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date: 14 June 2024

Cummings, E.

Cummings, E.

  • Kate Cone


  • North American Literatures

Poet of satire, love, and lower-case letters, Edward Estlin Cummings was born on 14 October 1894 at his home at 104 Irving Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Reverend Edward Cummings and Rebecca Haswell Cummings. To distinguish between the two Edwards, the son was called by his middle name, becoming known as Estlin to family and friends. It was much later that he chose to be known professionally as E. E. Cummings, and although it was believed for many years that he had legally changed his name to reflect the use of lowercase letters that became his poetic signature (e. e. cummings), he did not.

The Cummings house on Irving Street was a big, comfortable, rambling one, added onto frequently by Edward, who was not only a well-respected Unitarian minister and social work activist but a talented carpenter. The household bustled with an extended family consisting at times of both maternal grandmothers, aunts, an uncle, servants, and a handyman, creating a thriving source of love and creativity for the young Estlin and his sister Elizabeth. Distinguished guests came and went, since Edward kept an office at home. Among them was the philosopher William James, who had introduced Edward and Rebecca to each other.

Encouraged to draw, sketch, keep a diary, and compose songs and poems, Cummings as a child displayed a curiosity about language and portraying his world in pictures that would shape his later work. Rebecca kept every piece of art and poetry the boy produced, and her insistence that he keep a daily journal became a habit the poet never abandoned. Always carrying a notebook and pencil, Cummings jotted down poetry and observations about the world and drew the people and places he encountered every day of his life. Rebecca's early practice and her son's diligence following it produced the most voluminous collection of papers, notes, and sketches left by any writer or artist of his time.

Harvard Aesthete

Estlin graduated from the Cambridge Latin and High School and was admitted to Harvard in 1911 at age sixteen. Small for his age, he made up for his lack of size with brains, wit, and talent. He studied composition and continued the writing of poetry and essays he had done frequently and well at Cambridge Latin. By the time he graduated with a master's degree five years later, he was well published in the various Harvard magazines and journals. It was during his Greek studies at Harvard that Cummings, now called by his surname, became acquainted with the epigram, a form of short poem that ends with a witty twist. Cummings would use this form many times throughout his career, especially when he performed public readings, and it became one of his many signatures.

It was while at Harvard that Cummings began the process of separating from his protective world of 104 Irving Street. Estlin rebelled against his father, staying out late, coming home drunk and disheveled, and carousing with his friends at burlesque houses and strip joints in Boston's notorious Scollay Square. For a young man whose father had a high public profile as a minister and was one of the chief supporters of the Temperance movement, such behavior was the ultimate insult. This rebellion went far into Estlin's adulthood, yet for all the resistance Edward received, he remained Estlin's biggest supporter behind Rebecca, and he long indulged the artist's life his son demanded.

It was during this period also that Cummings began rebelling against the traditional compositional and poetic forms favored by his professors at Harvard, most notably Dean Briggs, a revered teacher of English composition. One can imagine the gentlemanly Dean, a Mr. Chips type who rode his bicycle to classes and chatted with students in Harvard Yard, with raised eyebrows and perhaps a deep blush in his cheeks while reading the poetry Cummings submitted for class work. His experimentation with form and especially content—the explicit mention of women's breasts and the lyrical depiction of a bawdy-house brawl Cummings had witnessed during one of his drinking forays into Boston—were not expected or approved. Here, though, was where Cummings was beginning to find his own technique. He had always imitated other poets, as writers do when learning the art of poetry, but he was stretching in these years, experimenting with free verse, imagism, cubism, and vorticism, placing his work among that of the modern artists he admired. The techniques he employed were becoming his own, allowing him to “make it new,” the cry of the modernist movement.

i, Not I

Among his experiments was the arranging of words upon the page as if he had taken a paintbrush loaded with letters and, splattering let go—black on white. Another was his use of the pronoun I as a lowercase i. Critics and scholars have attributed this small i to several sources, one being Cummings's desire to turn the standard use of language on its head, mixing the use of capitals, omitting punctuation, and forcing the reader to adjust to his new technique. Another theory is that Cummings was imitating the unschooled handyman his parents employed in the off-season to take care of their summer home, Joy Farm, in northern New Hampshire. Sam Ward kept the family apprised of his progress on certain projects around Joy Farm with letters that reflected that he was literate, but barely. I's were not capitalized and punctuation was used sparingly and inconsistently. But Estlin obviously loved Sam, and even penned a poem praising his steadfastness when the handyman passed on. Perhaps it was an emulation of Sam's simple, unpretentious way of expressing himself that prompted Estlin to imitate his small i. The use of a lowercase i could also be a part of the Zen-like spareness to his poetry—a spacing of letters and words that allowed much white space, negative space, to show on the page. This is supported by Cummings's study of Japanese poetry while at Harvard.

The Egoless i

There is a substantive Eastern influence to Cummings's poetry, however, that can be traced beyond a stylistic imitation of the Japanese or even the New England Transcendentalist writers who influenced him. Intuition—experiencing an inspiration rather than thinking of it—goes beyond the mind and body and brings one to another place where the sense of separateness disappears. One is no longer a capital I but, like every other molecule, a small i in the universe. The person becomes one with every other being—the sun, moon, and stars; the grass and flowers and trees. This oneness is the transcendence espoused by Emerson, Thoreau, and other transcendentalists, but while Westerners have traditionally considered intuition, the source of transcendental inspiration, as originating in the mind, Taoists, Buddhists, and other Eastern religions state that intuition comes from within the body. (What we now call a “gut feeling” is intuition.) So while readers and scholars labor to decipher Cummings's poetry by dissecting the syllables, pinning down references to determine the poems' meanings, and speculating on his moods and their origins, Cummings's poems are best experienced. One is unlikely to get all of the references or word breaks upon the first reading. But each subsequent reading will add layer on layer of meaning, a gradual “experiencing” of what Cummings meant when he wrote the poem. There is passion in every line of every poem, whether he misses his lover, observes the new moon, extols the beaten conscientious objector, derides the Cambridge ladies, or encourages us to be the opposite of mostpeople. A reading of a poem when one is seventeen changes when one is forty-seven, but only slightly. Where the innocence Cummings portrays has been betrayed by the time we are older and more experienced, a new reading of the same poem can carry us back to that time when our innocence made us beautiful. We can be beautiful and hopeful again, pain notwithstanding, because we have experienced the sentiment in the piece. It makes our heart throb a bit with each new reading. We close the book and put it down with a sigh, wishing we could live between its pages.

The Tao

One important piece of evidence surfaced recently that indicates that Cummings had explored Eastern philosophies on his own. Hundreds of his paintings that had been languishing in a New Hampshire barn were finally sold at auction by the girls' camp that had been given them by Cummings's daughter Nancy Andrews. There are two small watercolors depicting a small dirt path emerging from a New England wood. One of these has written on the back, in Cummings's hand, “The Tao.” “Tao” means “the way” in Chinese and refers to the work of Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching. As the transcendentalists distilled their views from Western philosophers who had extracted them from the East, it is not evident that they were expressed in a form that Cummings would have picked up as a restatement of the Tao.

Cummings's poetry captures the true meaning of Taoism: that intuition is the purest form of knowledge, just because it does not emanate from the intellect but rather is felt or experienced. He spoke many times of being and becoming, is, alive and truth. The reader merely has to suspend the ramblings of the mind in order to savor the simple words of the poem to get the meaning. Splaying the syllables and meter upon a page and classifying them are beside the point. Transcendence of the intellect is reflected in Cummings's poetry over and over, whether he forces us to be the monkey on the end of the organ grinder's string, the cool sliver of new moon, the gatherer of buttercups, a willing lover in the throes of passion, or a grasshopper splattered across the page in different configurations. Cummings makes a point. But he makes it in the same way Zen monks did when they tossed their students out of a second-story window onto the cobblestones below. He startles us into enlightenment with each poem. In a twentieth-century world where creationism was being supplanted by evolution, where science was making a mess of nature, where big business was trying to sell us things we didn't need on credit, and where wars continued to kill our friends, Cummings relentlessly clung to the very core of existence, “is.”

Major and Minor Works

Cummings had a hate-hate relationship with mainstream critics, who were so well known and depended upon by their sheeplike readership they became icons of literature themselves. So a categorization of his art as “major” or “minor” would have him turning in his grave. Cummings continues to fascinate and endear because of his stubborn resistance to going the way of the herd. If ever Henry David Thoreau had a protégé, it was Cummings, who marched to his own drummer and thumbed his nose at disbelievers. And even though many of Cummings' works were met with negative press, he always seemed to have critic friends and patrons who understood what he was trying to do and who persevered in defending and extolling his work. But in the interest of enlightening new readers and scholars, a list follows.

After his service in World War I as an ambulance driver, Cummings was detained at La Ferte Mace in France as a prisoner of war. His minister father raised hell with the powers that be, including the incumbent President Wilson, and managed to get Estlin released, then encouraged his son to write about the experience as a prisoner of war. One theme that prevails throughout Cummings's writing career is his low tolerance for stupidity, especially the organized type of stupidity that takes the form of bureaucracy. The Enormous Room (1922) was Cummings's first published collection and endures today as a scathing indictment of the senselessness that held him for no better reason than that he was a fellow soldier and friend of William Slater Brown, a critic of the war.

The Enormous Room was well-received, perhaps because it was considered part of the war-novel genre that included A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway and John Dos Passos's 1919. But critics panned later works such as Eimi (1933), Cummings's very negative account of his five-week trip to Russia to observe the socialist experiment; Him (1927), a play in the expressive tradition that Dos Passos and others were indulging in; Tom (1935), a ballet based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's book Uncle Tom's Cabin; and Santa Clause (1946), a morality play that mocked the world's blind acceptance of science. Nevertheless, Cummings refused to back down and pander to popular taste. He was dogged in his efforts to get his poetry published, and he remained unwilling to compromise. He battled editors and publishers who wanted to cut the sexual and profane from his work in order to avoid prosecution for producing obscene material. Being “banned in Boston” would sell books in later years, but being banned also meant not having your work available to the public when it could produce money to pay the bills. So as Cummings wrote and painted and worked to get his art in front of the public, he endured the barbs of critics. People who “got” it, got it, and eventually in his lifetime, he became acquainted with and adored by a new generation of college students who loved his poetry.

Poet as Reader

In the 1950s, when Cummings felt old and was burdened by chronic back pain, he began his career anew as a reader of his own work. Audiences loved his delivery, and Cummings loved their attentions. Playing to packed audiences, the poet managed to eke out a new source of income from reading to crowds, especially the college crowd. Despite his back pain, this renewed interest in his work felt good to a poet who had spent decades resisting the sirens' call to conform to the mainstream. Here he was, in the winter of his career, read and adored by a new batch of readers. It surely must have left a spring in his step. Among his most famous readings were excerpts from i: six nonlectures (1953), written during his Charles Eliot Norton professorship year at Harvard.

Winter, Twilight, and Mount Chocurua

Cummings mellowed in his old age. His poetry focused on nature rather than cityscapes, primarily because he was spending more time in the mountains near Joy Farm, and his paintings reflected his New Hampshire surroundings. He insisted that he was a painter and a poet, but because he declined to exhibit his paintings after the 1930s, with carefully chosen exceptions, his greatest reputation was as poet only. He drew or painted every day of his life. Early on he studied with noted artists and had exhibitions of his work in prestigious venues. He saw, however, that he was considered primarily a poet, and so he kept his painting to himself for the better part of his career. He died on 3 September 1962, after a day of splitting wood and making notes about a lingering delphinium that had defied all and blossomed long after its stem-mates had withered.

A New Century of Work.

Upon his death in 1962, he left all of his art to his wife Marion Morehouse Cummings. Marion left it to Cummings's daughter Nancy, who gave it to a New Hampshire girls' camp. The camp tried to raise funds by showing the art but found it too expensive a venture. Stored in a barn for over two decades, the art went to an auction house and was bought by a rare-book and art dealer in Massachusetts. The artwork was cataloged and offered for sale, and it is expected to be available for research within a few years. As Ken Lopez notes in his catalog, this collection contains the finished works as well as the preliminary “thoughts” of the eventual finished products. False starts that other artists would have been thrown away were saved by the ever-retentive Cummings. There are sketches, portraits, still lifes, scribblings, nudes—all alive with his energy and experience.

Shortly before Cummings died, he said that he needed a hundred more years to complete his work. An artist like E. E. Cummings would never be sated with merely another century. But he left so many notes and so much artwork, there are easily that many years' worth of discoveries to enjoy. Over 180 boxes of his randomly collected papers are available at the Houghton Library at Harvard, as well as the hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of artwork that await scanning by scholars—so much more to discover about the artist and poet whose idea of discovery merely “is.”


  • Eight Harvard Poets (1917)
  • The Enormous Room (1922)
  • Tulips and Chimneys (1923) & (1925)
  • XLI Poems (1925)
  • Is 5 (1926)
  • Him (1927)
  • [No Title] (1930)
  • CIOPW (1931)
  • The Red Front (1933)
  • Eimi (1933)
  • No Thanks (1935)
  • Tom (1935)
  • Collected Poems (1938)
  • 50 Poems (1940)
  • 1 × 1 (1944)
  • Santa Clause (1946)
  • Xaipe (1950)
  • i: six nonlectures (1953)
  • Poems, 1923–1954 (1954)
  • A Miscellany (1958)
  • 95 Poems (1958)
  • Adventures in Value (1962)
  • 73 Poems (1963)
  • Fairy Tales (1965)
  • Complete Poems, 1913–1962 (1972)
  • Poems, 1905–1962 (1973)

Further Reading

  • Cohen, Milton A. Poet and Painter: The Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings' Early Work. Detroit, 1987. The only book-length treatment of Cummings's art.
  • Cowley, Malcolm. Exile's Return. New York, 1934. Excellent portrayal of the beginning, middle, and end of the Lost Generation of writers from someone who experienced it.
  • Dupee, F. W., and George Stade, eds. Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings. New York, 1969.
  • Friedman, Norman. E. E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry. Baltimore, 1960. Coherent and comprehensive critical look at Cummings's poetry, his personas, and his meaning. Out of print, but indispensable for an understanding of the poet by a scholar and friend of Cummings.
  • Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. New York, 1980. The definitive work on Cummings's life; the author had access to material previously unavailable because of stipulations of Cummings's widow.
  • Norman, Charles. E. E. Cummings. New York, 1967. Although Norman did not have access to the material Kennedy did, he had the advantage of being personally acquainted with Cummings, with full access to his subject.