—E. E. Cummings, The Enormous Room (12)
|Like many of his contemporaries, E. E. Cummings first experienced Paris during World War I. He joined the Norton-Harjes ambulance corps in 1917, perhaps as a way of avoiding the draft while at the same time experiencing the war and the world. On the ship over to France, Cummings met William Slater Brown, another ambulance corps recruit and fellow-refugee from stuffy New England. When Brown and Cummings reached the Norton-Harjes headquarters at 7 rue François Premier, they found the office closed. A cleaning lady advised them to check into the Hôtel du Palais. While waiting for their uniforms to be made, they somehow got separated from their unit, and headquarters lost track of them. So Brown and Cummings spent five weeks exploring the spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic pleasures of Paris, which even in wartime were considerable.||
Sky over Paris (c. 1933) Photo courtesy SUNY Brockport (The Hildegarde Lasell Watson Collection of Artworks by E.E. Cummings)
They had breakfast every morning at the Rond-Point of the Champs Elysées, visited the Louvre, bought books of French poetry and prints by Cézanne and Matisse at the bookstalls along the Seine, and attended the Ballets Russes where they "saw Stravinsky's Petrouchka more than once" (Kennedy 140). Richard S. Kennedy writes:
In spite of the negative attitude displayed in this quote, Cummings and Brown soon "attached themselves" to two prostitutes, Marie-Louise Lallemand and her friend Mimi. Although they paid for their company, Brown and Cummings treated the women as if they were American dates, taking them to a concert and a picnic in the country, for example. Even though as Kennedy puts it, "prostitution was not illegal in France" (141), because of a fear of venereal disease, Cummings (to quote Kennedy again) "never gave himself fully" to Marie-Louise (143).
Once the Norton-Harjes ambulance corps located them, the two Americans were sent to the front. Cummings and Brown hated the dull routine of the ambulance corps—they especially did not get along with their immediate commander, an "oafish sergeant" (Kennedy 145) from the Bronx. So they spent all the time they could talking and drinking with the French support staff, which irritated the sergeant who did not know a word of French. Brown wrote some letters home claiming that the morale of the French troops was very low, but according to Brown, it was not his
dumb, jejune letters . . . that got us into trouble. It was the fact that C. and I knew all about the violent mutinies in the French Army a few months before Cummings and I reached the front. We learned all about them from the poilus. The French did everything, naturally, to suppress the news. We two were loaded with dynamite ("William Slater Brown" 90).(U. S. State Department transcripts of Brown's letters are reproduced on pp. 83-88 of Charles Norman's biography.) Whatever the reason, both Brown and Cummings were arrested on suspicion of espionage.
Both were innocent, of course, and Cummings was probably arrested only because the sergeant saw a chance to get rid of both of them at once. When Cummings was interrogated, he chose to stick by his friend. When asked "Est-ce que vous détestez les boches?" ["Do you hate the Germans?"], Cummings responded, "Non. J'aime beaucoup les français." ["No. I like the French very much."] (Enormous Room 14). For this response, Cummings was packed off to a detention camp in southern Normandy called La Ferté Macé. Cummings had been in Paris for five weeks, at the front for three months and a week, and was interned at La Ferté Macé for another three months. In 1922 he published an original and idiosyncratic account of his detention (but not of his five weeks in Paris) called The Enormous Room. Later, in i: six nonlectures Cummings described what Paris meant to him when he first encountered it during World War I:
Whereas—by the very act of becoming its improbably gigantic self—New York had reduced mankind to a tribe of pygmies, Paris (in each shape and gesture and avenue of her being) was continuously expressing the humanness of humanity. Everywhere I sensed a miraculous presence, not of mere children and women and men, but of living human beings; and the fact that I could scarcely understand their language seemed irrelevant, since the truth of our momentarily mutual aliveness created an imperishable communion. While (at the hating touch of some madness called La Guerre) a once rising and striving world toppled into withering hideously smithereens, love rose in my heart like a sun and beauty blossomed in my life like a star. Now, finally and first, I was myself: a temporal citizen of eternity; one with all human beings born and unborn. (53)Cummings returned to Paris to live for most of the years 1921-1923. He would continue to visit the city, returning for extended stays in 1925, 1926, 1929, 1930, and 1933. His most famous poem about the city is
According to Milton Cohen, Cummings painted Sky over Paris [see above] "probably [in] the early thirties," at a time when the poet and painter was refining his aesthetic and changing his painting style from modernist abstraction to expressionistic representation. Cohen notes that the painting offers a fusion of "naturalistic representation and expressionism. Over a carefully detailed view of Parisian rooftops swirls an El Grecoesque sky in turbulent yellows and mauves" (56). Perhaps the contrast of realism and abstraction in the painting reflects Cummings' consistent view of Paris as a fusion of opposites. As early as 1926, he was writing that the native ParisianParis;this April sunset completely utters
utters serenely silently a cathedral
before whose upward lean magnificent face
the streets turn young with rain,
spiral acres of bloated rose
coiled within cobalt miles of sky
yield to and heed
of twilight(who slenderly descends,
daintily carrying in her eyes the dangerous first stars)
people move love hurry in a gently
arriving gloom and
see!(the new moon
fills abruptly with sudden silver
these torn pockets of lame and begging colour)while
there and here the lithe indolent prostitute
with certain houses (1923; CP 183)
From "The Rural and Urban Environment in Cummings"
The poet is fond of matching countryside and cities, "so that he writes many poems that deal with a season plus a landscape plus a time of day, or a street scene plus a time of day" (Friedman, Art 28-9). Wegner expands on this topic saying that "beauty for Cummings resides for the most part in the natural scene, urban or rural, particularly in the muted light of sunset or dusk when impressions of objects are intensified and brought into sharp relief" (quoted in Heusser 124). In "Paris," the "April sunset"—an emblem of wholeness—is so powerful that it "utters serenely silently a cathedral" (CP 183). Night—associated with deficiency—is personified in an "indolent prostitute" who "argues / with certain houses," not without having previously visualized the rush hour when "people move love hurry in a gently // arriving gloom" (CP 183).
In view of the many references to Paris in Cummings’ writings, we cannot avoid considering the extraordinary significance that this city has for the poet. What he experienced there during those five spring weeks in the year 1917 shaped his personality and attitude towards life and his poetry. In the French capital he was exposed to a life style that differed completely from anything that he had ever known. An American in Paris, he immersed himself in the city and learned to speak French fluently, often using this language in some of his writings from the twenties, even when not necessarily referring to France.
According to Heusser, the most striking thing about the "Paris" poem above is its extreme heterogeneity. In his i: six nonlectures Cummings celebrates Paris as the city of reconciled oppositions, saying that it is there that spirit and flesh meet forever and now. The poet characterizes Paris as a "homogeneous duality": an entity which forms a unified totality and yet also consists of two clearly discernible elements. For him, "two realms, elsewhere innately hostile, here cordially coexisted: a fearless loveliness of the moment as well as a nobly beautiful timelessness" (six 52-53; quoted in Heusser 127). Taking this into account, we may consider these two "realms" as opposed and reconciled at the same time. Cummings asserts that one must distinguish between two different cities: "Paree," the one for tourists, and "Paname"— [end page 101] argot for the real Paris. "Paname" is the city of strange illogicality, of the spirit and the flesh as the ultimate sign of life, a sign for Cummings’ self, where his indivisible and yet divided "I" mixes with the metropolis (Heusser 127-8).
We must not leave behind the forceful image of transcendence in this "Paris" poem. The cathedral—that from Cummings’ notes clearly refers to Notre Dame—the setting sun, and the sky become symbols of sovereignty and serenity opposed to the mundane noise of the people, day and light, sun and moon or darkness and night. In "Take for example this:" (CP 182) such is the intensity of special Paris light when the sun comes down, that it constitutes a source of inspiration for the creative impulse, making the lover write "a millionth poem" for the lady he misses.
Heusser notes that Cummings wrote of the French capital that it is "a city founded upon Life" (Miscellany 158), inspiring love and happiness (Heusser 125). However, sadness is the idea suggested in "along the brittle treacherous bright streets" (CP 305). Perhaps a memory of his days in France during World War I—"a forgotten prisoner"—the poem features a second part where the poet is dreamingly walking through a city park listening to other lovers’ conversations, remembering that
when you were in Paris we met here
More metaphoric is the implication of a Parisian Street in poem V of ViVa (CP 315). Cummings makes reference to "rue du Dragon" in Paris in his correspondence (Kidder 87), but this "Dragon st" also stands for the menacing "Dragon" of society, as is suggested by the last lines which refer to Hobbes' Leviathan:
So Jones was murdered by
a man named Smith and
we sailed on the
—Teresa González Mínguez, "The
Urban Environment in Cummings" (Spring 9: 96-108)
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