboggans into know." However, as Stetler points out, "the 
pursuit of knowledge is as futile as the circularity of tobogganing; as 
soon as mostpeople discover their knowledge is incomplete and unsatis- 
factory, they trudge 'up to ignorance again'" (p. 108). Knowing that 
"winter's not forever," the poet wonders what mostpeople would do "if 
spring should spoil the game," if true reality were to break through, 
making the knowledge game impossible. 

For the speaker, "all history" has been merely "a winter sport or 
three." Mankind has been moving from ignorance to knowledge and back 

again always. But history is "too small" to contain the speaker and 
"exceedingly too small" for him and his lady together. For them, the 
coming of spiritual spring has exposed the game. Having established 
the triviality and futile circularity of history's game of knowledge, 
the speaker dismisses the "shrill collective myth" that knowledge means 
progress, and assures his lady, as Friedman says, that they live "in a 
totally different world and hence are beyond the clutches of history. 
They live in a timeless world whose address is tomorrow; that is, a 
world of infinite potentiality, as opposed to the limited historical 
world of the past" ( The Growth , p. 138). 

Moreover, should it happen that mostpeople manage to "find" the 
lovers' new address, if they should interfere with the lovers again, 
another and still better world exists for the poet and his lady. That 
is "now," the unfettered present. Incapable of existing in "ignorance," 
mostpeople cannot accept the present; hence the poet and his lady, who 
have become capable of bearing and accepting "ignorance," will be safe 
and whole in the timeless present. 

#52 (CP 592), the last sonnet of lxl , expresses some truths the 
poet has learned in the course of striving for transcendence. He has 
discovered that "life is more true than reason will deceive/(more secret 
or than madness did reveal)." He has found that to reason about life 
is to lie about it, and learned that to believe reason can reveal life's 
secrets is madness. Reason is, to Cummings, a species of insanity, for 
it distorts life by abstraction and exclusion. The poet has further 
learned that "life is deeper than lose;higher than have." Life is more 
than positions and possessions, for what is owned may be lost; but true 

life is beyond "loss" or "have." He has discovered that transcendental 
beauty exists even beyond life: "beauty is more each than living's all/ 
multiplied with infinity sans if" (cf. Stetler, p. 113). Mankind's 
mightiest meditations are utterly "cancelled" by the simplest transcen- 
dental beauty, for in transcendence "less than nothing" is "more than 
everything" in the derived world. Living, timeless beauty confounds 
time: if a "littler bird than eyes can learn/look up to silence and com- 
pletely sing/futures are obsolete; pasts are unborn." 

Finally, the poet knows now that death is an illusion which ends 
only what mostpeople call men. Beauty "outlasts the grave" and so do 
those souls who have, through transcendence, ceased to be "men," subject 
to death. Certain that death is a transition rather than a conclusion, 
the speaker selflessly praises life and beauty, for in them he has found 
the doorway into dream. 

Three of the transcendental sonnets of lxl are monuments to moments 
of transcendental illumination. #18 (CP 558), for example, "shows the 
speaker making the transition from one world to the next . . . , " from the 
"hell" of the unworld of time into the whereless "paradise" of "eternal 
now" (Friedman, The Growth , p. 136). 

Transcendence here is a state copresent with the phenomenal; the 
poet has attained a spiritual rebirth without physical death. He is 
leaving behind in the phenomenal "a perfectly distinct unhe;/a ticking 
phantom by prodigious time's/mere brain contrived :a spook of stop and 
go." The speaker's desire is to achieve something more - "another 
steepest thing"; he desires to grow into a "being so very born no bird 
can sing/as easily creation up all sky." He wants to become so inno- 

cently and enthusiastically open to the totality of all creation that 
his ecstatic participation in the life of all will surpass even the 
paeans of the most naturally transcendent creatures. 

The last two lines of the sonnet are a tossed-off parting remark 
to the world he is leaving. The speaker facetiously asks the world to 
"do the breathing" for him while he is away. Having found transcend- 
ence, he no longer fears his mortality, although he implies he is still 
subject to physical death. Spiritually he dwells in "eternal now" among 
"not numerable ams," although his body belongs to time. 

This poem betrays an unresolved element in Cummings' conception of 
life and death. While it is easy for him to philosophically repudiate 
the finality of death for transcendent souls, it is harder to live ab- 
solutely fearless of death. This sonnet implies that the speaker will 
return from transcendence, perhaps called back by death. Although he 
will have attained timelessness, he implies he is still subject to death. 
The ambiguity of the poet's position indicates that Cummings is still 
in the process of exploring the ramifications of his stance toward death 
and transcendence. 

Both #32 (CP 572) and #42 (CP 582) describe moments when the poet 
and his lady discover their transcendental rebirth. #32, like #18 of 
50 Poems , finds the poet asking his lady if she has recognized the tran- 
scendental potentialities symbolized by the moon. #42 celebrates the 
transforming effect of a sunrise, finding it an "impossible miracle" 
that is "more than all real, all imagining." In rising, the sun "uplifts" 
himself from "night's terrors." This star of stars has miraculously 
transcended death and fear, through his own agency, to bring "earth's 

arrival" and to make it a "blossoming sphere." Witnessing this, the 
poet is inspired to ask who he and his lady really are. In the dawn of 
this new day, they are "not i not you" - that is, no longer isolated 
mortals - "nor any breathing creature." Rather, transfigured by their 
recognition of the sun's miraculous rebirth, which is like moonrise 
symbolic of the rebirth inherent in all of nature, they too become "a 
blossoming sphere." Redeemed from "night's not eternal terrors," they 
have transcended the barriers of self to become a single, flourishing 

As Cummings' understanding of life, love, death, and transcendence 
matures, it becomes increasingly difficult to isolate the several strands 
of his thought and yet do justice to all. Most of the "clean" sonnets 
of lxl, for instance, deal with love as well as transcendence. If he 
does not speak directly of love or its power, Cummings assumes love as 
an a priori condition. For example, #% presumes that the speaker and 
his lady are in love but does not dilate on love so much as the way 
mostpeople and lovers live in time. #19 (CP 559), on the other hand, 
is a fairly typical love sonnet which again praises the lady's transcen- 
dental power (cf. Friedman, The Growth , p. 136). 

In this sonnet, the speaker focuses on the power of her silence, 
voice, and motionlessness to raise him to self -discovery. Her silence 
brings "miracle peace" and causes "all angry common things to disappear" 
as a snowfall brings a blanketing peace to a winter world. He says her 
voice wakes him from a kind of spiritual sleep, in which he only dreams 
of transcendence, to a waking life of dream, and through her he dis- 
covers himself, "a stranger who is i." Like her silence, her motion- 

lessness renders nature insignificant and still; in her presence, "no 
single thing dares partly seem/one atomy once, and every cannot stir/ 
imagining." Yet, as Stetler points out, "the lady's motionlessness 
contains movement that is growth; it is 'more april than the year'," 
even if April's "first little flowers rise/out of tremendous darkness 
into air" (p. 98). 

For Cummings, the lady takes dominion everywhere. She takes over 
nature's power to facilitate his transcendence. A natural creature 
herself, she synecdochically rises above her role as a single thing to 
become all. What allows her to do this is her human capacity to love 
and be loved by the poet; she is an active force, nature a passive. She 
has become a mediating daemon who allows the poet to move into timeless- 

The nature of love is defined in #34 (CP 574) as "nothing false 
and possible" but rather "imagined, therefore limitless." Love is another 
name for transcendence: "a universe beyond obey /or command, reality or 
un-." The essence of love is giving and selflessly accepting; because 
love is imagined and limitless, it is beyond definition and can be ex- 
pressed only through what Stetler calls "algebraic proposition": "love's 
to giving as to keeping's have/as yes is to if, love is to yes" (p. 103). 

As lovers, the poet and his lady are "depth's above why's first be- 
cause" and "heights below faith's last doubt." They have transcended 
the phenomenal world of cause and effect (which are illusions contrived 
by man), where whatever happens must be analyzed and explained. They 
have learned to submit to life "humbly," and they pray only that they 
may "continue to outgrow" themselves - to surpass the "mosts" that they, 

as individuals, have achieved - in order to "guess" the "least" that 
they have found, through love, as a single transcendent being. As they 
did in #32, the speaker and his lady have moved into a new dimension of 
being through love; they are no longer "you" and "i" but "we," ready to 
begin a new cycle of growth and self -discovery. 

#37 (CP 577) is also a love poem, extravagantly praising the love 
the poet shares with his lady. It is interesting to note that in this 
love sonnet the poet implies that their love is not so much a conse- 
quence or product of their actions as it is a preexisting condition 
into which they have entered. The speaker says of love that "this crea- 
ture never known/complexity was born before the moon/before God wished 
himself into a rose" and even "before/each heartbeat." As a result of 
their incorporation into love, "no doing shall undo" them. They have 
moved beyond "madness" and mere death; they are now ever alive and grow- 

Cummings. unlike Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams, does 
not often specifically explore the nature and function of art and the 
artist in his work (C ummi ngs' play Him is an obvious exception). Some 
of his love sonnets are traditional promises to give his mistress lit- 
erary immortality (e.g. CP 83, 372), but few deal directly with the 
artist and his work (CP 208, 306, 437). For Cummings, the artist is 
apparently but one sort of transcendent man, and all transcendentally 
alive individuals are, in essence, artists. #22 of lxl ( CP 562), as 
Friedman notes, "defines an artist" specifically as a transcendent being 
(The Growth, p. 156). 


no man, if men are gods;but if gods must 
be men, the sometimes only man is this 
(most common, for each anguish is his grief; 
and, for his joy is more than joy, most rare) 

a fiend, if fiends speak truth; if angels bum 

by their own generous completely light, 
an angel ;or( as various worlds he'll spurn 
rather than fail immeasurable fate) 
coward , clown , traitor , idiot , dreamer , beast- 
such was a poet and shall be and is 

-who'll solve the depths of horror to defend 
a sunbeam's architecture with his life: 
and carve immortal jungles of despair 
to hold a mountain's heartbeat in his hand 

The first nine lines of this sonnet are couched in rhetorical, 
quasi-logical propositions - in "if . . . then" structures - which seem 
to imply that Cummings is trying to discover a definition of the poet 
but which really function to make the reader apprehend for himself the 
poet's nature. Cummings knows what a poet is, but like Socrates wishes 
to lead his reader to discover that definition. Using this tactic, 
Cummings avoids the trap of overt didacticism and forces the reader to 
explore the various possibilities of his propositions and terms. 

A poet is a man who refuses to believe that man is capable of 
shaping his own destiny, that "men are gods." Rather, he believes that 
men contain the power to transcend the phenomenal and regain a godlike 
perfection. That is, every man is potentially like Christ, truly mortal 
yet also capable of transcending his own mortality. Like Christ, the 
poet is "most common," for he identifies himself with all men; their 
"each anguish is his grief." The poet is also "most rare," for his joy 
is more than joy; in knowing transcendence he finds trans valuations of 


earthly perfection. Furthermore, a poet can be a "fiend," for in his 
search for truth he may smash the complacent lies that men live and 
love within. Yet because he lives self-reliantly, demanding nothing of 
the world, he is an "angel," shedding light that not only he but others 
may see. The poet may be a "coward, clown, traitor, idiot, dreamer, beast," 
but only to others who impose on life arbitrary standards of bravery, 
seriousness, patriotism, intellect and reason, "business," or puritan- 
ical morality. The poet, "rather than fail immeasurable fate," rather 
than allow himself to be something he has not consented to be in a free 
interaction with life, spurns the "various worlds" contrived by others 
and chooses only those which realize him. 

The most important idea here with regard to transcendentalism is, 
as Stetler says, how Cummings "envisions the poet in action" (p. 103). 
To be a poet is not merely to assume a stance; it is also to do some- 
thing. The poet will "solve the depths of horror to defend/a sunbeam's 
architecture" and "carve immortal jungles of despair/to hold a mountain's 
heartbeat." He will risk the horror of death; he will cut through de- 
spair to find the real, vital heart of transcendence. The poet embraces 
life, even if it means agony and death, to discover himself. 

#6 of lxl (CP 5-46) also treats art and artists, but this sonnet is 
an amusing and mildly satirical self-portrait of the poet as he discusses 
"loyaltea" (perhaps that of Ezra Pound, who was making propaganda broad- 
casts from Italy) at a restaurant table with a literary friend who is 
being ogled by a woman of wealth, fashion, and "a weakness for living 
literature." The poet's friend is apparently married to a stupid, pos- 
sessive woman for whom the friend no longer cares but from whom he seldom 

escapes; she is known as his "daughter's mother" (that is, she is con- 
nected to him only because they have produced a child together) and has 
a "zero mind" from which the friend is "infrequently ... exhumed." He 
may also he a writer whose literary work is in eclipse, who is seldom 
exhumed by readers or critics. He remains "innocently undecaying" even 
in his reduced circumstances, yet he stares "at yon gilty ceiling per 
both pale/orbs," perhaps from guilt at having momentarily escaped his 
wife but probably because of nervousness at the sight of "a leanderless 
hero's carnivorous tits." "At the next table but three" sits a woman 
in a very revealing dress; the friend, an old-fashioned man, may feel 
guilty at being aware of her "subnakedness" or nervous at her obvious 
interest in their conversation. The poet implies she is not only an 
eavesdropper but also "on the make." Both men are disturbed by her in- 
trusive presence; aware and resentful that they are being stared at, 
they become self-conscious, stiffen, and lose their spontaneity. While 
his friend seeks refuge in the ceiling decorations, the poet "mastur- 
bates/one honest breadcrumb." They try to restore their lost privacy, 
their psychic space, by fiddling with minutiae. The poet tries to con- 
tinue the conversation, but knowing they will be overheard, he becomes 
wooden and contrived - a character in a bad drawing-room comedy. He 
feels he has sold himself to the woman by continuing the charade she has 
forced them into. 

While one might find this sonnet a parable of the influence of 
money or "society" on the world of art, I think the poem is significant 
because it shows that Cummings was an acute observer of human behavior 
as well as nature. The sonnet is a psychologically true portrait of 
the way people really behave. 


The remaining three sonnets of lxl are harsh invectives against 
those who would peddle simple solutions to the problems of life and 
those who seek for easy answers. #9 (CP 549) attacks not only those 
who sell "snakeoil" and "vacuumcleaners" to an unwary public but also 
those who would sell "democracy" and "subhuman rights." #14 (CP 554) 
attacks those who believe in science and the idea of progress through 
scientific solutions. #15 (CP 555) blasts those who cry for someone 
else to "save the world." 

The key to understanding Cummings* vitriolic denunciation of 
salesmen in #9, whether "it's president of the you were say/or a 
jennelman name misder finger" (Uncle Sam?), is to recall that he be- 
lieves that an individual must make his own life; he must shape his 
own doom by continually and freely interacting with the world. Out of 
this dialectic is born a continually growing soul. If the individual 
surrenders his freedom to choose, if he allows his life to be made for 
him by others, he is giving up that which makes him alive and capable 
of growing into transcendental harmony. Salesmen of any sort intrude 
into this process. Uninvited, they seek to control the individual's 
life, to turn him into a consumer of their particular products or ideas. 
Hence, to Cumndngs, "a salesman is an it that stinks." 

The worst salesmen are those who would peddle ideas, who would 
provide everyone with prepackaged social or political schemes, for they 
offer a product that is easy and often morally attractive to accept. 
Since TnsTHng one's life is a hard and exacting process, mostpeople are 
easily tempted to adopt someone else's political, social, or moral 
codes. It is one thing to say "no" to a man peddling strawberries; it 


is quite another to deny the President as he calls for a New Deal or to 
Uncle Sam as he calls for patriotism and sacrifice. It is much simpler 
and easier to abdicate one's individuality when social ostracism or 
persecution are promised to those who refuse to buy "democracy" or "sub- 
human rights." The salesmen of such products are the most vile because 
they contrive situations where people find it nearly impossible to grow 
into themselves. 

But it is not only the salesmen who are dangerous; the products 
they push may be harmful. Cummings wants the reader to beware of demo- 
cracy and human rights. His warning here is of a piece with his con- 
demnation; both democracy and human rights require the individual to 
sacrifice his life -decisions to the will of the mass. They require a 
surrender of liberty and responsibility, a surrender that is intolerable 
for the poet, who is unconcerned with the moral goodness of the product. 
In the context of the war years, this is a heroic affirmation of Cum- 
mings' philosophy. 

#15 ridicules the "microscopic shriekings" of "those insects" who 
call for someone else to preserve their selfish little worlds. Because 
they would buy willingly from the salesmen, they are doomed to annihi- 
lation, to "exactly nothing." Because they demand that the world con- 
form to their desires, they are to bewail their fate until they vanish 
into non-being or "un"-ness. 

The sestet saves this poem from simple meanness by providing the 
reader with a natural example of the proper way to live transcendentally. 
Essentially, the poet says one must humbly and selflessly accept the 
will of "god." Unlike men, the mountain described here submits to the 

cycle of nature, specifically to winter and death. Although his "maples" 
weep in fear, the mountain makes no demands for safety or salvation; it 
simply asks if god has something further it "can do or be." It accepts 
the answer and finds a new life; although his "maples wept," "his pines 
lifted their green lives and smiled." The maples, suggestive of phe- 
nomenal life because they are deciduous, must die for the evergreen, 
transcendental pines to show forth. 

In #14, like #9 a widely -anthologized sonnet, Cummings again at- 
tacks those who embrace false conceptions or myths of life, specifically 
those who believe in the idea of progress through science. He warns us 
not to pity "this busy monster manunkind" because it has made man the 
center and measure of the universe. Because man has embraced the idea 
that he can make a better life in the future through the application of 
reason, he has become divorced from life in the real present and exists, 
"safely beyond death and life," in an unworld of his own creation - "a 
world of made'- - where 

electrons deify one razorblade 

into a mountainrange ; lenses extend 

unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish 

returns on its unself . 

We may pity that which is natural, a part of the "world of born," 

but never egocentric manunkind: "this/fine specimen of hypermagical/ 

ultraomnipotence . " The poet invites us, his fellow "doctors," to give 

up the "hopeless case" and leave with him for the "good universe next 

door." He wants us to abandon the contrived unworld and move over, and 

back into, the natural - to heal ourselves of the disease of progress 

and live again by giving up our illusion that we can shape the world. 


A version of the sexual metaphor for transcendental union appears 
in this sonnet. Manunkind, in rejecting the natural world of born and 
creating his own world of made, performs an unnatural act of spiritual 
and intellectual self-love. Turned inward and away from life, he "plays 
with the bigness of his littleness." His onanism is a voluntary repudi- 
ation of life which is not to be pitied; because he has placed himself 
beyond the pale of life, we are no longer required to love him as an 
element of nature, only to leave him and save ourselves. 

The striking thing about the sonnets of lxl is their consistency 
of vision. In speaking of one sonnet, one seems to speak of all. Cum- 
mings seems now to have accounted for all the elements of existence: 
mostpeople, lovers, death, nature, and transcendence. No longer do we 
sense that these elements contend with each other; they have become 
parts of a whole. 

Still, one feels now and again in these sonnets a slightly dis- 
cordant note. That is, Cummings does not always seem perfectly at ease 
with his vision. For example, in #39 he betrays a hatred for mostpeople 
which is not adequately accounted for; he says that even if they should 
abandon "progress" and discover sanity, he and his lady would still have 
nothing to do with them. His attitude toward physical death is also 
ambiguous; he remains uncertain of the finality or contingency of physi- 
cal dissolution, seeking refuge in the paradox of timelessness in time. 

What we have learned from these sonnets is that Cummings has learned 
to accept life in the phenomenal one event at a time - one by one. He 
has completely abandoned the idea of escape to a separate transcendental 
life, and learned that transcendence is available only through life in 

the phenomenal. He has learned the truth of the axiom that 1x1=1, 
finding transcendental unity through selfless love in the world of time. 

In the time since the publication of No Thanks in 1935, Cummings' 
lebensphilosophie has changed from a strongly Platonic stance, in which 
he viewed the world as a corrupt shadow of a separate, higher noumenon, 
to a monistic position which accepts the copresence and interpenetration 
of the two realms, and stresses the necessity of living and dying in 
the phenomenal if one is to obtain the noumenal. A medial position came 
when he accepted the necessity of dying as the transition between the 
two realms. 

In these middle sonnets, Cummings' conception of the precise nature 
of the failure of mostpeople became clear. Reason, in reducing external 
reality to a set of "facts" and relations, is seen as blinding men to 
the present miracle of nature and transcendence, which are mysteries 
beyond the power of man to comprehend. False myths, created by society, 
history, and art, have led man to conceive himself lord of creation, and 
thereby led him into spiritual bewilderment. 

Cummings' conception of love as the mechanism through which the 
individual not only discovers himself but also attains wholeness in 
unity with transcendence also evolves in this middle period. Where 
love was once a personal spiritual and emotional ecstasy, It is now 
seen as the force binding all of nature into a shining whole. 


In Xaipe (1950), as in lxl and $0 Poems , Cummings again distributes 
the sonnets to provide a more-or-less regular pattern of "traditional" 
poems, most of them "monuments" of some sort. The sonnets again give 
the reader a "base" of relatively non-experimental poems from which he 
may venture safely into the wilds of typographical impressionism and to 
which he can return for generally explicit instruction. One significant 
change in pattern does occur; the satirical sonnets are now scattered 
through the middle of the volume rather than placed at the beginning. 
And while the distinction between the "dirty" and "clean" poems has been 
blurred as the poet's vision matures, the former still tend to be found 
in the first half, and the latter in the second. 

The sonnets of Xaipe demonstrate that Cummings 1 stance toward life, 
death, love, and transcendence had become firmer and surer in the six 
years since lxl appeared. The sonnets reflect no radical shifts of po- 
sition, no instability or revision of lebensphilosophie , yet they affirm 
an evergrowing certainty that the way one lives vis-a-vis the phenomenal 
is the sole key to attaining transcendental timelessness. 

This tendency is reflected not only by the decrease of satirical 
poems, but also by the increase in the number of poems which describe 
and respond to natural scenes and to specific, transcendentally alive 
individuals. That is, Cummings has become more interested in the lives 


of those who live rightly than in damning those who pervert themselves 
and others. The satirical sonnets now appear almost afterthoughts or 
reminders of what mostpeople do in contrast to the transcendent. 

One of the striking developments of Xaipe is Cummings * interest in 
specific, transcendentally alive individuals. Portraits are not new to 
Cummings; indeed, from the beginning one of his frequent poetic interests 
has been the description and interpretation of the lives and attitudes 
of men. In his early volumes, he even "names" the whores he describes 
(although we suspect he chose their names himself). But he has never 
before named or written about "real" people - persons of whom the reader 
would know; his earlier portraits of indomitable souls were, in a sense, 
abstractions. Now he names names: Peter Munro Jack, Ford Madox Ford, 
Aristide Maillol. 

#7 of Xaipe (CP 605) is a delightful elegy for the well-known lit- 
erary critic Peter Munro Jack. In the manner of a toast given at a 
memorial dinner or wake, Cummings wittily praises Jack's critical tech- 
nique and acumen, notes his prodigious capacity for strong drink, and 
lauds his "3ringbrain" and "circusheart." He says his friend's death 
was so unexpected and quick, like a magnificent trapeze performance that 
leaves the audience's eyes "two dim disks of stare," that he is "still 
wondering if the stunt was really a dream." Raising his glass, Cummings 
closes: "here's, wherever you aren't or are, good luckl/aberdeen plato- 
rabelais peter jack." 

This summary does not do justice to the sonnet's technique. Cum- 
mings is at his wittiest when he praises Jack for "tactfully ... sub- 
tracting cliches un by un/till the god's truth stands artnaked." "Tact- 

fully" suggests not only the critic's kindliness but also his deft touch 
as he removes the cliches which hide the nude beauty the artist has 
created yet concealed. In "subtracting," he has not only removed the 
cliches, but also any superadded "tract" or propagandists element. And 
"un by un" is a precise way of saying that Jack carefully removes the 
elements which dull or negate beauty. Besides using "metaphysical" 
wordplay to create richness of meaning, Cummings also employs dynamic 
spacing in line nine to suggest the tumble to the safety net that ends, 
along with the cry "fertig," the trapeze act of the "Flying Wallendas." 
He also breaks "time/lessness" to suggest the "chasm" between the world 
of time and the world of dream - the chasm Jack crosses with the elan 
and flamboyance of a great circus "flyer." Cummings also puns on "fert- 
ig," which means not only "finished" but also "ready" or "prepared." 
Cummings implies that Jack has done more than make an end to his earthly 
act; he has also made a transcendental beginning. 

Just as he praises Peter Munro Jack for his dynamic blending of the 
active and contemplative liyes in #7, Cummings praises Ford Madox Ford 
in #9 (CP 607) for being 

a( vastly and particularly )live 
that undeluded notselfpitying 

lover of all things excellently rare; 
obsolete almost that phenomenon 
(too gay for malice and too wise for fear) 
of shadowy virtue and of sunful sin 

Cummings ' technique again plays a major part in creating a vivid 

portrait of Ford's vitality. The poet communicates Ford's appearance 

of being larger-than-life not only by describing him as a "world" but 

also by breaking "placidity" (11. 3-4) so as to strongly draw out the 


sibilant. And he exactly catches the embarrassing distraction created 
by the pyjamastring hanging from Ford's trouser fly by describing it as 
"lightyears" long. He also uses tmesis in line seven to get the most 
from "alive." 

What Cummings likes about both Jack and Ford is the selfless gusto 
with which they lived. Both are men "of shadowy virtue and of sunful 
sin" who live fully in life, accepting and involving themselves in it. 
Neither is self -pitying or fearful; both make their own decisions. Con- 
sequently, they are both models of the transcendentally alive, and they 

are fully worthy of our love and rememberance . 

Aristide Maillol, who died in 1944, is praised in #19 (CP 617). 
Cummings presents Maillol as a self-reliant artist, patient in creating 
beauty - "growing stones" that are "ours for the mere worshipping." 
Maillol has a chthonic, timeless quality: "you feel behind this man/ 
earth's first sunrise." Yet because "he's young with mysteries," he is 
vitally alive and growing in the present, which is more meaningful to 
him than any of his past accomplishments. Like Jack and Ford, Maillol 
is also a type for the transcendentally alive artist. 

Maillol is a specific example of the kind of man Cummings defines 
in Xaipe #11 (CP 609). In this sonnet, Cummings portrays man as an 
infinitely complex being for whom conclusive self-knowledge is an im- 
possibility. Cummings says that every man is a composite of "many 

T'ord's raw vitality must have been striking . William Carlos 
Williams also noted it in "Ford Madox Ford in Heaven." He also de- 
scribed Ford's power to create his own world. 

selves," capable of good and evil, but able to escape from none. More- 
over, because man is deep in both the worlds of time and transcendence, 
each "simplest wish" or "hope" is a "tumult" of conflicting desires. 
And because man is mortal, yet capable of timelessness, 

his briefest breathing lives some planet's year, 
his longest life's a heartbeat of some sun; 
his least unmotion roams the youngest star. 

Recognizing that a man is not a single self but rather many selves, 
Cummings takes issue with English grammar, which implies through the 
symbol "I" that a man is a unitary psyche, asking rhetorically how a 
"fool that calls himself I" should "presume/to comprehend" his "not 
numerable" selves. "I" as either personal pronoun or Roman numeral is 
a mis-description. Paradoxically, the initial act of self-knowledge is 
to recognize one's ultimate inability to know his selves, to recognize 
his illimitable power to grow. 

#28 (CP 626), another portrait, describes an aged woman who, like 
Maillol, has continued to grow by accepting her destiny. This "great 
lady," gazing at a vivid sunset, informs the poet that "noone can grow 
(gracefully or otherwise )old" because growing and being old are mutually 
exclusive. To be old means having given up one's active involvement 
with being and becoming; it means passively waiting to die because life 
has become either unbearably painful or dull. Growing, on the other 
hand, means being continually open to and involved with life, and con- 
tinually striving to achieve one's destiny. The lady herself, in spite 
of being "autumnal," is growing. Like all things in the world of time, 
she ages. But still she grows; she is still involved in the processes 
of living, even in the face of imminent death (night and winter are near 

for her). She is like the mountains outside her window; though im- 
measurably aged, "each grows" by "serenely welcoming /his only and 
inimitably his/destiny," As day turns to night, the speaker sees that 
this lady is a transcendentally alive, "unimaginably young" soul who is 
still discovering her "not numerable" selves. 

One of Cummings' most beautiful sonnets, Xaipe #63 (CP 661), pays 
homage to a group of transcendentally alive men and women: Chaucer's 
Canterbury pilgrims. 

honour corruption villainy holiness 
riding in fragrance of sunlight( side by side 
all in a singing wonder of blossoming yes 
riding )to him who died that death should be dead 

humblest and proudest eagerly wandering 
(equally all alive in miraculous day) 
merrily moving through sweet forgiveness of spring 
(over the under the gift of the earth of the sky 

knight and ploughman pardoner wife and nun 
merchant frere clerk somnour miller and reve 
and geoffrey and all)come up from the never of when 
come into the now of forever come riding alive 

down while crylessly drifting through vast most 
nothing's own nothing children go of dust 

These are supremely alive in the "now" of timelessness because they gave 
themselves, rode to pay homage, "to him who died that death should be 
dead." Mostpeople, to the contrary, live aimlessly, drifting through 
their lives without purpose and without awareness of the world except as 
it relates to them. And they "go of dust" - they are as ephemeral and 
shortlived as dust motes in a sunbeam - because they have lived selfish- 
ly, closed themselves from the fragrance of sunlight, and refused to say 
"yes" to the reality outside themselves. 

Just as these sonnets define by example the proper way to live in 


the temporal world, so the satires define how mostpeople live wrongly. 

In #22 (CP 620), a well-known anthology piece, Cummings satirizes the 

world of modern industrial capitalism, saying that "we'll believe in 

that incredible/unanimal mankind" only when nature itself, patterning 

itself after man's society, has become unnatural. 

when serpents bargain for the right to squirm 
and the sun strikes to gain a living wage- 
when thorns regard their roses with alarm 
and rainbows are insured against old age 

when every thrush may sing no new moon in 
if all screech-owls have not okayed his voice 
-and any wave signs on the dotted line 
or else an ocean is compelled to close 

when the oak begs permission of the birch 
to make an acorn-valleys accuse their 
mountains of having altitude -and march 
denounces april as a saboteur 

then we'll believe in that incredible 
unanimal mankind(and not until) 

As I have noted a number of times before, dimming s believes that 
it is perverse to surrender one's freedom to become himself; man must 
not "bargain" for his rights nor ask permission of others to be or to 
do what is natural for him nor delegate his decisions to others. Each 
individual must recognize that others are also individuals; ideally, 
nature is, for Cummings, a continuum of individuals. Valleys and moun- 
tains are not disparate parts; they are elements of a larger entity and 
mist, therefore, accept each other. Nature accepts its cyclic being; 
March must be willing to be replaced by April, for they are both parts 
of the general scheme and cannot exist without each other. It is one 
of the "mysteries" in Cummings ' thought that while all elements of na- 
ture insist on their right to be themselves, they also accept that there 


is a season for all things and that they find their wholeness in being 
a part of the cycle. 

Modern man, in contrast, has refused to play his part. He has cut 
himself off from nature by surrendering his freedom, by viewing his 
fellow men as alien and dangerous competition ("saboteurs"), and by 
seeking permanence and security against change. Hence, mankind has be- 
come an "unanimal" and impossible to believe in. 

In the other satirical sonnet of Xaipe, #38 (CP 636), Cummings 
returns to the theme of individual freedom. Here he attacks the tyranny 
of the "state" over the individual, and implies that the American dream 
of freedom has become a mere delusion. 

To Cummings, the statue of a "hero" in a public park is an object 
stuck up the public "anus" as a reminder that whatever the state decrees 
is morally justified: "if the quote state unquote says/ 'kill 1 killing is 
an act of christian love." The public hero is, moreover, a fraud; he is 
"any jerk/who was afraid to dare to answer •no 1 " when called to kill by 
his nation. Such statues are monuments not to Americans who bravely 
sacrificed for their freedom, but rather to the sacrifice of freedom it- 
self. "In 1944 AD," freedom has become an illusion. The state is su- 
preme; if it declares, through "generalissimo e," that nothing "can 
stand against the argument of mil/itary necessity," then nothing, not 
even "reason," is allowed to. In fact, reason, the traditional guide 
and safeguard against tyranny, has been perverted into an "echo" of the 
state's demand. That is, it has been employed to justify the state's 
claims on the individual. As a result of the surrender of conscience, 
Cummings tells America: "you pays your money and/you doesn't take your 


As usual, Cummings' point is that men have surrendered their free- 
dom to choose their destinies to an abstract entity called the state. 
It does not matter that the state here is a democratic republic engaged 
in an effort to stamp out a viciously brutal, totalitarian evil; to 
Cummings, a surrender is a surrender. In fact, his attack is made more 
challenging by his choice of targets; he has deliberately chosen a popu- 
lar war and a popular leader (Eisenhower) in order to accentuate his 
point. Nearly all Americans would agree that every German should have 
opposed Hitler; what Cummings says is that blindly supporting any leader 
or ideology or project, no matter how laudable, is as heinous an ab- 
negation of one's individuality as giving in to the Nazis. To surrender 
one's freedom to say "no" is the ultimate sin. 

Besides the satires and portraits, there are six sonnets in which 
the speaker reflects on natural scenes. In each of these, the speaker 
discovers some truth about life, death, or transcendence which is in- 
herent in that scene. 

Xaipe begins with a lovely sonnet (CP 599) in which the poet in- 
terprets a sunset-moonrise that he and his lady have just witnessed. 

this( let's remember )day died again and 
againjwhose golden, crimson dooms conceive 

an oceaning abyss of orange dream 

larger than sky times earth: a flame beyond 
soul immemorially forevering am- 
and as collapsing that grey mind by wave 
(doom disappeared, out of perhaps(who knows?) 

eternity floated a bloss oming 

(while anyone might slowly count to soon) 
rose-did you see her?darling,did you(kiss 
me)quickly count to never?you were wrong 


-then all the way from perfect nowhere came 

(as easily as we forget something) 
livingest the imaginable moon 

As in #5 of 50 Poems and #A2 of lxl , the speaker here has a double pur- 
pose for his remarks. The first is to make certain his lady has attend- 
ed to the miraculous beauty of the scene; the second and more important 
is to make sure she has correctly understood her experience. 

The meteorological phenomena they have witnessed are gorgeous but 
fairly simple: the colors of the clouds, illuminated by the setting sun, 
modulate from golden through crimson to grey, and as the clouds disappear 
in the night, the moon rises behind them, appearing first as a luminous 
blot, then climbing above the clouds to be seen clearly. 

The speaker is afraid the lady has responded to the sight of the 
moon veiled by the clouds, to the "blossoming rose," rather than to a 
clear vision of "livingest the imaginable moon." He says she was wrong 
if she mistook the rose rather than the moon as an emblem of transcend- 
ence. The moon, coming "all the way from perfect nowhere" (from the 
world of dream), rather than the rose which blossoms from "eternity" 
(which is still implicitly a part of the universe of time), is the 
symbol of "liv ing est" - of true, transcendental being. The speaker, 
socratically instructs her in order to cleanse her perception and to 
clarify her vision of the true reality. 

The imagery intensifies the lesson the speaker teaches. The 
rising moon has been conceived by the multiple "dooms" of the day, and 
rises from "an oceaning abyss of orange dream," The day here is very 
reminiscent of Milton's image of the divine Spirit brooding over and 


impregnating the "vast abyss" ( Paradise Lost I, 19-22). Here too a 
new world or Eden is created for two lovers. However, the new world 
given the speaker and his lady by the day's deaths is one which must be 
perceived clearly and without the mediation of metaphor. It is not 
a blossoming rose the lady sees but the moon. The speaker implies she 
must not interpret but rather see plainly; reality is more glorious 
and alive than any metaphorical expression. The poet wants her to ap- 
prehend what Stevens calls "primary noon" or the "X." One transcends 
by accepting the fact of phenomena openly, not by forcing the phenomenal 
into metaphor, particularly worn-out poetic metaphor. 

Louis Rus notes that the poet's parenthetical "let's remember" is 
ambiguous and may be read either as an admonition to remember this 
particular day or as a reminder that this was a day that "died again 
and again" (p. 111). The second possibility fits nicely with the 
speaker's assertion of the necessity of seeing clearly, reminding the 
lady that it was an element of the phenomeral world that has brought 
them a new dispensation, a new birth. 

#5 (CP 603) attempts to explain why the phenomenal world men live 
in has cycles of birth, growth, and death. The poem begins with the 
speaker and a friend, perhaps his ladylove, out under a brilliantly 
starry sky. Astonished by the multitude of stars, the speaker exclaims: 

swim so now million many worlds in each 
least less than particle of perfect dark- 
how should a loudness called m a nkin d unteach 
whole infinite the who of life's life(harkl 
what silence)? 

In an instant the speaker intuitively perceives that the twinkling stars, 
which he calls worlds because they twinkle (i.e. appear cyclical), are 

as vitally alive and immediate ("so now") as our own world. Consequent- 
ly, he wonders how it can happen that mankind fails to recognize the 
vitality of the cosmos, and unteaches (teaches falsely) that these 
worlds are inconceivably remote and definable only by arbitrary measures 
of magnitude and location. 

The speaker's companion, who is gradually revealed to be more tran- 
scendentally perceptive than the speaker, objects to the idea that stars 
are worlds (he knows their twinkling is caused by atmospheric distor- 
tion); he is sure they are "flowers," transcendentally alive entities 
opening eternally to absolute reality as earthly flowers open to the 
sun. Loath to surrender his original insight, the speaker asks if 
worlds, like flowers, do not also "open" and "close." The answer is 
that while they do, they do so differently; they open and close as if 
"they wanted us to understand/they'd never close(and open)if that fool/ 
called everyone(or you or i)were wise." Inferring that worlds may be- 
come like the stellar flowers, the speaker asks: "you mean worlds may 
have better luck, some day?" The friend, whose eyes reflect the stars 
above, responds: "or worse! poor worlds ;i mean they're possible/-but 
flowers . . . only are quite what worlds merely might be . " 

By "opens" and "closes" Cummings suggests the various cycles which 
inform all things in the worlds of men. Consequently the poem implies 
that the phenomenal world opens and closes in order to give men, if 
they have eyes to see, the message that transcendence, the condition of 
timeless openness and selfless individuality, is available. Only by 
suffering opening and closing can men conceive "what worlds might be." 


In #35 (CP 633), the speaker and his lady are again set against a 
sunset. The speaker asks his lover to stand with him against the world 
of time and mostpeople until they become "dreams," transcendent souls 
at home in the "forever" of timelessness. He senses the imminence of 
their transformation as the sunset they watch fails (as "light's lives 
lurch"), night falls, and the world of day, time, and mostpeople grad- 
ually "becomes "a once world" filled with an "army of unbeing," the 
"ghosts" of men. Sensing that transcendence is possible for them in 
this moment, that for them "least all turns almost now;now almost swims/ 
into a hair's width: into less?into/not," the speaker exhorts his lover 
to accept wholly and selflessly the transition from time to timelessness, 
from "least all" to "forever." Only by self -surrender and wholehearted 
silence of self can they enter into and become one with "night's total 
exploding millionminded Who." 

Another such moment of transition is treated in Xaipe #41 (CP 639). 
The speaker, p.gain sensing that transcendence into the noumenon is im- 
mediately possible, invites his lady to surrender her connection with 
the world of time and mortality, and touching "an angel named imagina- 
tion," move into the world of dream. 

The world of this poem is in upheaval, torn by a tremendous storm. 
The moon "reels" overhead, while the earth is "bombed" by the storm- 
tossed ocean. The lightning flares are like sparks from hell; "never 
was death so alive: chaos so absolute." The speaker and his lady have 
become clinging "wraiths," "ghosts drowning in supreme thunder." Yet 
in spite of the tempest, "never have breathed such miracle murdered we." 
The speaker and his lady have been liberated by the miraculous storm 


from their former lives; no future moment can free them any more. 
Their deaths mark the beginning of a new life, and they are ready for 
rebirth. To begin it, the lady must "put out" her "eyes" and touch the 
angel. That is, she must not only make an effort to imagine, or live 
with dream, but also she must surrender her "eyes" or "i's" to enter 
into transcendence; she must sacrifice her isolating egocentrism if she 
is to enter the world of dream. 

In #65 (CP 663), Cummings responds to an "amazing day" with a 
paean to God, thanking him for "everything which is natural which is 
infinite which is yes." He is prompted to this, for him unusual, state- 
ment by a lovely spring day - a day when both he and the earth seem 

The sixth of the sonnets which reflect on natural scenes is #31 
(CP 629), an impressionistic description of a smoky, noisy nightclub 
which is filled with drunken sailors, B-girls, and shrieking fairies. 
In the midst of this Hogarthian bedlam, a carroty-blond youth whispers 
drunkenly, over and over, "It's Snowing Isn't That Perfectly Wonderful." 

This sonnet, one of the few since the early volumes to deal with 
the demimonde, illustrates the violent contrast that exists between the 
worlds of man and nature, and suggests the dangerous fragility of the 
connection between the two. While the rest of the patrons of this micro- 
cosm wallow in a miasma of "jukethrob" and vomit, only the youth is 
capable of seeing out into the natural world and of recognizing its 
wonderfulness. Even his insight is that of a drunk, and we must wonder 
if anything will come of it, if he will find it the first step toward 


transcendence or his last chance to find it before the shades of the 
prison house darken his life forever. 

To distinguish between the sonnets which respond to natural scenes 
and those which treat what up to now have been considered transcendental 
themes becomes in Xaipe more of an exercise in categorization than in 
noting significant distinctions. All of the sonnets in this volume are, 
in effect, worldly sonnets because all deal with living properly. The 
satires treat those who do not; the responses to nature explore the 
relation of the poet and his lady to the worlds of man, nature, and 
dream. And the "philosophical" sonnets yet to be discussed theorize 
about how to live in order to transcend. 

In #51 (CP 649), for example, Cummings praises the transfiguring 
power of "innocence." Innocence, the capacity to be selflessly open 
to external reality, will make the speechless "dark of heart" sing, 
teach those "who could not learn to look" to see, lift "a luminous 
whole" from all nothing, transform "despairing" to "gay," and turn 
"nowhere to here, never to beautiful." On the other hand, whatever is 
done without innocence shall fail and disappear; indeed, the "proud 
power of himself death immense/is not so as a little innocence." 

In #61 (CP 659), the poet wonders how the "contented fools of 
fact," those without innocence who believe in the facts they have de- 
fined for themselves, would respond if the lady and he should reach 
timelessness. How, he asks, should they envision the "mystery of free- 
dom" if the lovers "steer" themselves into "infinite tomorrow." The 
question is rhetorical, of course; the speaker knows that mostpeople 
cannot comprehend the "sweet miracles" of dream because they live in a 

self -created "colossal hoax of clocks and calendars." The gulf between 
the world of time and the world of timelessness is bridged only by 
those who see through the hoax, having been "touched by love's own 
secret." Those who are untouched can only "stare deafly," if they can 
detect the lovers at all. 

The world of "infinite tomorrow" and the world of clocks and cal- 
endars exist simultaneously. Comparing his lover and himself to homing 
birds returning to their nest, the poet says that they are "souls under 
whom flow a million wheres" which can never equal their native world of 
"more than dream." Yet, arriving to sing, they are still immersed in 
time. They share a temporal existence with the fools of fact, but have 
made a spiritual transition that renders them incomprehensible to those 
whose vision is constrained by the falsifications and distortions of 
reason. The speaker and lady are at home now and here in "nowhere," 
the transcendental life that exists in and beyond the unworld man has 
created arbitrarily. 

Cummings returns to the topic of death in Xaipe #69 (CP 667), re- 
assuring his lady that death, though inevitably a part of the process 
of nature, is not to be feared, for it is, in the nature of worlds that 
open and close, followed by rebirth. 

now all the fingers of this tree( darling )have 
hands, and all the hands have people; and 
more each particular person is(my love) 
alive than every world can understand 

and now you are and i am now and we're 
a mystery which will never happen again, 
a miracle which has never happened before - 
and shining this our now must come to then 


our then shall be some darkness during which 
fingers are without hands; and i have no 
you rand all trees are(any more than each 
leafless )its silent in forevering snow 

-hut never fear(my own, my beautiful 
my blossoming )f or also then's until 

That Cummings' vision was maturing is evident in this sonnet. 
Norman Friedman makes much of it, saying that "the speaker has developed 
a spiritual power which, in reminding us of such poems as Donne's 'Death, 
Be Not Proud, ' puts Cummings in the main stream of English visionary 
poetry" (The Art, p. 165). In earlier poems Cummings recognized that 
he was subject to time and decay, but found a kind of escape from the 
phenomenal world through transcendent, timeless moments. These seemingly 
infinite excursions into the noumenon rendered his life in the unworld 
insignificant. Now, however, he has come to terms with reality, with 
the fact of mortal demise. Even as the speaker and his lady enjoy "a 
mystery which will never happen again, a miracle which has never happened 
before," he realizes that their "shining ... now must come to then." He 
knows their spring of joy must pass, that winter and death must come. 
But he finds in the cycle of the seasons assurance that death is transi- 
tory, "until." 

Having accepted the necessity of failure, Cummings closes Xaipe 

with a humble request for a new beginning. In #71 (CP_ 669), the poet 

is aware that he is "disappearing" into the night, that he is near his 

end. He asks the new moon, always his symbol of triumphant "deathless- 

He means, of course, not only his mortal end but also the end of 
his volume. He prays for a refreshed poetic faculty as well as for 
transcendence . 

ness," to teach him "the keen/illimitable secret of begin." 

The sonnets of 95 Poems (1958), like those of Xaipe , indicate that 
Cummings' vision of the nature of being continued to intensify in the 
eight years which separate the two volumes. Although there are no 
radical changes of stance here, a number of the sonnets in 95 Poems 
and 73 Poems (posthumous, 1963) reflect not only Cummings 1 belief that 
life in the phenomenal is a vital element in self-realization but also 
that he had learned to live and practice his belief wholeheartedly. 

In my discussion of the sonnets of Xaipe , I noted that Cu mm i n gs' 
decreasing interest in the unworld was a function of his maturation. 
As he becomes more at home with his vision, he turns away from the 
empty, self -centered structures mostpeople impose on the world, con- 
centrating instead on the problems and processes of living transcenden- 
tally in time. This movement is continued in 95 Poems ; here there are 
no explicit satires and few references to those who live wrongly. This 
is the opposite of escapism, for Cu mm i ng s is moving away from the un- 
real and toward the real, out of the world of illusion and into the 
realm of the true. 

The sonnets of 95 Poems begin, with #3 (CP 675), by announcing 

C umming s' sense of freedom from illusion. 

now air is air and thing is thing :no bliss 

of heavenly earth beguiles our spirits, whose 
miraculously disenchanted eyes 

live the magnificent honesty of space. 

Mountains are mountains now; skies now are skies- 
and such a sharpening freedom lifts our blood 
as if whole supreme this complete doubtless 


universe we'd(and ire alone had)made 

-yes; or as if our souls, awakened from 
summer's green trance, would not adventure soon 
a deeper magic: that white sleep wherein 
all human curiosity we'll spend 
(gladly, as lovers must ) immortal and 

the courage to receive time's mightiest dream 

As Friedman says, Cummings is here acknowledging "the reality of 

the world of appearance" ( The Art , p. 180). He has abandoned the belief 

that the phenomenal world is but an emanation of the noumenon; he has 

accepted the "magnificent honesty of space" as real. He is no longer 

beguiled by the concept that this life is a spectral condition; he has 

been freed of the deceptive "bliss" of such a philosophy and is seeing 

clearly for the first time. It is as if he has awakened from a delu- 
sive trance or dream. 

For the speaker, "summer has gone and winter is on its way" (Fried- 
man, The Art , p. 180). His "summer's green trance," his total yet naive 
involvement with a nature that seemed "heavenly," has been broken; in 
his maturity he recognizes his "sharpening freedom" from illusion, his 
miraculous disenchantment, and he desires to live for a while in this 
new condition. He "would not adventure soon . . . that white sleep" of 
death and transcendence. He embraces the world of appearance excitedly, 
not out of fear of his unknown doom (he says that he and the lady will 
"spend" themselves gladly) but because it seems he has created this new 

1 It is clear that Cummings wanted the reader to think of the "Bower 
of Bliss" episode in The Fairy Queene . "Bliss" in both poems is asso- 
ciated with enchantment and delusion, and to lose such bliss is healthy. 

earth himself, and he wishes to enjoy his creation and his new freedom 
of understanding before he puts it aside for death - "time's mightiest 


Coming very early in his first volume of new verse in eight years, 
this sonnet seems a manifesto - the enunciation of a deeper comprehen- 
sion of the nature of things. He has discovered that one must accept 
the reality of the world in which men live, and not merely treat it as 
a necessary evil which one must embrace to transcend. The difference 
in attitudes is profound; the poet no longer values the earthly because 
it is "heavenly." Now he accepts the earthly in and for itself, knowing 
finally that transcendence truly encompasses all, finally escaping the 
contemptus mundi which has for so long underlain his emotional response 

to life. 

In #11 (CP 683), a beautiful English sonnet, Cummings assures his 
lady, in a sort of sermon, that time is really noble and generous and 
not to be feared. This poem marks the poet's mature accomodation with 
time, and records his calm understanding and acceptance of time as a 
necessary, inescapable, even beneficial condition of life. 

in time's a noble mercy of proportion 

with generosities beyond believing 

(though flesh and blood accuse him of coercion 

or mind and soul convict him of deceiving) 

whose ways are neither reasoned nor unreasoned, 
his wisdom cancels conflict and agreement 
-saharas have their centuries; ten thousand 
of which are smaller than a rose's moment 

there's time for laughing and there's time for crying - 
for hoping for despair for peace for longing 
-a time for growing and a time for dying: 
a night for silence and a day for singing 


but more than all(as all your more than eyes 
tell me)there is a time for timelessness 

Cummings' thesis that time contains "generosities beyond believing" 
is based on his observation that it contains all things in its infinite 
span. This comprehensiveness is described in terms which clearly echo 
Ecclesiastes III: 1-8. Yet the pessimism of the Preacher ("all is vanity" 
in this life, and death is the doom of all) is not repeated. Rather, 
Cummings, who has a profoundly Christian orientation, says that time 
alone is what enables us to attain timelessness. This supreme gift of 
time is a logical yet paradoxical consequence of time's infinitude. 

In "Puella Mea," time was "eater of all things lovely." Now in his 
maturity, Cum mi ngs recognizes time as more than an all-devouring maw. 
Where once there was only the philosophical solace of knowing that all 
things have their season, now there is release and transcendence in 
timelessness. Now time alone offers hope to the mortal; life in time is 
truly felt to be the avenue to transcendence. Time resolves all anti- 
nomies . 

Like #11, #78 (CP 750) praises the generosity of time. Here the 
poet says: 

Time's a strange fellow; 

more he gives than takes 
(and he takes all)nor any marvel finds 
quite disappearance but some keener makes 
losing, gaining. 

Time, in its continual unfolding, now gives the keener marvel of tran- 
scendence. It effects the transition from old to new, from appearance 
to reality ("disappearance"), from phenomenal to noumenal. Time brings 
death, for "he takes all," but death is a gift - the "more" that time 

"gives than takes" - because it allows the poet and his lady to see 
"more than all worlds begin to begin." 

The occasion of this reflection on time and death is the moment of 
an evening when the stars, always Cummings' symbol of the transcendental 
world, first become visible. It is a moment of insight, a miraculous 
glimpse into the noumenon. Time stops, "all nearness pauses," and "all 
distance breathes a final dream of bells." Time and space blend in- 
separably into the now/here of transcendental union. The moment and the 
vision, subject to time, pass. But the insight renews the poet's spirit 
and reveals to him time's beneficence. For him, life has become "wealth- 
ier" because the day, in dying, has given us "the upfloating moon" - an 
even more immediate transcendental presence. 

A number of the other sonnets in 95 Poems signal the poet ' s maturity 
of vision. For example, Norman Friedman considers #63 (CP 735) "one of 
the most beautiful poems" Cummings wrote ( The Growth , p. 169). Here 
the speaker reflects on his own insignificance and on his potential for 
transcendence. As Friedman says, "if he is given perfect mercy, such a 
small person may live in a transcendental world bigger than any merely 
physical universe. This is a world without any intellectual meaning, 
incapable of being killed by abstraction; a world of giving rather than 
taking; a marvel to be felt but not thought, a lesson which can be learn- 
ed but not taught. If he is given a mercy beyond that of sun after 
storm, spring after winter, such a small person will transcend, just as 
the April of April, the awake of awake, transcends" ( The Growth , pp. 169- 

This sonnet is more than Cummings' humble admission that he is 


small and insignificant, dependent on "perfect mercy" for salvation. 

It is also a statement of preparedness. That is, Cummings not only 

says that he has reached the spiritual stage where he can, if given 

mercy, transcend. He is already "almost too small for death's because 

to find." With mercy, he implies, he will be able to escape death's 

finality completely, and "will climbjwill blossom-.will sing." Just as 

Christian dogma requires grace in addition to good works, so Cummings 

requires perfect mercy in addition to spiritual readiness. This sonnet 

marks a moment when the poet feels he is precisely "unbig" enough to 

transcend if elected. He has become "small," abandoning his egoistic 

will to power over things through reason (he says reason "kills") to 

become a "why" open to the miracle of being. Cummings has unburdened 

himself of the false riches of the ego and is ready to pass through the 

eye of the needle. 

#84 (CP 756), which also reflects Cummings' assurance of vision, 

treats a subject infrequently found in Cummings' poetry: the sun. Even 

more unusual is what Friedman calls the poet's "almost religious ecstasy 

of mystical identification with the father of all life and all light" 

( The Art , p. 175). 

how generous is that himself the sun 

-arriving truly, faithfully who goes 

(never a moment ceasing to begin 

the mystery of day for someone's eyes) 

with silver splendors past conceiving who 

comforts his children, if he disappears; 
till of more much than dark most nowhere no 
particle is not a universe- 

but If , with goldenly his fathering 


(as that himself out of all silence strolls) 
nearness awakened, any bird should sing: 
and our night's thousand million miracles 

a million thousand hundred nothings seem 
-we are himself 's own self, 'his very him 

The sun never ceases to give, never ceases to "begin the mystery 
of day for someone's eyes." Even in the night his reflected "silver 
splendors" give comfort. His radiance permeates all; every "particle" 
of timelessness is made a "universe." For the poet, however, the sun's 
most miraculous effect is at dawn; should his golden "fathering near- 
ness" inspire a bird's song, the "thousand million miracles" of the 
night are made to seem "nothings," and the poet and his lady are raised 
into transcendence, into unity with the sun, to become "himself 's own 
self;his very him." 

The sun is here a complete, transcendent individual - the archetype 
of all complete spirits. He is utterly self-contained, completely him- 
self. Yet he is also totally faithful and totally generous - giving 
without return, sharing without demanding. 

In earlier sonnets Cummings embraced the night and death because 
they seemed his avenues into the world of dream. Now, making the sun 
hia archetype or symbol of transcendental living wholeness, Cummings 
clearly implies that he has found reality amidst what were before the 
illusions of day; his acceptance of life seems absolute. 

One of the striking features of the sonnets of 95 Poems is the 
frequency and number of poems which praise the poet's lady. Nearly 
half the sonnets deal with her influence over the poet or with the sig- 
nificance of the love they share. 


#7 (CP 679), for example, is highly organized praise of the effect 

the lady has on the poet and his conduct. 

because you take life in your stride( instead 
of scheming how to beat the noblest game 
a man can proudly lose, or playing dead 
and hoping death himself will do the same 

because you aren't afraid to kiss the dirt 
(and consequently dare to climb the sky) 
because a mind no other mind should try 
to fool has always failed to fool your heart 

but most( without the smallest doubt )because 
no best is quite so good you don't conceive 
a better; and because no evil is 
so worse than worst you fall in hate with love 

-human one mortally immortal i 

can turn immense all time's because to why 

The gist of this sonnet is that the speaker's now able to conquer 
time - to "turn immense all time's because to why" and attain tran- 
scendence - because his lady, simply by being herself, provides him 
with a pattern for being. The poet attains transcendence by a process 
analogous to the Christian "imitation of Christ." 

The lady does not try to escape death by running away or by main- 
taining a low profile ("playing dead"); she takes it "in stride." And 
she also takes the totality of life's experiences; she isn't "afraid to 
kiss the dirt." Her flexibility and openness to life allow her to "dare 
to climb the sky." She relies on her heart to provide her truth, al- 
though she has a mind that "no other mind should try /to fool." Her 
most inspiring attribute is her unfailing idealism; she is never fool 
enough to believe that what exists is all that can be, yet she always 
loves and submits to what is. 


The ultimate effect on the speaker of the lady's being is to allow 
him "to turn immense all time's because to why." He has been spiritually 
transformed by her power so that death has become for him a beginning 
rather than an ending. "Why" is open; "because" is closed and final. 
"Why" is a beginning; "because" is a conclusion. "Immense all time's 
because" concludes the lives of mere mortals, but for the poet, who is 
now "mortally immortal," death marks a beginning, a new openness to the 
world of dream. 

This poem is particularly notable for the organic fusion of struc- 
ture and rhetorical procedure. The gross structure of the sonnet is it- 
self logical; a fairly strict English form, the combination of three 
quatrains and a concluding couplet lends itself to the expression of 
cause-and -effect relationships. Moreover, a logical relationship is 
expressed. The three quatrains present statements explicitly labelled 
causes ("because" is the key term in each quatrain), and the couplet 
describes the effect of those causes. Paradoxically, the effect of the 
lady is to liberate the poet from the very process which makes possible 
his liberation. They are both subject to time and process, but he is 
freed from that process by her effect on him. I believe Cummings was 
trying to capture in this sonnet the paradoxicality of life in the 
phenomenal: we live, and by living transcend; we become immortal "mortal- 
ly." f 

In #45 (CP 717), Cummings proclaims his love again. While it re- 
mains winter in the world, the poet enjoys spiritual spring because of 
his lady's transforming effect; "sunlight and singing" welcome her 

coming to him. And 

although winter may be everywhere 
with such a silence and such a darkness 
noone can quite begin to guess 

(except my life)the true time of year. 

Cummings' acceptance of the realness of life in the temporal seems 

to be belied by attitudes implicit in several of his love poems. In 

#71 (CP 743), for example, the poet and his lady stand on a storm-torn 

shore watching the surf crash into spindrift. Aware of the suggestive- 

ness of the scene - it is the "ending earth" - the poet is reminded of 

the helplessness of mostpeople amidst the flux of time and nature. He 

r emin ds his lover of the condition of the mass of men: 

suppose we could not love, dear; imagine 

ourselves like living neither nor dead these 
(or many thousand hearts which don't and dream 
or many million minds which sleep and move) 
blind sands, at pitiless the mercy of 

time time time time time 
His insight only heightens his appreciation of their own transcendence. 
"How fortunate" he and his lady are "to have wandered down/from fragrant 
mountains of eternal now/to frolic" in the temporal world before re- 
turning to their "home" in timelessness . 

This sonnet hints at a wavering of the poet's mature vision, for 
while he sees "such mysteries as birth and death" as necessary, in- 
separable parts of being in the phenomenal world, he asserts that they, 
like all aspects of the phenomenal, are inconsequential to him whose 
home is timelessness. He seems to have reverted to an earlier position, 
denying the reality of the world of appearance. However, we must 

consider the circumstances; he is praising his lady and reassuring her 
fears. Since she has not his firm philosophy, he denies the signifi- 
cance of the phenomenal to make the transcendental more real to her. 

§88 (CP 761) also praises the transfiguring power of the poet's 
lady. Her love, utter and instinctive, "comprehends" (i.e. both under- 
stands and encompasses) more of transcendence than analytical reason 
"shall ever provingly disprove." 

The poet lives in a world which "nothing believable inhabits." 
Here parts are taken for wholes: "shadows are substances and wings are 
birds." But the lady's "fearless and complete love" makes "all safely 
small/big wicked worlds of world disappear." And she turns the poet's 
words "to a silence who's the voice of voice." She not only inspires 
his transcendent vision but also directs him to write of a silence who 
is the voice of voice. And, paradoxically, she renders Mm silent by 
teaching him that words, abstractions, are but pale shadows of the 

As he did in #71, Cummings seems to have retreated from reality; 
certainly the half -world he describes here is unsatisfactory to him. 
I think he takes this position in order to praise his lady's redemptive 
power; that is, he creates a condition of spiritual malaise which her 
love heals. 

Cummings ' retreats from the realness of the world are only tempo- 
rary, dramatic gestures. In the sonnet immediately following, #73 
(CP 745), the poet and his lady no longer frolic in the mysteries of 
birth and death; now they are engaged enough in those mysteries to 
suffer serious wounds. Whereas #71 implied that life in the unworld 

was essentially insignificant to those who have achieved transcendence, 
this sonnet treats life as an integral part of being. 

In order for him and his lady to "reverently share the blessed 
eachness of all beautiful selves" in transcendence, the poet says they 
must climb "from some loud unworld's most rightful irrong" and be 
"shrived of that nonexistence millions call life." They must die to 
be healed. Still, however wrong life is, it is also "most rightful" to 
live in it in order to attain "blessed eachness." 

In #89 (CP 762), Cummings instructs his lady in how one must live 
in time. The poet, strolling with her just as "what were motionless 
move," is suddenly inspired by the sight of a newly unfurled leaf. 
His joyous "amazement" reaffirms his assurance that feeling is first, 
that there "exists no miracle mightier than this:tc feel" the miraculous 
rebirth of nature. He knows that whole worlds may do and die, but the 
promise of rebirth remains uncompromised. 

The lady's faith in transcendence is not as firm, apparently, for 
the poet tries to reassure her. Plucking a leaf, he offers it as an 
emblem and promise of her own spiritual renewal. The lady is imaged as 
a tightrope artiste and the leaf as a "parasol" to help her maintain a 
spiritual balance. 

To live properly in the phenomenal is to "walk in the air" "almost 
breathing." The poet tells her to "look up," to think continually on 
transcendence, and to dance with him high "above anybody and fate and 
even Our /whisper it Selves." They, who "were less than dead," have "be- 
come more than alive" by the miracle of spring. They must not look 
down (i.e. be concerned about death) or to the past or future; they must 
concentrate on nothing "except love." 


From his childhood Cummings was in love with the circus, and his 

works are full of circus imagery. In the play Him , the protagonist, 

a failed artist, compares himself to a tightrope clown who tries to sit 

"on three chairs in Heaven," to "kick them out from under" himself, and 

to "stand on air." That is, through his art the protagonist tries to 

break free of his earthly bonds and transcend. But he cannot because 

he is a man and therefore a "failure"; he must fall. In this sonnet, 

love rather than art allows the poet and lady to dance high above the 

mundane. But here too failure is implicit in the image. Like the 

protagonist of Him , they are bound to fail; they too must come down to 

suffer death. I believe the poet knows this, but he sees that the lady 

needs a proof to allay her fear. The leaf is that proof. It allows 

her to maintain her poise in the face of the failure that is the lot of 

all daring souls. 

The nature and power of love is the subject of two of the late son- 
nets in 95 Poems . Now more than ever, love is seen as the force which 
fuses all creation into a timeless copresence. 

In #91 (CP 765), Cummings defines love and its effects by defining 

"unlove," the condition of mostpeople. 

unlove's the heavenless hell and homeless home 

of knowledgeable shadows ( quick to seize 

each nothing which all soulless wraiths proclaim 

substance;all heartless spectres, happiness) 

Mostpeople are knowledgeable shadows, expert in analytic ratiocination, 

t. E. Cummings, Three Plays and a Ballet , ed. George J. FInnage 
(New York: October House, 1967J, p. 11. 

because they have accepted the phenomenal world of matter as the final 
world of "substance." They are quick to seize each "nothing" of the 
phenomenal because, compared to themselves, it is solidly real and 
something they can grasp. Mbstpeople are "shadows," "spectres," and 
"wraiths" - insubstantial creatures needing to fasten themselves to 
something real, yet unable to distinguish between mere matter and true 
substance because they lack the ability to love. 

Unlike mostpeople, who live in shadowland, "lovers alone wear 
sunlight"; lovers alone are at home in the true reality and capable of 
existing in themselves. They alone accept themselves and the external 
without demanding that one conform or subordinate itself to the other. 
They are the "song" that "the whole truth/not hid by matter ;not by mind 
revealed" sings. 

Mbstpeople look for happiness in other places and other times. 
They believe that they can be happy in the future or elsewhere, but 
they are never happy now. Lovers, however, know that happiness, tran- 
scendence, can exist only in the present; "here(only here)is freedom: 
always here/no then of winter equals now of spring." Lovers embrace 
and accept the present, and in doing so transform phenomenal winter to 
transcendent spring. Love redeems them from time; their "april's day 
transcends november's year." By loving they metamorphose time into 
tlmelessness, into "eternity." 

Cummings concludes his small essay on the effect of love by offer- 
ing an example of love's power from his own life: "eternity being so 
sans until/twice i have lived forever in a smile." Love brings timeless 
moments of transcendence while we live in the phenomenal world. But 


love does not liberate the lovers from "november's year" utterly; the 
poet has lived forever but he has also returned to the world of time. 
Only death is the final liberation. 

#94 (CP 768), the final sonnet of the volume, is a beautiful affirm- 
ation of love's transcendent power, and reflects C ummj n gs ' mature ac- 
commodation to life and death. 

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 suffer?all 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 

Love is the spiritual continuum underlying and comprehending all 
elements of being: "love is the air the ocean and the land." Those who 
love, who are open to life totally and completely, who do not interpose 
egoistic demands but sure of themselves accept and give wholly, live in 
transcendent timelessness, even though like all "proud divinities" they 
put on "deathful flesh" and suffer the pangs of life in the restricted 
world of time and space. They do live and they do transcend. "What- 
ever sages say and fools," Cummings is finally sure that for those who 
love, "all's well," 

95 Poems is the first volume of Cummings' poetry, except the early 
Tulips and Chimneys , which is not clearly organized by the arrangement 

of the sonnets. In the volumes since No Thanks , the sonnets have pro- 
vided a regular, sometimes mathematically precise, framework of ideas 
which inform the thematic movement of the volume. Moreover, as the 
poet's vision has matured, these structures have become looser and less 
rigid. In 95 Poems only the suggestion of the pattern remains because 
the poet himself has outgrown the process which informed his earlier 
work. That is, just as Cummings has resolved the dichotomy between the 
real and the phenomenal, so his sonnets have ceased to move dramatically 
from "dirty" to "clean" themes; now all the sonnets are essentially 
"clean," and the placement of the majority of them (12 of 19) in the 
latter half of the volume, which they dominate, reflects the poet's 
transformation . 

The shadow of a pattern remains. The early sonnets in 95 Poems 
are essentially worldly poems which treat life in the world at hand. 
The later sonnets, which are mainly love sonnets which explore tran- 
scendence, are not unworldly but are less immediately concerned with 
the worldly, stressing the timelessness of the lovers rather than their 
worldly life together. 

The process of transition from the phenomenal to the noumenal is 
the subject of #48 and #49, which must be taken together not only be- 
cause they are contiguous but also because they treat a single experi- 
ence of transcendental insight. 

In #48 (CP 720), Cummings describes the metamorphoses he experi- 
ences in the course of a day and night spent wandering the streets of 
a town. In the daytime, when "houses turning into themselves grow/ 
silent upon new perfectly blue," the poet is a "someone," a public 

person engaged 1b worldly pursuits, although his identity and goals 
are unknown even to himself. As evening falls, as "streets taking mo- 
ment off by moment day/thankfully become each other," he changes into 
an "any ... one." He is anonymous in a crowd which hurries "crylaugh- 
ingly" homeward. But in the night, when the streets are empty and the 
houses dark, the "almost vanished" poet becomes a "no-one"; he ceases 
to be an identity-less separate entity and becomes a completely alive 
transcendent "am." 

The poet is happy with this conclusion, for he is one "for whom 
the departure of everything real is the arrival/of everything true." 
The vanishing of the phenomenal, workaday world is simultaneously the 
coming of the spiritual and transcendent. 

On one level this sonnet is autobiographical. Cummings , practice 

was to paint, stroll, and conduct his business during the day, and to 

write his poetry at night. However, the significance of the poem lies 

in the traditional symbols of the journey and the night, along with the 

terms "someone," "anyone," and "noone." If the night symbolizes death, 

then the poem suggests that the poet becomes an "am," attains identity 

and being, only in and through death. In life he has been a someone, 

perhaps a public figure, and an anyone - a man subject to the common 

lot of men; now he is released from his oneness into unity with all. 

Paradoxically, his fall from the "real" is his ascendence into the "true" 

^■This habit may explain Cummings' penchant for evening and night 
scenes in the sonnets. 

or transcendent. His death is his birth; he dies as a "one" to live 
as an "am." 

H9 (CP 721) is a continuation of the events described in the pre- 
ceding poem. In that sonnet, the poet became, in the night and at the 
blossoming of a "first star," a "noone" or "am." In the present sonnet, 
that "noone and a star stand, am to am." The poet has instantly spanned 
"millionary wherewhens" - what petty minds conceive of as vast distances 
of space and time - to "stand/soul to soul: freedom to freedom" with the 
star. "United by perfect nothing," they are not separated by phenomenal 
"thing" but rather joined in the oneness of the noumenal. This marriage 
of "human one; and one celestial" is consummated when "her utmost secre- 
cies and his/( dreaming flame by flaming dream )/merge . " And as a marriage 
makes two bodies one flesh, so this marriage creates a new being: "a 
(who is neither each/both and)Self" capable of adventuring "deathless- 
ness." The poet, who became a "noone" in #48, is now a "Self," a time- 
less citizen of transcendence, able because of his marriage to abide in 
deathless union with all. 

The sonnets of 73 Poems affirm that Cummings had attained a clearly 
defined lebensphilosophie at the time of his death. In these sonnets, 
Cummings has wholly accepted the necessity of life in time, accepted the 
reality of that life and its attendant phenomena, and submitted himself 
to its processes. And he remains absolutely certain of his transcenden- 
tal rebirth. 

There is, however, a strong undercurrent of impatience reflected 
in these sonnets - an impatience born of frustration with a recalcitrant 


unworld and of great expectations too long deferred. It is Cunnings' 
frustration with the world which explains the poet's renewed satirical 
tone. It is his frustration which explains the spiritual paralysis he 
admits in the latter part of the volume. 

The first of the sonnets in 73 Poems , #18 (CP 790), is a satire 
on those who refuse to accept life as it is and who deny their individ- 
ual existential responsibility to shape their own doom. "Mrs some- 
thingwitz/nay somethingelsestein" is inconceivably "future." She looks 
to the future for a better life, for solutions to the vicissitudes of 
the present. She never doubts that "all goodness truth and beauty" are 
to be had tomorrow. For the poet, however, the future is "form/less 
form"; it has name but no substance. For Cummings, to deny the living 

present is to be not merely in league with death (suffering death-in- 

life) but also to be one of death's active minions. It is not in- 
appropriate that this woman be Jewish by both marriage and birth (note 
the pun on nay - nee , French for "born"), for the Jews have long been 

future-oriented; they await the coming of the Messiah and their certain 

restoration to the Promised Land. 

^■That death is here equated with evil may be detected in the 
slight allusiveness of the verb "swarm" in line six; one recalls Mil- 
ton's description of Satan's hordes, which swarmed "As Bees/In spring 

I believe Mrs. Somethingwitz ' s Jewishness is intended to add tonal 
depth; she is certainly not to be taken as an anti-Semitic symbol of the 


After the parenthetical introduction of the idea that Mrs. Some- 
thingwitz is an "idealist" of sorts, a seeming disjunction of ideas 
occurs. In lines 10-12, the speaker comments on politicians who "like 
the sight of vote," and notes in an ironic upper-crust accent that 
"everyone knows" that politics "is/wut ektyouelly metus" (what actually 
matters). The connection between Mrs. Somethingwitz and the politi- 
cians is not farfetched, however, and it certainly gives us an insight 
into the consistency of Cummings' poetic logic. Just as a Mrs. Some- 
thingwitz looks to the future and abandons the present, so voters, 
looking for reform and progress, abdicate their responsibility for 
living in the present by transferring to politicians the power to 
govern over them, to make the future better for them. Politicians are 
by nature futurists; they must condemn the present and promise progress 
in order to get elected. They like the sight of vote because voting 
means they will have an existence. Cummings despises those who en- 
courage the abdication of individual responsibility, and reviles those 
who will not live wholeheartedly in the present. 

The last two lines of the poem confirm the thematic and symbolic 
unity of the poem. The spiritually damaged Mrs. Somethingwitz limps 
into the future "unbeside" the politician. But even as they leave, 
their backs to the present, the woman's whining complaints drift back 
to us, reminding us that we must embrace the exigencies of the present 
if we are truly to live; we cannot live as she does in a world of "if 

Cummings' growing impatience also explains the irritable tone of 
#32 (CP 804), which reaffirms Cummings' dislike for the dispassionate 


life. By damning "talking," which he implies is a sort of verbal 
onanism, he praises "singing" - "the language of transcendence" (Stet- 
ler, p. 157). 

After setting forth his premise that singing and talking are 
mutually exclusive, and that talking is essentially non-communicative, 
Cummings elaborates on how talking is self -centered, sterile, and in- 
volute. In lines 3-4 he says that it does not matter whether cne is 
"master or disciple sheep or wolf," or is seeking to discover himself, 
for it is all a matter of talking to no purpose; no one is there to 
hear except oneself. Lines 5-6 reflect on the 20th-century treatment 
of the ego as "deity" (as in the case of certain varieties of exist- 
ential philosophers) or "devil" (as in the case of the Freudians). 
One may even adore one's self, as it is projected or embodied in a 
lover, with epithets of courtly love, calling it "cruel fair" or "blessed 

Cummings' wisdom is apparent when he declares that the object of 
veneration "is you(ne i)nobody else." The potential for meaning of the 
parenthetical phrase is quite large, and it begins with the overt mean- 
ing that the ego, the "i," is at the original center - ( ) - of all of us. 
It may also visually suggest the placement of the "eye" in the head. 
Certainly the phrase asserts on the speaker's part a sense of common 
humanity, a feeling that "you" and "i" are born into the same condition. 
Cummings recognizes that we all face the possibility of being unable to 
sing. And also, ironically, if we hear in the French "ne" an aural pun 
on "nay," the line indicates that communication has failed - that the 
talker continues to be imprisoned by the ego, that the gap between 

people has not been transcended, that "you" and "i" are not one. 

Another path for the "i-solate" is to affirm his being through 
the will to power, through politics. But while he may "drive dumb man- 
kind dizzy with haranguing" - note the apt choice of words: "harangu- 
ing" suggests a total failure of communication - he only deafens him- 

Having by line eleven explored some of the increasingly public 
roles that the human ego plays when the heart is unable to "walk bare- 
foot into reality," the speaker closes the third quatrain with a re- 
statement of the thesis: "all is merely talk which isn't singing/and 
all talking' s to oneself alone." The rounding off of the main theme is 
purposeful: the speaker wants to indicate the separation of "silence," 
which is the "very song of . . . singing," from the mundane world of mere 
sound. Cummings believes that a silent acceptance of life, an ego-less 
self-effacement before reality, is the cause of the joyfulness that 
generates "singing." In order to fully arrive at unity with nature - 
and thereby attain transcendence, that unity exhibited by mountains and 
lovers - one must be silent; the "i" must close. 

The point of the sonnet is perfectly clear: dispassionate "talking" 
fails to break through the barrier of egoism that exists between people, 
and between the individual and nature. Only singing can effect real 
communication and communion. Singing, language in harmony, is ultimately 
choral - a shared act of outward -oriented selflessness. Cummings is 
here very plainly reasserting that a joyous and selfless acceptance of 
life-as-it-is, of phenomenal nature, is the only way one may attain the 
world of dream. 


Cummings 1 inipatience is far more evident, and significant, in 
three sonnets which occur near the end of the volume. In two of these, 
we discover a profound sense of spiritual paralysis and frustration; 
in the other we find a sense of defeat at the hands of mostpeople. 

#67 (CP 839) is a poignant prayer to death to release the frus- 
trated speaker from his state of spiritual barrenness. He is ready for 
his death, which he believes will enable him to attain transcendence. 
He wants to exist in that "silence" which is the essence of "singing." 
But instead of death, "enters no ... silence :but unsinging"; merely the 
absence of joy comes into his life. In this limbo or "spectral ... 
hush" there is no harmony, only the "crash" of inanimate matter. To 
the speaker, new life or "april" is far away. In this state of unsing- 
ing, the poet says he is a "perpetually roaming whylessness." He has no 
motion with purpose; he is a "hollow" man: "Shape without form, shade 
without colour /Paralyzed force, gesture without motion" (T. S. Eliot, 
"The Hollow Men," 11. 11-12). In an agony of frustration, the poet 
cries out: "autumn has gone:will winter never come?" In the "Ode to the 
West Wind," Shelley was ecstatic in his knowledge that winter's pangs 
would be healed by inevitable spring. Cummings 1 faith in rebirth is no 
less, but he needs the release of winter, of death, now. But it will 
not come to free him. 

The situation established in the octave prepares the reader for 

the actual prayer, which comprises the sestet. 

o come, terrible anonymity; enfold 
phantom me with the murdering minus of cold 
-open this ghost with millionary knives of wind- 
scatter his nothing all over what angry skies and 



(very whiteness: absolute peace, 
never imaginable mystery) 


Death brings the negation of individual identity, an "anonymity" that 
is terrible in its awesome power. The speaker prays for this loss of 
self, desiring in very violent imagery complete dissolution. He wants 
his present self, which he conceives of as a "phantom" or "ghost" be- 
cause of its spiritual emptiness, scattered completely. And he wants 
the snow, a symbol of the calm motionlessness of death, to descend and 
bury his old existence. It must descend for his transcendence to occur. 

In #49, one of the lessons the poet heard in the bird's song - the 
song of nature - was the "truth of patience." The present poem marks 
the failure of the poet's patience; it records an impatience under- 
standable in light of his lifelong desire for transcendence. His faith 
has not wavered; he remains committed to submission to time and death, 
to "winter." But his ability to wait for the fullness of time has not 
withstood the test of life. 

Like #67, #71 (CP 8A3) also finds the speaker "stranded on the 
dry and arid shore" of an unchanging, frustrating earthly existence 
(Stetler, p. 167). He wants the tide of life and death to turn, a new 
cycle of existence to begin. He says he will continue to wait, to keep 
his "tryst," for the sake of love, "until that tide shall turn." Then, 
because in waiting he has overridden his egocentric impatience, his 
spirit - the "myself 's own self who's )child" will "dance" in transcendent 
ecstasy. The speaker then says of his liberated self: "and when he's 
plucked such mysteries as men/do not conceive-let ocean grow again." 

That is, when his spirit has embraced transcendence to the full (if it 
ever can - Cummings may intend irony here), he will let the cycle begin 


The speaker wonders "how many centuries" he will have to "restroll 

and stroll" this "never deepening beach." He is impatient for release 

from his stasis, yet his faith that release will come never wavers; he 

knows that only "love," which requires self-effacement and submission 

to life, "understands" how long he will be "locked in foreverish time's" 

embrace . 

Implicit in this sonnet is the idea that the speaker, by means of 
love, spans the two realms of existence - that he lives on the shore 
where meet earth and ocean, phenomenal and transcendental, temporal and 
timeless. He is ever aware of their copresence and coexistence, and 
his life is everlastingly moving from one to the other. The present 
poem reflects the speaker's frustration at being "locked" in time; he 
wants to move into his next phase. This is surely a reflection of Cum- 
mings' readiness in his old age to face the grand adventure. 

#70 of 73 Poems ( CP 842 ) describes the nature of an artist ' s being 
and his relations with the mass of humanity. While the speaker sympa- 
thizes with the artist whose plight is to suffer in pursuit of his art, 

^The arrangement of lines 1-5 helps the reader comprehend this 
simultaneous frustration and faith; the syntax of lines 1-4 suggests 
the question "how long?" while the subject-verb structure in line five 
("love alone understands") transforms the preceding syntactic structure 
into an extended objective clause. 

he also praises him, and damns "such a monster's fellowmen" for their 
failure to respond to that art. 

An artist is any person "who dies to be at any moment born," who 
gives up his own ego-centered existence through his art to attain tran- 
scendence. Painters are those "for whom crumbs of colour can create/ 
precision more than angels fear to learn/and even fiends." Using crumbs 
of color, or fragments of this world's palette, the artist sacrifices 
himself to create sublime "precision," an analogue of the ideal in the 
phenomenal. If he is a musician, the artist "paints with sound" to 
"release the fragrance of a freedom which no mind/contrives(but certain- 
ly each spirit is)." And if he is a writer, he uses his metaphors to 
open "the simple agony of time" to find timelessness. Whatever his 
medium, one artist is similar to all: he is trying to attain transcend- 
ence through his art. And as Stetler points out, despair is "illimit- 
able" for the artist who fails to "make a dream speak"; he hurts more 
because he has sacrificed part of himself, because he "dies to be ... 
born" (Stetler, p. 167). And because his agony, when it occurs, is 
awesome, we have for him the pity reserved for tragic heroes. 

However, while Cummings is aware of the artist's illimitable plight, 
he is not merely pleading for understanding and pity. Indeed, through- 
out his life, Cummings believed that artists such as are described in 
the present sonnet are truly alive, while mostpeople live robot-like 
mechanical existences. To read this poem merely as a plea for under- 
standing is to disregard the disdain the poet has for the artist's so- 
called "fellowmen." The artist's plight is a desirable one in spite of 
the pain. It is a situation which results from having the capacity for 


transcendence . To "pity" those who have this capacity is foolish. Why 
pity those who are potentially rich beyond life's dreams? The artist 
has a greater potential for transcendence than "angels" or "fiends"; 
common pity is the last thing such an illimitable person requires from 
the mob. 

Cummings 1 hatred of "manunkind" may be seen in the final couplet. 
The poet believes that the mob, hating what it does not comprehend, 
enjoys seeing the artist fail. They like to see his transcendence (his 
"now") pass away ("go then"); they enjoy his pain because they resent 
his difference and his greatness. 

This poem certainly reflects the poet's faith in the power and 
capacity of the artist to achieve that "freedom which no mind/contrives 
(but certainly each spirit is)." And the terms by which the passage to 
transcendence is described indicate the poet's continuing acceptance of 
death and the loss of self as the gateway to dream. #67 described an 
instance of the poet's failure to open "the simple agony of time." Now, 
in this sonnet, his plight - his failure to attain transcendence - is 
seen philosophically as a risk attendant on being an artist. One must 
want to die, to efface one's individual identity, if one is to be re- 
born. And, Cummings implies here, the artist must be prepared to bear 
the pangs of stillbirth. It is an "illimitable," admirable plight. 

The poet's frustration is all the more notable in the context of 
the sonnets of love and transcendence that dominate the middle of the 
volume. Comprising the core of his final volume, these sonnets clearly 
indicate the firmness and centrality of Cummings' vision. Like the love 
sonnets of 95 Poems, these emphasize the natural transcendence of the 

poet's lady, her power to transform the life of the poet, and his tran- 
scendental assurance. They also define again the major aspects of Cum- 
mings' stance toward the nature of things. 

#35 (CP 807) epitomizes Cummings ' mature conception of the rela- 
tion between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds. This sonnet is both 
a serious co mm ent on approaches to transcendence and a sexual joke, 
and it is thematically unified. 

It has been pointed out that this sonnet "describes two approaches 
to transcendence, one faulty and one sound" (Stetler, p. 157). The 
faulty method is to attempt to use reason - that "dismal misconception," 
that "teachable imposture" - to define or measure man's limitations. 
All reason can measure is outer appearance, what is learned by the "eye." 
Cummings implies that intelligence, as we measure it in our culture, is 
simply the ability to see and manipulate the phenomenal world; we define 
intelligence by measuring "eye cue." Like the "eye," the reason cannot 
see into the heart of things. 

A better method of attaining to the noumenal is the attribute, 
perhaps birthright, of "every woman who's a woman": intuition. A woman 
"knows" without entering into the circular tricks or impostures of 
"thinking." And because she loves in spite of the "ultramachinations 
of /some loveless infraworld," she can play the "hostess" (she is at 
home in the transcendental world) to her guest; she can help him achieve 
his transcendence, his "morethanme , " 

The larger meaning of the poem exists in abstractions. But Cum- 
mings always refines his abstractions from ore mined in the physical 
world. In this case, the power of the lady to enable the speaker to 

attain his larger being is abstracted from her power to bring the 
speaker to sexual ecstasy. That is, the poet is saying that it is 
through woman, in her physiological capacity, that he achieves sexual 
Joy. In this context, the "morethanme" is clearly the speaker's en- 
larged sexual organ. The poet is here a perceptive psychologist, for 
he implies in the phrase "morethanme" that overbearing quality of the 
male in a state of rut. That is, the speaker's reason is overcome by 
his passion, and his passion leads, with the lady's cooperation, to 
joy. On the earthly plane, the speaker's lady is "hostess" to his 
physical body; on the spiritual, her love enables him to transcend his 
mundane, "thinking" self, to become more than himself, to enter into 
oneness with things. And in doing so, the poet implies that "thinking" 

- a solitary, sterile act - is a sort of self -abuse, a false way to 

pleasure. We have again the idea that sexual joy is the physical type 

of and path to transcendence, and that things above are as things below. 

This poem is about how the physical and spiritual worlds inter- 
penetrate and coexist, and how reason can only fail to move from the 
phenomenal to the noumenal. The circularity of the journey that reason 
always makes, the fact that it must always return to its starting place, 
may be a veiled allusion to Einstein's theory, known to Cummings, that 
space is curved, and that all journeys in this universe ultimately end 

D. H. Lawrence saw this when he observed that the malady of the 
20th century was modern man's inability to subordinate reason to "blood- 
consciousness." "Thinking" in the sonnet under discussion is analogous 
to Lawrence's idea of sex-in-the-head. 

where they begin. Einstein's achievement, hailed as a supreme act of 
scientific genius, would seem to Cummings a perfect proof, as well as 
example, of the failure of reason to help man attain transcendence, a 
proof of the failure of all but love. Einstein locked the door on 
those who think mere motion is progress. Cummings' concept of reality- 
is clear in this poem: he affirms that one transcends by embracing the 
outer world; he says that one cannot get to heaven by running away from 


The poet's lady's transforming effect is specifically treated in 
#38 (CP 810). This sonnet is a good illustration of the poet's long- 
held conception of his lady's effect on him, and her role in determin- 
ing his relations with the phenomenal and transcendental worlds. The 
meaning of the sonnet is obvious, but the complex syntax of the octave, 
combined with Cummings' conceptual vocabulary, makes a full appreciation 
difficult to arrive at. 

In lines 1-4, the poet tells his lady that the miraculous rebirth 
of the earth out of the night is less exciting to him, less profoundly 
transfiguring, than the "mystery" her "smile/sings." He assumes that 
the lady, and the reader, will know how ecstatic his joy is at the 
beauty of nature, and this knowledge will make her more appreciative of 
her power. He may also imply here, by his use of the word "guess" to 
mean the world at dawn, that even a new insight into nature is less 
stirring than a smile from his lady ("guess" used as a noun suggests a 
thing at which we marvel and ask, "What is it?"). 

The "if ... then" structure of the first quatrain is repeated in 
the second. Here the poet says that if he should hear ecstatic voices 

singing in the dawn, he would feel less transcendentally liberated than 
when he kisses his lady. 

The denial of nature, or at least the relegation of nature to the 
second place, might well seem a sort of apostasy to the knowledgeable 
reader of Cummings' work. The sestet makes perfectly clear the shift 
that has occurred: the poet has attained transcendence, found "selves" 
hitherto unimaginable by the paradox of "losing," through the lady, 
what seemed himself. She replaces nature as the physical object in 
which the poet dissolves his separating, isolating ego. 

Still, nature has not been denied totally. The lady is a part of 
the real world, and the real world as it is epitomized in her is still 
the source of the poet's transcendental insight. The dichotomy between 
the lady and nature - here surely signifying trees, birds, mountains, 
and so forth - is only superficial; in fact, because of her oneness with 
life in both the phenomenal and transcendental worlds, the lady is na- 

In this poem, "death" is used metaphorically to mean a loss of 
isolation, a loss of egocentric separation, a death of an "old" condi- 
tion of the self. As he kisses her, the poet loses his sense of being 
separated and "becomes" her "kiss." He is both subordinate to her (a 
decoration that is becoming) and in unity with her. And through her he 
is at one with transcendent reality. The result of this death is re- 
birth; the poet finds "selves" which were unimaginable but which are now 
irretrievably his to keep. The lady has brought about a good death for 
the poet, a death of what only "seemed" to be himself. She has also 
brought him new birth; hers is the "light" into which his "spirit" is 


The poet, it should be noted, has not said that the lady has 
become the sun; she has simply become his sun. She is his Beatrice 
or Margaret. He expects this admission to be taken by her as praise 
and homage, a reaffirmation of his devoted love. 

#46 (CP 818) is intricately organized praise of the speaker's 
lady. It describes the transcendental rebirth of the earth which fol- 
lows the fall of night in order to establish a condition which will, 
when used in an analogy, compliment the lady and describe her effect on 
the poet. 

out of midsummer's blazing most not night 
as floats a more than day whose sun is moon, 
and our(from inexistence moving )sweet 
earth puts on immortality again 

-her murdered selves exchanging swiftly for 
the deathlessness who's beauty: reoccurs 
so magically, farthest becomes near 
(one silent pasture, all a heartbeat dares; 

that mountain, any god)while leaf twig limb 
ask every question time can't answer: and 
such vivid nothing as green meteors swim 
signals all some world's millionary mind 

never may partly guess-thus, my love, to 
merely what dying must call life are you 

The difficulty of the poem lies in the complex syntax; the lady's effect 
cannot be fully appreciated until the metaphorical values of the de- 
scription have been felt. 

The night and day symbolize the dual yet unified nature of being. 
They are described in terms of each other; the day is "blazing most not 
night," while the night is a "more than day whose sun is moon." It is 
clear that the night is superior; it is a "more" whereas the day is a 
"not." And it is in the night that the "sweet/earth puts on immortality 

again." In the night, distinctions and distances vanish to the sight, 
and the condition exists when "farthest becomes near," when transcen- 
dental timelessness occurs. In this condition, the earth attains "the 
deathlessness who ' s beauty, " and the natural inhabitants ( "leaf twig 
limb") are able to "ask every question time can't answer." This state 
of living spirituality, of "vivid nothing," is, of course, unavailable 
to the mass of humanity, "all some world's millionary mind." 

The night, a traditional symbol of death, brings immortality to the 
earth. According to the equation, the lady has the same effect on the 
poet's life; that is, she lifts him from the phenomenal world into a 
timeless union with nature. If we understand that light or day is 
analogous to the poet's ego or reason, then the lady, by extinguishing 
that light, liberates the poet from his isolated state and permits him 
to become one with "vivid nothing." For him, "farthest becomes near." 
The idea that we have seen repeatedly in 73 Poems is explicit in this 
sonnet: the phenomenal must die in order for the transcendental to be 
attained. Escape from death is not possible. 

Cummings treats physical death in #44 (CP 816), demonstrating his 
unshakeable faith in its necessity. A modification of the well-known 
children's prayer, "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep," this sonnet sets forth 
the speaker's developing intention to lay himself down on a winter's 
evening "to dream of Spring," 

The central metaphors of the poem are natural, and clearly set 
out: life is day and night is death. The speaker tells us that while 
life is "only loaned" to us, death is "given." I find the word "given" 
not only an appropriate contrast to "loaned" but also, in its ma the- 

matical or logical sense, a highly suggestive metaphor. That is, death 
is an a priori fact of existence, a fact which must be accepted and 
dealt with. The poet not only accepts night and death as given, but he 
embraces them, for only in this night can one "dream of Spring," only 
through the gift of death can one attain rebirth. 

Cummings generates a great deal of meaning by way of an ambiguity 
of structure in line ten. The word "nothing" functions two ways: once 
as the object of the infinitive phrase "to dream of," and again as the 
subject of the parenthetical clause it begins. In the first case, "no- 
thing" is appositive to "something which nobody may keep." "Nothing" 
is a good word for a condition of timeless spirituality, for existence 
beyond the physical. And "nothing" certainly can be kept only by a "no- 
body"; that is, by one who is no longer locked into the physical, mortal 
world. Or, to put it another way, a body excludes one from keeping "no- 
thing," the condition of transcendence. 

Both "nothing" and "something which nobody may keep" are synonymous 
with "Spring." The poem tells us then that no one can keep Spring. 
This is true if one means by Spring a season of the year or a condition 
in time of new growth and development. But is Spring means the state 
of transcendence, then the poet is saying that transcendence cannot be 
attained permanently in the physical world; no body can keep it. And 
that is why the poet is gradually laying himself down (we should note 
the precise use of "lay" ) in the night/death; he knows now that he must 
sleep if he is to have his dream. 

#45 (CP 817) is a mildly anti -scientific poem intended to reassure 
the poet's lady that she and her lover are dwellers in timelessness and 

beyond the power of time. The poet is also reminding her of the di- 
chotomies of their existence, of the opposition of timelessness to time, 
of transcendental to phenomenal, of themselves to mankind. 

The lady has asked the poet the time. Perhaps detecting a hint of 
concern about time in her question, he responds strongly. 

what time is it?it is by every star 

a different time, and each most falsely true; 

or so subhuman superminds declare 

He is aware that modern science has established that time is not only 

an arbitrary measure of duration determined by the periodicity of some 

astronomical phenomenon but also that it changes from place to place, 

that time is a function of location and velocity. Time is "true" only 

relatively; it is "falsely" so because it is not absolute. 

All the times of all the stars cannot "encompass" them, the poet 
says. They are not subject to time; they are never creatures of "when" 

(Cummings' term for time past and future - the not-now), but always of 

"now," of timelessness. The lady and poet are in control and at home; 

they are "hosts of eternity," not "guests of seem." 

The poet tells his lady in lines 9-11 that time is a product of 

man's will to power over things. It is a creation designed to render 

the phenomenal world, the realm of "seem," orderly and predictable. Yet 

n!ummings probably had in mind Shakespeare ' s sonnet CXVI when he 
chose "encompass." That poem is also about love, time, and death, and 
avers that 

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks 

Within his bending sickle's compass come; 

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks .... 


"time cannot children, poets, lovers tell/measure imagine, mystery, a kiss." 
These things, because they partake of the transcendental world, are not 
susceptible to that sort of control or manipulation. They cannot be 
known in a rational way; they must be felt, apprehended emotionally. 
Mankind, because it "would rather know than feel," mistrusts such mys- 
teries of timelessness, and therefore stands in opposition to the poet 
and his lady, who need timelessness for a "whole life." Without time- 
lessness, transcendence is impossible, and life becomes "merely to un- 

All this is not to be seen as a denial of the phenomenal world, as 
escapism, so much as reassurance that the lady and he continue to have 
a "whole life" possible. He is simply reminding her that they are ulti- 
mately outside time's power although in its grasp for the moment of 
earthly life. He wants to allay her suspected fears of age and death. 

The volume, and Cummings' poetic career, ends with a beautiful 
sonnet which testifies to Cummings' final certainty of transcendental 
rebirth through love. The poet recognizes that men, living in time, 
tend to conceive of existence as separable into two distinct realms or 
worlds. Depending on one's particular variety of worldliness, one sees 
either with life's eye" or with "death's"; either things seem spirits" 
or "spirits in the guise of things appear." Man divides the universe 
into ideal and real, spiritual and material, because it is practical to 
do so; hence, "any world must always half perceive." We comprehend only 
partially, and see only a half of things, when we commit ourselves to a 


Only the artist and lover, because he is not committed, can achieve 

the desired totality of vision. He is not locked into any world; he is 

forever horn a foolishwise 
proudhumble citizen of ecstasies 
more steep than climb can time with all his years). 

Only he is "free into the beauty of the truth" and able to live at the 
transcendental core of being. 

While each "believing world," committed to a particular interpreta- 
tion of events in time, "denies" another world's truth, the lover, 
cherishing all and able in seeing all to look "through both life and 
death," "timelessly celebrates the merciful/wonder no world deny may 
or believe." The poet knows that no world may deny or believe transcen- 
dental timeless unity because it cannot conceive of such as a "merciful 
wonder"; it cannot "create the whole." Only a lover, one who is willing 
to give up all, to forego all commitments to a "world," can "stroll the 
axis of the universe" and attain the still point at the center of all 


Cummings* sonnets demonstrate that the growth of his lebensphilo- 
sophie is a gradual but steady evolutionary process, by and large un- 
marked by serious doubts or reversals of position. Ultimately Cummings, 
beginning as a Platonic idealist, learns that the transcendental reality 
is attainable only through selfless acceptance of life in the phenomenal 

Given "Plato's metaphor of the cave" with his "mother's milk" (U_ 
six non-lectures, p. 9), Cummings at first conceives of existence as 
divided into two dichotomous yet related realms: a temporal world bound- 
ed by birth and death, and an infinitely superior, timeless realm of the 
spirit. The world of man is a corrupt, fallen version of the "actual" 
world of transcendence, and it is in this world, symbolized by the demi- 
monde, that mostpeople dwell. The transcendental world, pure and per- 
fect, is remote, and those who are aware of it feel only contempt for the 
phenomenal and desire for the noumenal. In this early period, death is 
usually feared as the cessation of being, although cherished at times as 
an avenue of escape to transcendence. Nature - untouched by man - is the 
nexus of the seen and the unseen, and Cummings finds in the processes of 
Nature his primary metaphors for the spiritual operations of the tran- 
scendental world. 

As he matures, as he explores the problem of conducting his mortal 
life properly so as to attain union with a transcendent reality, C ummin gs 


discovers that a species of transcendental being may be attained momen- 
tarily in life - that through love, through the surrender of self and its 
demands, and through a selfless acceptance of the "thou-ness" of external 
reality, instants of timelessness - seemingly of infinite duration - may 
be enjoyed by one still subject to time and death. It is these moments 
that give him the insight that timelessness and time are truly copresent. 
In this period he abandons the demimonde as a subject and focuses his 
attention on the general spiritual sins of mankind; he discovers that 
reliance upon received systems of thought and perception and on the hu- 
man reason has led mankind into spiritual alienation (undeath) from Na- 
ture and the transcendental world. He also explores the proper relation 
of man to the self and the not-self, and he finds that one must live ac- 
cording to the pattern of nature, accepting birth, failure, and death 
because they are necessary aspects of being. The distance between the 
unworld and the transcendental world is felt to narrow in the middle 
sonnets; Nature becomes the manifestation of the transcendental in the 
temporal, and Cummings feels this copresence much more intensely. Con- 
sequently, he discovers in his moments of felt union with Nature his own 
capacity for transcendental life, and he now finds death a necessity, 
still frightening at times, but to be embraced rather than dreaded as 
simple dissolution. Death is also increasingly metaphorized in the mid- 
dle sonnets, becoming an emblem of a necessary step in a cycle of birth 
and rebirth which inheres in the transcendental as well as the mortal 
world and which reassures the poet that rebirth is also inherent in the 
nature of things. Love, in the early sonnets a private spiritual and 
emotional state, is now generalized as the binding force uniting all 

creation - temporal and timeless - into a whole. The poet's lady takes 
on more importance in the middle sonnets, and, like Nature, is praised 
for her transcendentally elevating influence over the poet; she becomes 
his human avenue into transcendence and frequently seems to be a symbol 
for Nature. 

The final phase of Cummings* philosophical progress is marked by 
his absolute acceptance of life in the temporal world. Transcendence 
and living transcendentally in time become the same; Cummings finally 
accepts wholeheartedly the copresence of temporal and timeless which he 
has posited all along but which he has struggled to truly comprehend. 
Submitting now unreservedly to life in the phenomenal, surrendering all 
egoistic demands and commitments but always retaining his rights of 
choice as an individual, he embraces mortal life - explicitly trusting 
in time's "generosity" in order to attain transcendental life. Nature 
and transcendence fuse; death becomes a necessary good; and love, the 
condition of selfless acceptance and giving, is the "axis of the uni- 
verse . " 

Cummings was never bothered by the problems of the existence of 
the outer world or the referential nature of language. He did not share 
in the experience of nihilism which J. Hillis Miller asserts is the 
starting point for so many modern writers. Nor did he believe in lan- 
guage as logos; he assumed that words referred to externals, and his 

1 J. Hillis Miller, Poets of Reality; Six Twentieth-Century Writers 
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 1. " 

handling of words is aimed at releasing the meaning which inheres in 
them but which has been dulled by misuse and thoughtlessness. Cummings 
simply believes that man lives wrongly, that his relations with outer 
reality are defective because reason and the will to power over things 
have cut him off from a wholesome union with it. His struggle has been 
to apprehend the true condition of life in order to discover a way back 
into harmony. He finds that way in accepting utterly that we "lose all" 
to "whole find," and in selfless surrender to life he accomplishes what 
Miller has singled out as one of the main concerns of modern literary 
thought: an escape from the spiritually enervating and alienating sub- 
jectivism which so plagues modern man (p. 7). L. S. Dembo says that 
Cummings is a "realist," not an idealist, because he abandons his sub- 
jectivism and allows reality to possess him. 

In my introductory remarks I suggested that Cummings' sonnets de- 
fine an aesthetic stance toward life - a philosphical measure or con- 
text - which illuminates his work as a whole. While Cummings would 
very likely have objected on the grounds that each individual must be 
given the freedom to read and apprehend for himself, such a measure is 
particularly useful to his readers because many of his poems - particu- 
larly his impressionistic celebrations of a moment's emotions or of a 
dynamic scene - are se emin gly insignificant; that is, they may capture 

^L. S. Dembo, Conceptions of Reality in Modern American Poetry 
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 196b), p. 128. 

the liveliness of an action or emotion, but ( pace A. MacLeish) they do 
not always clearly mean . For example, the first poem of 95 Poems 
(CP 673) is an intriguing typographical tour de force which has prompted 
much critical interest. 






With some notion of Cummings' conception of egoism as a spiritually de- 
bilitating malady, the reader discovers that this poem is more than a 
clever typographical ideogram of a single leaf spiralling to earth; the 
meaning of "iness" becomes transparent, and the reader can see how this 
particular poem is a reflection of a general conception of life, not 
simply a random, ungrounded observation. The wholesome expansion of the 
reader's powers to understand reality as it exists beyond his rigid, 
preconceived thought processes and senses (always a motive behind Cum- 
mings 1 typographical experiments) is helped, even made possible some- 
times, by such f oreknowledge . 

Cummings 1 sonnets are a highly significant and useful part of his 
work as a whole, a dimension long neglected but central to a full under- 
standing of his achievement and one which well repays close scrutiny. 
They are a microcosm of his achievement, reflecting not only his major 


thematic concerns and poetic technique, but also demonstrating his 
place in the sonnet tradition and showing that he is in the mainstream 
of the literary thought of our century. 


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David G. Mead was born September 28, 1943, at Newport News, 
Virginia. In June, 1961, he was graduated from Florida High School 
in Tallahassee, Florida. In April, 1965, he received the degree of 
Bachelor of Arts from Florida State University. He received the de- 
gree of Master of Arts from the University of Florida in August, 1967, 
Since 1971, he has been a member of the English faculty at Georgia 
College in Milledgeville, Georgia. 


I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it 
conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully 
adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of 
Doctor of Philosophy. 

iordon E. Bigelow, Chairman 
Professor of English^ 

I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it 
conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully 
adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of 
Doctor of Philosophy. 

/0-\aju T,Ju^ 

John B\ Nims 
Professor of English 

I certify that I have read this study and that in my opinion it 
conforms to acceptable standards of scholarly presentation and is fully 
adequate, in scope and quality, as a dissertation for the degree of 
Doctor of Philosophy. 

E. Ashby Hamnond 

Professor of Social Sciences 

This dissertation was submitted to the Graduate Faculty to the Depart- 
ment of English in the College of Arts and Sciences and to the Graduate 
Council, and was accepted as partial fulfillment of the requirements for 
the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. 

August, 1975 

Dean, Graduate School 


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