[Spring 3 (1994): 63-71]

Cummings' vision of nature and man's response to it is a vital element of his poetic celebrations. The process of house-cleaning one's cluttered "furnished soul," as Cummings would put it, involves throwing open the doors and windows to the tentative, "perhaps hand" of spring, which glides in,

arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here)and

changing everything carefully

(& [AND] [1925]: N, III)

Cummings' poetry abounds in descriptions and images of nature, natural elements, and natural processes. Characteristic of Cummings, literary themes, personal references, figurative language, and concrete shapes blend to express the multidimensional perspectives that inform his nature poetry. Weaving in and out of a body of writing that mimes the acrobatics of the mind while validating the "heartbeat of some sun" (XAIPE [1950]: #11), Cummings' nature poems emphasize both the physical/material reality as well as the emotional/intuitive levels of existence. From the very early poems of Tulips & Chimneys (1922) such as "Thy fingers make early flowers of / all things" (Songs IV), "in Just- / spring" (Chanson Innocentes), "O sweet spontaneous / earth" (La Guerre V), the reader is introduced to the affirmative fusion of human knowledge and human experience that results in a childlike acceptance of human existence.

Reacting against an increasingly technological Western society, marked by its organizational systems, social codes, and rhetoric of war-heroism, Cummings turned to nature as did the Romantics in the nineteenth century. Laurel O'Neal observes, "For Cummings the rational approach is inconsistent with the nature of the universe and is therefore inadequate as a method of establishing values, or achieving meaningful growth" (see Works Cited). [end p. 63] The world of nature in all its vibrancy and dynamism resists any final definition, as does the man who has discovered his place in the rhythmic cycle of nature. Within Cummings' vision, therefore, the rational approach to life is a denial of the mysteries and wonders of our world.

In his poetry, Cummings celebrates the interanimation of man and nature. His own childhood and adult experiences in the natural surroundings of Norton's Woods in Cambridge and Joy Farm in New Hampshire, underlie his faith in nature. In i:six nonlectures (1953), Cummings speaks about the impact of nature on him as a child:

Only a butterfly's glide from my home began a mythical domain of semiwilderness; separating cerebral Cambridge and orchidaceous Somerville. Deep in this magical realm of Between stood a palace containing Harvard University's far-famed Charles Eliot Norton. & lowly folk, who were neither professors nor professors' children, had nick-named the district Norton's Woods. Here, as a very little child, I first encountered that mystery who is Nature here my enormous smallness entered Her illimitable being; and here someone actually infinite or impossibly alive--someone who might almost (but not quite) have been myself—-wonderingly wandered the mortally immortal complexities of Her beyond imagining imagination (32) Charles Norman, in E. E. Cummings: The Magic Maker, describes the environment at Joy Farm, the family farm near Silver Lake, New Hampshire, to which Cummings returned every summer until his death: Cummings had more than three hundred acres of woodland to roam in, which, despite the blandishments of regional lumbermen, had been left strictly alone. So had the grass and bushes around the house, with the result that thrushes were more numerous than chickadees or sparrows. Hummingbirds sipped from vials of sugared water outside the screen porch where Cummings and his wife took their meals. (10) Richard S. Kennedy, in Dreams in the Mirror. A Biography of E. E. Cummings, refers to Joy Farm as marked by its "natural phenomena for healing," a place that inspired Cummings to record "notes and sketches of sunsets, birds of all varieties, bees, a snake, seedlings sprouting in the [end p. 64] meadow" (Kennedy 369).

Cummings' poetry reflects his long life-love of nature. The first poem in Tulips & Chimneys, "Epithalamion," is an initiation into the experience of rediscovering the fundamental link between man and the vitality of nature through images. The earth is a sensuous woman who draws the "thrilling rain the slender paramour" from his lawful wife, the sky. There are references to the gods and goddesses of mythology, "the god/from but the imprint of whose cloven feet/the shrieking dryad sought her leafy goal," "one goddess loved too well" "Chryselephantine Zeus Olympian / sceptered colossus of the Pheidian soul (p.3). The mythical world, reflecting the rhythms of nature, is perceived as the opposite of the rational and the empirical: "Spring,that omits no mention of desire / in every curved and curling thing" (p.5). In "O sweet spontaneous / earth (Tulips: La Guerre V), the theoreticians scrutinize and analyze nature, but never comprehend it. The earth answers the skeptical philosophers scientists and theologians "only with / spring)" (46). Its mystery, reflected in the images of sexuality and fertility, affirm "the powers of renewal" (Sutton 90). Death is the "rhythmic / lover" of earth.

Contradicting the romantic cliche, Cummings presented nature in its discordant awkwardness as well as its harmonious grace. In "spring omnipotent goddess thou dost" (Tulips; Portraits XX), spring is seen as the "slattern of seasons" with "dirty legs" and "a muddy/petticoat." Cummings' frequent portrayal of nature in terms of a woman, however, betrays his persisting dichotomous view of sexuality. Milton A. Cohen in POETandPAINTER: The Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings traces Cummings' sexual polarities in Freudian terms, to his "rebellion against his prudish upbringing" and his "unresolved Oedipal conflicts" (136, 137). In Cummings' early nature poetry this sexual tension is reflected in polarized images: for example nature is visualized in the same poem both as a whore with "a sloppy body" as well as the inexplicably gentle virgin whose "hands/are the snow" and whose "fingers are the rain."

From these early poems to the later ones in 95 Poems (1958) and 73 Poems, such as "O the sun comes up-up-up in the opening/sky"; "for any ruffian of the sky" "plant Magic dust"; "because it's / Spring" "insu nli gh t"; Cummings moves to consider the third factor in his multi-dimensional perspective of nature and its relation to man: the supernatural realm and man's spiritual level of existence. Cummings' later poems focus on the process involved in moving from the material to the intuitive to the [end p. 65] transcendental. In these poems nature is perceived both in its physical essence as well as its mystical, transformative power. Norman Friedman's pioneering work in this area has provided us with an insight into the complicated nature of Cummings' transcendentalism. Closely associated with the New England tradition, Cummings' poetry also reflects, as Friedman shows, the Oriental mystical processes of transcending the negative by accepting it. Referring to poems in the 95 Poems, he observes:

almost for the first time, the speaker is presented as experiencing moments during which he accepts and goes into the negative before transcending it. We are shown, uniquely, the process involved in transcendence and not just its results. It is not simply a matter, in other words, of experiencing the negative, of being aware of it, of acknowledging it, and of then going on to the positive despite that negative; it is rather a question of reaching the positive because of . having descended into the negative. It is, in effect, a balancing in the void itself. ("Posthumous" 317) Though not a consistently sustained evolution, Cummings' movement from a clearly Western perception of the material/spiritual dichotomy to elements of Eastern philosophical faith in the integration of all dichotomies and the transcending of all polarities is evidenced in his later poems, validating the processes in nature and in the human struggle. With regard to which particular Eastern philosophy Friedman uses to interpret Cummings' later poetry, Zen Buddhism takes precedence. American transcendentalists, like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, were drawn to its concept of achieving Buddhahood or godhead in oneself. However, as Yoshinobu Hakutani in "Emerson, Whitman, and Zen Buddhism" observes, there are some clear differences between Zen and American transcendentalism: Satori in Zen is an enlightenment that transcends time and place, and even the consciousness of self. It is a state of mu, nothingness. The state of nothingness is absolutely free of any thought or emotion; it is so completely free that such a consciousness corresponds to that of nature. This state of nothingness, however, is not synonymous with a state of void, but functional. And its function is perceived by the [end p. 66] senses. If, for example, the enlightened person sees a tree, he sees the tree through his or her enlightened eye. The tree is no longer an ordinary tree; it now exists with different meaning. The tree contains satori only when the viewer is enlightened; Buddha exists in nature only if the follower achieves the Buddha in himself or herself. For Emerson and Whitman, on the contrary, God exists in nature regardless of whether man is capable of such intuition. (434-435) Emerson's concepts of individuality and self-reliance remain central to his transcendentalism, and in many ways persist through Cummings' poetry as well. While Zen teaches that one's responsibility to achieve enlightenment or bodhi rests on one's self, the annihilation of the consciousness of self is essential in the process of achieving enlightenment: "In Zen doctrine, however, self-reliance would preclude our attainment of satori, for the consciousness of self means that we are not completely free of our thoughts and feelings and have not identified ourselves with the absolute" (Hakutani 438). This state of nothingness of self in Zen is achieved through transcending the dualities of self and other. In Hindu Advaita philosophy, the same principle of transcending the dualities of Atman (the individual soul) and Brahman (the transcendent God) persists. In Buddhism and Hinduism, the still point of the wheel symbolizes the ultimate freedom from one's ego-consciousness.

In tracing the development of Cummings' nature poetry, the reader becomes conscious of his struggle to express and at times integrate the various dualities of natural phenomena, and by extension, human existence. Though he had consciously and effortlessly rejected the non- and un-selves, he had to struggle with annihilating the "self ' which appears as the apparently self-effacing lower case "i" but is charged with the force of pugnacious selfassertion and independence, described in the poem "spirit colossal" (95 Poems [1958]: #6) as the "diminutive person" with "jovial ego." Annihilating this "i" would be tantamount to the final submission of self-consciousness, what Zen philosophers would call the ultimate "fusion of man and nature," the "emulation of nature" in which is achieved "a harmony between man and nature" (Hakutani 436-437).

How far Cummings achieves this fusion can be determined by examining a few specific poems. In "from spiralling ecstatically this" (95Poems: # 42), Cummings explores the phenomenon of the natural world [end p. 67] enfolding the supernatural. Nature is sympathetic to the supernatural event of baby Jesus' birth, but man distances himself from perceiving the miracle because he lives only at the physical and rational plane of existence. Kate Powers, in her analysis of this poem, focuses on the final contrasting image which reveals "the triumph of the natural over the unnatural. In contrast the 'mind without soul' who blasts, the mother expresses her love with a smile that at once contains the joy of natural creation and the answer for skeptics" (236).

In this analysis, the words "spiralling ecstatically" can be seen structurally and metaphorically introducing us to the idea of how nature enfolds the supernatural. Structurally, the words form part of the single lines physically separated from the first stanza. It is linked with the other two single lines that mark the two main movements of the poem, interpreted b Powers as "God's real action on man's world" and "man's potential action on God's world" (236). She further points out that "The movements are introduced, bridged, and concluded by single lines." Beyond their functional significance, the single lines, as I have noted, build on the central motif of the co-existence of and the harmony between the natural and the supernatural worlds: the natural movement of "spiralling ecstatically" from the first single line, enfolds the supernatural "perhapsless mystery of paradise)" in the second single line. The last single line repeats this regenerative relationship "-whose only secret all creation sings." As the natural enfolds the supernatural, so the supernatural is celebrated in the natural.

Further, the image of "spiralling" echoes the wheel symbolism of Buddhism and Hinduism and its persistence in modernist poetry, from Yeats's "gyres" to Pound's "Vorticism" and Eliot's "turning wheel" which is also "forever still." Confluences among the natural, human, and the supernatural realms in Cummings' poem bring into focus the tension between the destructive capabilities of man centered on his ego-consciousness and the larger undying processes of the natural and the supernatural. Cummings, in this poem, achieves a successful synthesis of an evolving philosophical view of nature, of the supernatural, as well as of man's position in relation to these worlds.

Cummings" 'all which isn't singing is mere talking," from 73 Poems (#32), illustrates at least two distinct movements in the process of transcending dualities and contraries, such as "master or disciple," "sheep or wolf," "deity or devil." One movement records the moments of fusion of [end p. 68] opposites indicated in the co-existence of "cruel fair" and "blessed evil"; the other movement challenges the "you" with "né i." It is only when this ego-consciousness is most keenly realized (whether destructively, as seen in the fury of the man blasting the universe in the "from spiralling" poem, or constructively, as seen in the lovers in this poem), that its annihilation is also most difficult. When achieved, however, man and nature realize a harmonious relationship indicated in the lines: "but the very song of(as mountains / feel and lovers)singing is silence."

The parenthetical joining of natural mountains and human lovers brings together those dualities in a fusion, experienced as "silence," the state of nothingness comparable to the still center of Zen enlightenment. The noise of "dumb mankind dizzy with haranguing," the "deafened" state of "talking to oneself alone," expressed in broken lines set off by dashes, is contrasted by the mellifluous alliterations of "song," "singing," and "silence," and the typographical fusion of the main statement and the parenthetical inclusion. Here too, Cummings achieves a successful representation of the closeness between man/nature and man/spirit relationships and the process involved in transcendence.

Guy Rotella in "Nature, Time, and Transcendence in Cummings' Later Poems," examines the role of Cummings' transcendental vision in the shaping of his nature poems, in which, as he puts it, "attention to nature becomes attention to natural process and therefore to time. The response of Cummings' transcendentalism to nature, process, and time illuminates his thought, for...Cummings is as much a poet of ideas, however few of them, as of sensations" (284). Tracing the development of transcendent growth in Cummings, Rotella analyzes poems which achieve both the affirmation of transcendence and also illustrate "the transcendentalist paradox of using nature as a model for getting beyond nature and its built-in limits. Although it need not, this paradox can lead to an attention to natural fact that ends in devaluing nature or even in contempt for it" (290).

Some examples of this devaluing of nature occur in poems like "love is the every only god" (50 Poems, [1940]: #50), "darling! because my blood can sing" and "what if a much of a which of a wind" (1 x 1,[1944]: XL and XX), "joys faces friends" (95 Poems [1958]:#21) "e / cco the uglies / t" and "n / Umb a / stree / t's wintr / y" (73 Poems [1963]:#16, #17). This process of recognizing the limits of nature marks Cummings' divergence from the Zen Buddhist's practice of harmonizing man and nature. Rotella argues: "One [end p. 69] reaction to this recognition is to supplant nature as model with a higher transcending power, that of love.... In such poems, nature becomes secondary; if not quite devalued, it is certainly revalued, and at times can seem no more than a convenient source of a fleshly metaphor for a world spirit beyond mere flesh" (292).

The growing complexity of recurring instances of Cummings' faith and doubt in the transcendental vision, as realized in his poems, clarifies to us that Cummings was intensely living through the questions and affirming the answers when he found them. Norman Friedman claims that "the ambiguities in himself and his work" could be traced to his "self-division" and "the unsolved ambivalence of his early manhood in connection with rebelling against yet needing his family" (318-20). In recognizing the value of human love in achieving transcendence, Cummings seemed to have found his happy departure from the defined principles of American transcendentalism as well as the rigorous austerity of Eastern transcendentalism. However capricious and willful he may sound at times, Cummings' nature poems record his faith in the "vision" which can "create the whole," especially in worlds of "halfsight" (73 Poems [1963]: #73).

--Spelman College, Atlanta, GA

[end p. 71]

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