October 31, 2016
.E. Cummings (1894-1962) may be the most poorly understood of the groundbreaking Modernist poets. J. Alison Rosenblitt’s E.E. Cummings’ Modernism and the Classics is an indispensable guide for readers who wish to penetrate his often obscure work.
Today Cummings seems comfortably canonical even for most people who have not read more than a few of his familiar anthology poems, so it is surprising and important to remember that he did not receive the same prompt acclaim of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. Unlike them, Cummings did not appear destined for greatness. Despite his famous scorn of “Cambridge ladies,” he needed Cambridge social connections to overcome dismal admission test grades and start Harvard in 1911. Cummings’s performance on the Advanced Latin section of the test was so poor that the admissions office did not even bother to grade it.
A mediocre student and a bit of a Wildean esthete, Cummings immersed himself in Modernist and ancient Greek poetry. His friends, however, noted little improvement in his own verse, which tended to be quaintly derivative until late in his undergraduate days. Modernist icon Amy Lowell wrote a letter of recommendation for Cummings, but she bet Scofield Thayer, Cummings’ best friend at Harvard and future editor of the influential Modernist journal, The Dial, that Cummings would never make it as a poet. Two decades after graduation Cummings wrote a delightfully mischievous poem that listed the fourteen publishers who had rejected his ironically titled book No Thanks. He self-published this book with financial assistance from “a Cambridge lady,” his mother.
Academia never embraced Cummings as fervently as it did other leading Modernist poets, but after World War II Cummings rapidly acquired a large popular following, attracting some 7,000 people in 1957 to an outdoor reading in Boston, an unimaginable event today. In the 1960s a few of his more accessible poems resonated with counterculture readers, who tended to see “I sing of olaf glad and big” as a celebration of the draft protestor and “in Just-” as a celebration of sexual liberty. Idealistic English teachers of this period also perceived his frequent use of the lower-case as an exercise in subversive egalitarianism, although—contrary to public belief—Cummings preferred a traditional mix of the upper and lower cases for his own name.
When the Vietnam era ended, enthusiasm for Cumming’s work diminished, but did not disappear. Harvard’s Helen Vendler accelerated his slide with colorful, often perplexing invective, calling his intricately layered, densely allusive work the “murderous devaluation of the intellect.” As Rosenblitt accurately but gingerly notes at several places in the book, other scholars’ more prosaic interpretations have also misunderstood the Cummings legacy.
Rosenblitt brings to her subject an encyclopedic understanding of all the conflicting traces of his life—not just his published poetry and prose, but also his juvenilia, artwork, translations, correspondence, drafts, unpublished work, and book ownership. On this basis she corrects, deftly but politely, her peers’ misreadings and factual errors, and also enhances her insightful close readings of the key poems.
Rosenblitt carefully documents Cummings’ bifurcated interest in classical literature: he completed every class in ancient Greek that Harvard offered but did not major in Classics because he did not want to satisfy the Latin requirement. She rightly focuses on his rapture when reading Sappho and his concurrently evolving prosody, then makes a compelling case that many of his early experiments with prosody were inspired by the lacunae, fractured lines, uneven margins, and physical appearance of the extant papyri of Sappho.
Despite Cummings’ Hellenism, many scholars have noted that his poems reveal the influence of Virgil and Horace. Rosenblitt discerns that these influences are largely mediated through an unexpected source, Paradise Lost. Cummings’s use of Milton, however, does not lead to automatic deference: Rosenblitt highlights Cummings’ rejection of Milton’s epic ambition in the 1958 book, 95 Poems, as well as his many reinventions of Paradise Lost.
At Harvard, Cummings immersed himself in the Modernist movement, meeting several key figures and learning all he could about Modernist poetry and theory but also its art, particularly Cubism. Rosenblitt paints a thorough picture of the budding Modernist’s admiration of—and rivalry with—Eliot, Pound, and Williams. She argues convincingly that Cummings’ overlooked parody of Eliot’s The Wasteland was a critique of all the early Modernist icons, not just sniping at Eliot.
As Rosenblitt explores Cummings’ modernism and classicism, she identifies a number of unappreciated influences on his poetry. She skillfully demonstrates, for example, that a five-poem sequence in Cummings’s 1922 book Tulips & Chimneys echoes and plays with Blake’s “Chansons Innocentes.” She also walks the reader through his complicated reactions to Tennyson, Swinburne, Freud, and others.
Unfortunately, Rosenblitt’s generous spirit and admiration for her subject occasionally constrain her from making harsh judgments about Cummings’ character and work. As with most early Modernists except Eliot, Cummings defined himself more by his rejection of values (particularly those of his clergyman father) than by adherence to an alternative set of values.
Cummings’ amoral, Dionysian view of the world seems to have fostered manic moods—bordering on mental illness—that colored much of his work. Some of these moods spawned grandiose self-delusions reminiscent of Pound, which were then often followed by depressed self-laceration more characteristic of Eliot. These mood swings are clear in the preface to his translations of Sophocles:
No translator tried to do anything so hard before, nor—probably—will ever try again. This auspicious beginning I proceed to supplement as follows:
Reasons why this translation is unique in history, (1) Because it is the first and only literal translation ever devised. This, come to think of it, is the only reason. But it is capable of great elaboration. In fact, what is a literal translation? Obviously neither of two things (1) contorted constructions, innocent of beauty (2) beautiful elaboration of the non-existent. Any prose translation will illustrate the first; Way’s Euripides is a lovely example of the latter.
Beyond this point I believe I am an originator. My translation is truly and honestly literal, in that it reproduces (1) emphasis by the word order (nearly always) (2) intentional alliteration and assonance (3) original constructions (except where very idiomatic) (4)primary ideas of the words (as opposed to over-translation) (5) Cesura (always, where noticeable) (6) syllabic substitutions (always as far as I am aware).
Taking these facts into consideration, is it any wonder that my accomplishment is meagre? I think not….But who can do what I set out to do? Certainly not I.
Rosenblitt’s attempt to include some of Cummings’ early poetry with that of the World War I “war poets” strikes me as an example of her excessive generosity—in particular her effort to declare “O sweet spontaneous” an example of “the very best of the Great War poetry.” Note that the poem is a roller-coaster ride of classical references and abstractions, lacking any actual first-hand observations about fear, violence, or suffering:
O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have
prurient philosophers pinched
,has the mighty thumb
of science prodded
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
buffeting thee that thou mightiest conceive
to the incomparable
couch of death thy
them only with
Cummings did not volunteer to serve out of a sense of mission or duty—he signed up to be an ambulance driver for adventure and carousing in Paris. He drank, partied, lived with a prostitute for a month, and behaved so badly that he spent a long stretch of time in jail. His poems of this period have a bloodless quality, relying on classical tales and others’ reports of wartime rather than his own experience. These considerations make it inapt to place him in the same category with Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and others who witnessed and responded directly to the horrors of war.
In the same vein, Rosenblitt is critical, but still generous, about the amoral nature of Cummings’ sexual conduct, particularly with his “private fascination with incest,” which wasn’t really so private. His best friend Scofield Thayer commissioned Cummings’ “EPITHALAMIUM” for his 1916 wedding to Elaine Orr. Cummings promptly started an affair with Orr, married her after she and Thayer divorced, fathered their daughter Nancy, and soon abandoned them both. Many years later he enabled a sexually tense relationship with his daughter without revealing to her that he was her father. Only when she made a sexual advance did he cut off the games and tell her the truth. The wreckage of Cummings’ behavior is clear in his daughter’s book of poetry, Charon’s Daughter (which included eight previously unpublished poems of her father).
Understanding these self-centered aspects of Cummings’ personality is critical to understanding his limits as a poet. As Cummings himself noted, there is a fragmentary quality to his poems. While bizarrely blaming his literary shortcomings on his abandonment of Nancy for more than two decades, he confessed the following:
Since Nancy’s latest visit,am feeling:
O,for such a love! The lack of it is what makes me
write merely short poems; keeps me from achieving great
works:when the EO-N thread broke,Ibroke too. Since then,
Have been lost in a fragmentary world(my “unworld)!of abstractions & generalities,of hatreds & scorns & satires,of la
vie politique et toujours banale.’
While Cummings’s flight from domesticity did not cause his uniquely fragmented style, his own description of his literary style and its shortcomings demonstrates considerable self-awareness.
Cummings’s bold, innovative observations were expressed in bolder, more innovative ways than any other 20th century poet’s. Rarely, though, were those observations sustained long enough to form a timeless poem, and rarely did he extend himself beyond a bookish cleverness largely founded on images from classical literature rather than experience. Indeed, even his flashes of brilliance tend to be incomprehensible without the kind of dogged and thoughtful scholarship that makes Rosenblitt's book invaluable to any serious reader of Cummings.