CUMMINGS: POET AND PAINTER
cummings grew up a Unitarian. His life embodied endless
conflict between radical individualism and faith in
love. The following selection reveals the volcano
of his uniquely creative soul.
Malcolm Cowley, Interpreter of Literature and Society
Estlin Cummings was born (1894) and brought up on a quiet
street north of the Harvard Yard, one where distinguished
professors lived. William James and Josiah Royce were
neighbors, and Charles Eliot Norton had a wooded estate
nearby that bordered on Somerville and its Irish tenements.
Cambridge in the early l900s . . . good manners, tea parties,
Browning, young women with their minds adequately dressed
in English tweeds. I think it was T.S. Eliot who said
that life there was so intensely cultured it had ceased
to be civilized. The younger poet's family was part of
that life. Edward Cummings, the father (Harvard '83),
had been an instructor in sociology, but then had become
a clergyman, preaching in Boston as the assistant, the
colleague, and finally the successor of Edward Everett
Hale at the South Congregational Society, Unitarian. Sometimes
on Sundays little Estlin, as the family called him, passed
the plate. The father, famous for rectitude, was also
president of the Massachusetts Civic League and was later
executive head of the World Peace Foundation.
The son attended a public high school, Cambridge Latin,
where he tells us that the admired principal was a Negro.
Sending Estlin there was apparently one of his father's
democratic ideas, and anotherwhen the son went on
to Harvard, class of '15was to have him live at
home for the first three years. That encouraged his bookish
habits and also cut him off from college life, including
the club system and its societies, waiting clubs, and
final clubsalways something ahead to make students
act with propriety for fear of being blackballed. Cummings
joined nothing but the Musical Society and the board of
a literary magazine that had published some of his early
poems. There were two such magazines at Harvard in those
days, The Monthly and The Advocate, and
they looked down on each otheror, to be accurate,
they nodded to each other coldly from the facing doors
of their respective sanctums on the dusty third floor
of the Harvard Union. The Monthlies thought that the board
of The Advocate, which then appeared fortnightly,
was composed of journalists, clubmen, athletes, and disciples
of Teddy Roosevelt, a former editor, with not a man of
letters among them. The Advocates suspected that the Monthlies
were aesthetes (as indeed most of them came to be called),
scruffy poets, socialists, pacifists, or worse. It was
for The Monthly that Cummings chose to write.
Cummings's graduation photo from the Cambridge Latin
In his last undergraduate year he took a room at college
and became a gossiped-about figure in the group that surrounded
The Monthly. It was the only time in his life that
he formed part of a group, but even then he stood apart
from most of the others and preferred to keep his relations
one to one. He was intensely shy and private in the Cambridge
fashion. Still, among the ones he saw often were Dos Passos,
the conservative poet Robert Hillyer (though with some
distrust on both sides), and two very rich young men,
James Sibley Watson and Scofield Thayer, who greatly admired
his poems and drawings. Cummings decided to stay at Harvard
for a year of postgraduate work. At commencement he was
awarded a degree magna cum laude, with honors in
Literature, Greek and English. He was also chosen to give
the Disquisition and shocked his classmates and their
parentsthose who listenedby speaking on "The
New Art," with examples from Amy Lowell and Gertrude
At the time he was in full revolt against almost everythingexcept
personal integritythat Cambridge and his father
stood for. Cleanliness, godliness, decorum, public spirit,
then chastity went by the board. Cummings developed a
taste for low life, something that teemed in Boston. One
night the Boston police were embarrassed to find his father's
car, with its clergyman's license plates, parked outside
a joint near Scollay Square. Cummings and Dos Passos,
both virgins at the time, were not "upstairs";
they were drinking in the parlor while holding a polite
conversation with the madam.
the autumn after his postgraduate year, Cummings went
to New York, where he spent three months at the only office
job he was ever to hold. The experiment having failed
by reason of pure boredom, he went to work seriously on
his drawing and painting (the drawing was often inspired;
the paintings were impressionistic and weak in color).
He took no part in the debate over preparedness for war,
one which shook the country in the winter of 1916-17 and
which, as a minor effect, disrupted the board of The
Harvard Monthly. Four of the editors were pacifists,
the other four were superpatriots, all eight were impractical,
and they couldn't agree on what to print. In April 1917,
when Congress declared war, The Monthly disappeared
from Harvard, but not from memory. Cummings by that time
was on his way to France as a volunteer in the Norton-Harjes
photo from Harvard College, 1915
the old Touraine of the French Line, a tub that
wallowed its way through the submarine zone, he met William
Slater Brown, another New Englander. Brown, lately a student
at Columbia, was a pacifist proud of knowing the anarchist
Emma Goldman. Cummings was mildly patriotic, but he didn't
allow opinions, at the time, to interfere with his friendships.
Through a mistake at headquarters, the two young men were
not immediately assigned to an ambulance unit and had
a month to spend in Paris. They roamed the streets in
all the glow of youth, went to the Russian Ballet, and
learned to speak passable French, apparently with the
help of Paris ladies ("little ladies more / than
dead exactly dance / in my head"). Finally they went
to the front. An artillery company quartered in their
village had mutinied that spring, and Brown talked about
war weariness in letters to friends (as well as in one
to Emma Goldman). A French censor reported his remarks
to Lieutenant Anderson, who said that Brown was a dangerous
character and that Cummings should be arrested too. Cummings
might have been clearedof what charge? there was
nonebut a sense of personal honor kept him from
assuring the military examiners that he detested all Germans.
Together the friends were shipped off to La Ferte, to
a detention barracks that Cummings was later to celebrate
as "the Enormous Room."
The three months he spent there were another watershed,
after the rebellion of his last two years at college.
Confined with men of all nations, mostly illiterate, even
inarticulate, all used to living outside the law, Cummings
found that he liked some of them vastly more than he liked
his college classmates.
The honors student in Literature, Greek, and English was
busy unthinking his five years at Harvard and was getting
ready to write poems that would each, he hoped, embody
a moment of intensely alive and personal feeling. Meanwhile
Dr. Edward Cummings, having learned of his son's disappearance,
made vigorous efforts first to find where he was, a difficult
task in itself, and then to obtain his release. As pastor
of the South Church, he was not without friends in Washington.
When the French received official inquiries, they gave
the son another farcical hearing and finally set him free.
Brown fell victim to scurvy, but he was released before
the disease had crippled him.
After the Armistice, Brown and Cummings rented a Greenwich
Village apartment that became a model of squalor. Cummings
liked to roam through the Lower East Side and the Syrian
quarter near the southern tip of Manhattan. He was painting
"all the time," Brown says, but was also writing
scores, even hundreds of poems in many new manners. Meanwhile
the death of The Harvard Monthly had an unexpected
sequel. Scofield Thayer and Sibley Watson had bought a
moribund political fortnightly, The Dial, which
they set about transforming into the most distiguished
magazine of the arts that had appeared in this country.
In some ways and in some contributors it carried on the
tradition of The Monthly, this time with a national
audience. The first issue, for January 1920, featured
the poems and drawings of E.E. Cummings. I remember how
they provoked indignant remarks from more conservative
poets and, in particular, how Bobby Hillyer fumed.
In the autumn of that year Cummings wrote The Enormous
Room at his father's house near Silver Lake, New Hampshire.
He wrote it at the father's suggestion and partly to keep
Dr. Cummings from suing the French government for a million
dollars; also he wrote it very fast, in a style close
to the spoken idiom he had fashioned for himself over
the years. Dr. Cummings had the manuscript copied by his
secretary, then went over it with a blue pencil, crossing
out the bad words and making other minor changes (for
example, a character whom the son called Jesus Christ
was renamed Judas). It was hard to find a publisher, but
the new firm of Boni and Liveright was more venturesome
than others, and Dr. Cummings persuaded them to accept
the book. When it appeared in 1922, it was read with enthusiasm
by younger writers, and the free-ranging, partly colloquial,
partly involved style had a lasting effect on American
prose. The Enormous Room was not a commercial success.
Horace Liveright, who thought he had been fooled, came
to dislike the book so much that he wouldn't allow the
unsold copies of the first edition to be remaindered;
he sold them for wastepaper.
In the years from 1923 to 1926 Cummings published four
books of poetry: Tulips and Chimneys, &
(he wore his titles cut short), XLI Poems, and
Is 5. Many or most of the poems in all four were
written either at college or during the burst of activity
and experiment that followed his release from the detention
barracks at La Ferte.
of the first four books was a popular success. With Cummings
the critics were severe: they condemned his fleshly realism,
his experiments with typography, and his custom of using
a small "i" for the first-personal pronoun.
"e.e. Cummings" they called him, with a visible
curl of the lip. But the more his work was condemned by
critics, the more it was admired by many of the younger
writers and the more he was adopted as one of their spokesmen,
along with Dos Passos and Hemingway. As for his private
life, he kept it private, and that added to his prestige.
wasn't often seen at parties in the middle 1920s, though
hostesses tried to capture him and though he had overcome
his shyness to the point of liking to have an audience.
"I've watched him operating among strangers,"
another poet said rather envyingly. "He starts talking
to one person in a low confidential voice and the person
starts laughing. Then another person drifts up, glass
in hand, and bends forward to hear what is being said.
Cummings talks lower, faster, and funnier, without cracking
a smile, and a third person appears. Pretty soon the whole
room is grouped around Cummings, everybody laughing, everybody
with eyes on him so as not to miss a word." "Jesus,
he was a handsome man," as he had written of Buffalo
Bill. He had large, well-shaped features, carved rather
than molded, eyes set wide apart, often with a glint of
mischief in them, and in those days a good deal of fine
khaki-colored hair. In later years, when he had lost most
of the hair and the rest was clipped off, he looked more
like a bare-skulled Buddhist monk.
He was the most brilliant monologuist I have known. What
he poured forth was a mixture of cynical remarks, puns,
hyperboles, outrageous metaphors, inconsequence, and tough-guy
talk spoken from the corner of his wide, expressive mouth:
pure Cummings. Perhaps the style of those harangues is
better suggested by his six nonlectures as these were
delivered at Harvard in the early 1950s. The second nonlecture,
for instance, starts by praising the world in which he
grew to manhood: "a reckless world, filled with the
curiosity of life herself; a vivid and violent world welcoming
every challenge; a world worth hating and adoring and
fighting and forgiving: in brief, a world which was a
The 1920s had other favorite themes and one is amazed,
in rereading his early work, to find out how often Cummings
expressed them. Of course he was a lyric poet in the bad-boy
tradition, but traditional as he was on one side of his
work, and determinedly unique on another, he was also
a man of his generation. Much oftener than one might expect,
he said what other young writers were saying at the time,
or would soon be saying, and he usually said it with more
ingenuity and morning freshness.
is first of all the revolt against Victorian standards,
especially those prescribing chaste language and chaste
behavior. Cummings made himself a leader in the revolt
by describing, explicitly and often, the act of sex. Thus,
in his second book of poems, &, there are nine rather
labored sonnets recording visits to various prostitutes,
including "Cecile . . . Alice . . . Loretta, cut
the comedy, kid . . . Fran Mag Glad Dorothy."
There is the contempt for citizens who lead ordinary lives,
"impersons" who accept the slogans at face value.
is the utter scorn for conventional poets still feeding
on the past. There is the respect for rebels of all sorts.
There is compassion for outcasts, not excluding the drunk
lying in his pool of vomit as people carefully step around
him, and there is the feeling that poets are outcasts
too, for all their pride.
There is finally the deep strain of anti-intellectualism,
a prejudice against scientists and "prudent philosophers"
who poke and prod the earth, combined with praise for
a child's direct vision that sees the earth as "mud-luscious"
There is, in fact, almost every theme that was to be widely
treated by new writers in the 1920s, except for Hemingway's
theme of giving and accepting death, and Fitzgerald's
theme of the betrayed suitor for the very soul of money.
Cummings spoke of money not often and then with the disdain
of a barefoot friar. Besides the themes he treated, his
poems embody various attitudes that lay behind them: the
passion for reckless experiment in life and art, the feeling
that a writer's duty was to be unique, and the simple
determination to enjoy each moment and make the most of
having been born. In spite of his aloofness, it is no
wonder at all that the rebel writers had come to regard
him as an indispensable spokesman for their cause.
A new book of poems, VV (which he also called "ViVa"),
appeared in 1931 and was a mild disappointment to his
readers. Mostly the book deals with the same themes as
his earlier work, but it is less exuberant than Is
5much less of a hurrah than the title promisesand
it speaks less directly for the poet's generation. There
is a growing bitterness in the satires directed against
politicians, generals, and run-of-the-mill people. The
bitterest of all has proved to be the most enduring: it
is the ballad of blond Olaf, the conscientious objector
who is prodded with bayonets, then beaten to death while
repeating "I will not kiss your king flag."
As a general thing, however, the development revealed
in the book is a matter much less of tone than of technique.
There had been changes in his life and they had led to
a number of ideas that were partly new for him and were
completely opposed at the time to those held by "mostpeople,"
as he called the American public. When one looks back
at his career, it would seem that he had to invent his
new language as the only fresh and serviceable means of
expressing the ideas in poetry. His father had been killed
in a motor accident (at a grade crossing in a blinding
snowstorm), his second marriage had broken up, and in
1931 he had made a trip to Russia. This last was a shattering
experience, much on the order of Dos Passos' visit to
Loyalist Spain in 1937. Russia, he reported, was a country
racked by fear and suspicion. Living under the shadow
of Stalin, Communists were the bigoted defenders of a
system that destroys individuals. Soon the same conclusions
were being stated in his poems:
is a bit
of quite unmitigated hate
(travelling in a futile groove
god knows why)
and so do i
(because they are afraid to love
was not afraid to love, but he hated, too, and his hatred
(or call it his feeling of revulsion) circled out from
Stalin and his "kumrads" to wider and wider
social groups. First to be encompassed were politicians
who abetted communism by making appeals to the same public
yearning for a better life. Cummings had always detested
politicians, but now he raged against them:
is an arse
upon which everyone has sat except a man
and crusaders, especially those who supported the New
Deal, came next into the circle of aversion. Growing still
wider, the circle was drawn about salesmen of every type:
"a salesman is an it that stinks."
Labor unions were still another abomination:
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
Cummings says, "we'll believe in that incredible
unanimal mankind." At this point the circle of those
rejected has become so wide that it includes almost everyone
living except "you and me," that is, the poet,
his love, and perhaps a handful of friends.
Not since the trip to Russia had Cummings been a spokesman
for his literary generation. Most of its other memberswith
almost all the younger writershad been moving in
an opposite direction from his. Steinbeck in The Grapes
of Wrath (1939) tells how the mistreated Okies in
California acquired a sense of collective purpose, until
each of themas Preacher Casy prophesies before his
deathwas on the point of becoming only a little
piece of "one big soul." Cummings had no patience
with this religion of humanity, or with humanity itself.
He was to write during World War II:
of a good universe next door;let's go
colorful Cummings landscape
first Collected Poems (1938) had less trouble in
finding a home, and the books that followed had none at
all, but I can't remember that they were widely discussed.
In the left-wing press, hardly anyone excoriated Cummings
or pleaded with him sorrowfully, as some did with Dos
Passos; the books were mostly passed over in silence,
as if they were social blunders. Perhaps it was the feeling
of simply not being heard that made the poet's voice too
shrill in some of the later diatribes.
Cummings took no interest in historical forces. He was
essentially a lyric poet, and in the best of his later
work he continued to deal with the traditional lyric themes
of love and death, of springtime and the ineffable quality
of moments. There was less exuberance than in the early
poems, less inventiveness in spite of the game he played
with parts of speech, but there was at times more depth,
combined with the effort I mentioned to express a coherent
attitude, almost a metaphysic.
This last was something that Dr. Edward Cummings would
have understood, and indeed it represented, in some measure,
a return to the father. Such returns can be traced in
the lives of many writers: Dos Passos is one of them,
but there are scores of examples from which to choose.
How often rebellion against the fatherperhaps under
the sign of the motheris revealed in early works,
and how often the father's image looms behind the later
If Cummings too admired his father more and more, it was
obviously not for the social doctrine one assumes that
the father preached to his congregation at the South Church,
Unitarian. It was for personal qualities: love, kindness,
utter independence, and faith based on an inner rightness
the pomp of must and shall
my father moved through dooms of feel;
his anger was as right as rain
his pity was as green as grain
New England tradition to which the poet returned was not
that of the Unitarians or of the Calvinists, much less
of the Come-outers, but that preached by Emerson in the
years after he left the pulpit and before he became an
Abolitionist. It was the tradition of the autonomous individual
standing before God (or the Oversoul), living by universal
laws in harmony with nature, obeying an inner voice, and
letting society take care of itself. Emerson . . . there
is no record that Cummings ever read his essays, yet his
ideas had once pervaded the Cambridge air, and Cummings's
later poems are Emersonian in more respects than one.
Emerson wrote, and Cummings would have agreed, that "Society
everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every
one of its members." As a rule, however, Emerson
expressed less hostility to groups than Cummings did;
he simply disregarded them in his scheme of things.
was more of a mystic, in the technical sense of the word,
than most critics have realized, and some of his essays
refer explicitly to an "ecstatical state" in
which the soul is reunited with the Oversoul. Such a state
is to be understood in a famous passage near the beginning
of Nature: "Standing on the bare groundmy head
bathed in the blithe air and uplifted into infinite spaceall
mean egoism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball;
I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal
Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God."
Time and space being abolished at such moments, the soul
is bathed in a higher Reason to be distinguished from
mere Understanding. The distinction in Cummings' later
poems is between "know" or "because,"
both contemptuous nouns in his language, and "feel,"
which is something to be honored ("my father moved
through dooms of feel"). As for the states of ecstasy,
they are possibly foreshadowed in the early poems by Cummings'
effort to render the special quality of moments. In later
poems that sense of the moment, the now, is so intensified
that it comes close to being a mystical vision. "ten
centuries of original soon"that is, of historyare
'plunged in eternal now." "dimensionless new
ails of joy" flood over the poet as he perceives
the "illimitably spiralling candy of tiniest forever."
"now the ears of my ears awake," another poem
ends, "and now the eyes of my eyes are opened."
In passages like these Cummings appears to be writing
as the latestthough I suspect not the lastof
the New England Transcendentalists.
The parallel can be carried too far. Where Emerson was
essentially a Neoplatonist, Cummings was a scoffer in
his youth, then more and more a Christian. He does not
think of Christ as the most perfect man, in Emerson's
way of speaking, but rather prays to him as a divine intercessor.
In theological terms his God is less immanent than Emerson's
and more transcendent. He says in a poem addressed to
Godhere I translate into prose"How should
any tasting, touching, hearing, seeing, breathing, merely
human beinglifted from the no of all nothingdoubt
unimaginable You?" As regards a future life, one
of the subjects on which Emerson remained ambiguous, Cummings
lets us infer that he believes in the resurrection of
the flesh. "our now must come to then," he tells
his love in a late sonnet
shall be some darkness during which
fingers are without handstand i have no
you and all trees are(any more than each
leafless)its silent in forevering snow
but never fear(my own,my beautiful
my blossoming)for also then's until
poems of the time make it clear that "until,"
was the moment when lovers shall rise from the grave.
Cummings lived into the late summer of 1962 and continued
working to the last day. His career, if not his opinions,
had been remarkably self-consistent. Except for his painting,
carried on through the years, and except for a few lively
incursions into proseof which The Enormous Room
is the most durablehe had never worked at any trade
except that of writing verse. "Peintre et poete,"
he had told a French policeman who asked his profession
before arresting him; I think that was in 1923. Poet and
painterand nothing elsehe remained to the end.
He wrote twelve books of poetry, including one that appeared
after his death (73 poems, 1963), but not including
collected or selected works. The books contain 770 poems
in all, an impressive output for a lyric poet and one recalling
that of another New Englander, Emily Dickinson. Most of
the poems are as short as hers, with perhaps one-fourth
of them variations on the traditional fourteen-liner. After
the early romantic pieces in Tulips and Chimneys,
Cummings never ventured again into longer forms. Not all
the poems are on the same level, and some of the more ingenious
ones remind me that there is a drawer in our house full
of kitchen gadgets made of stamped tin and wire, all vastly
ingeniousU.S. patent applied forbut many of
them unworkable and most of them seldom used. Cummings'
inventions, too, are sometimes gimcrack and wasted, but
the best of them have enriched the common language. The
best of his lyrics, early and late, and not a few of the
sonnetsmore, it seems to me, on each rereadinghave
a sweep and music and underlying simplicity that make them
hard to forget. And where does he stand among the poets
of our time? He suffers from comparison with those who built
on a larger scaleEliot, Aiken, Crane, Auden among
othersbut still he is unsurpassed in his special field,
one of the masters.
One may feel that in his later years, when he was groping
his way back toward Emerson, Cummings wrote rather more
new poems than he had new things to say. He might have been
more severe with his work, and with his acolytes, but he
had earned the privilege, after all, of being a little self-indulgent.
He did not abuse the privilege. Except for those six nonlectures
at Harvard, his only concession to the public, and to the
need for earning money, was reading his poems aloud to mostly
undergraduate audiences in all parts of the country. It
required physical courage, for by that time he was partly
crippled by arthritis, wore a brace on his back that jutted
out two inches from his shoulderblades, and had to read
while sitting in a straight-backed kitchen chair. After
reading for half an hour, he had to rest for ten minutes;
then he came back to finish the program. Nevertheless he
held and charmed the audience, which was usually acquainted
with his work and well prepared to listen.
He was speaking in the McCarthy years to what had come to
be known as the silent generation. Sometimes he scolded
the youngsters, as at Harvard, for being obsessed with security.
"What is that?" he asked them. "Something
negative, undead, suspicious and suspecting; an avarice
and an avoidance; a self-surrendering meanness of withdrawal;
a numerable complacency and an innumerable cowardice. .
. . How monstrous and how feeble seems some unworld which
would rather have its too than eat its cake!" The youngsters,
cautious as they were at the time, liked to dream about
the romantic freedom of the 1920s. They specially enjoyed
his early poems, with their recklessness and brig, but they
did not object to the conservative Christian anarchism of
the later poems. Once again Cummings, the man stubbornly
alone, found himself accepted by others as a spokesman.
Abridged from Cummings: One Man Alone,
Yale Review, Courtesy of Yale University© and
the Literary Estate of Malcolm Cowley
As I Grow Older, I Tend Toward
a visit to Tucson, Arizona, e.e. cummings had a mystical
experience while walking in the desert where he encountered
a strange cactus-like plant: he touched one spine and jumped
spiritually 40 miles. His journals are full
of references to le bon Dieu and frequent prayers
for help in his creative life (such as Bon Dieu! may
I some day do something truly great. amen.). he also
prayed for strength to be his essential self (may
I be I is the only prayer--not may I be great or good or
beautiful or wise or strong), and for relief of spirit
in times of depression (almighty God! I thank thee
for my soul; & may I never die spiritually into a mere
mind through disease of loneliness). His basic religious
feelings were in tune with his Unitarian upbringing. His
concept of God was that of a comprehensive Oneness together
with a sense of the presence of this Oneness in nature.
In Xaipe he expressed this belief most clearly in a sonnet
that combined both prayer and an awareness of Divinity in
the natural world:
I thank You
God for most this amazing
of several self-portraits
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(I who have died am alive again today,
and this is the suns birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing anylifted from the no
of all nothinghuman merely being
double unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
E. E. Cummings Revisited Revisited by Richard S. Kennedy
to view 100 Selected Poems
by E.E. Cummings on Amazon
by E.E. Cummings
Click Here to order
in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings by Richard
S. Kennedy (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation,
E. E. Cummings Revisited by Richard S. Kennedy (New
York: Twayne Publishers, 1994).
Critical Essays on E. E. Cummings edited by Guy Rotella
(Boston: G. K. Hall and Company, 1984).