[Spring 9 (2000): 109-124]
This essay takes its title from a 1959 essay by Robert Langbaum called "The New Nature Poetry." Langbaum's essay was a pioneering foray into the vast and complex topic of modernist nature poetry: as such, it provides us with a convenient and logical starting point for an investigation into Cummings' nature poetry. Langbaum's essay makes two large claims: first, that in contrast to the Romantics' religious veneration of nature as teacher, guide, and nurse, the nature poetry of modernists like Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, and D. H. Lawrence stressed "the mindlessness of nature, its nonhuman otherness" (102). To that end, modernist poets avoided projecting "human feelings into natural objects" (104). In other words, they avoided what critics call the pathetic fallacy.
The term was coined by 19th century art critic John Ruskin as a way of describing what he viewed as a typically modern relation to nature. Ruskin claimed that the 19th-century writer could not look at nature in and of itself, but must attribute some human emotion to it, as when Charles Kingsley wrote:
Langbaum shows how modernist poems like Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man" avoid this animated, humanized, "pathetic" nature. The speaker of Stevens' poem asserts that one "must have a mind of winter" not to think of "any misery in the sound of the wind." As we read, we realize that the speaker of the poem and the snow man of the title gradually merge together to become a symbol for the dispassionate poetic observer of nature: "the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is" (Stevens 9-10).
Langbaum’s second claim is more difficult to summarize. For he says that "to feel in nature an unalterably alien, even an unfeeling, existence is to carry empathy several steps farther than did the nineteenth century poets" (104). By this he means, I think, that one has to work that much harder to feel into the life of the "nonhuman other" if the gap between poet and natural object is greater. The gap requires poet and reader to work harder to empathize with creatures as seemingly alien to us as Moore's pangolins and basilisks or [end p. 109] Lawrence's tortoises and snakes. That's one reason why, Langbaum says, the new nature poetry "is so often about animals rather than landscapes. The poet is less likely to commit the pathetic fallacy with animals, for they have a consciousness of their own" (112). I would go further: animals have feelings of their own, which may or may not have a relation to ours. And yet, the modern poet empathizes with the "living unconsciousness" of nature, perhaps because it represents a deeper truth about human nature. For example, in D. H. Lawrence's much-anthologized poem "Snake," Langbaum says that the snake represents "the alien god of our submerged unconscious and libidinal life" (115).
If Langbaum is saying that poets avoid the pathetic fallacy only to create a deeper, less ego-driven bond between humans and nature, then he ironically recapitulates the argument of the fellow who invented the term in the first place, John Ruskin. For Ruskin, the pathetic fallacy was symptomatic of a characteristically modern and muddled attitude towards nature. The pathetic fallacy, "a dim, slightly credited animation in the natural object" (16.37), is only a remnant of classical and medieval beliefs that saw gods in every hill and stream and angels in the clouds (16.7). Paradoxically, the ancients had no need of the pathetic fallacy since they already had a more deeply felt vision of nature as divinity. Equally paradoxical was Ruskin's insistence that the modern way of finding god in nature was to see clearly the plain fact of nature: such seeing led to a deeper understanding of its spiritual animation. "To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion,--all in one" (16.28). Josephine Miles has shown how, as use of the pathetic fallacy declined throughout the 19th century, poets began to attribute less feeling to objects and to concentrate more on the object's connections "with color, shape, and quality" (83). There occurred a subtle shift "from object and emotion to quality and sense perception." People began to see things more closely and clearly, "working inward from outline to detail, as men discerned more and more" (103). This new concentration on the details of objects is emblematized by the difference between Wordsworth the meditative walker and Ruskin the sharp-eyed painter and critic. As a perceptive art historian, Ruskin knew that the 19th century passion for painting landscape alone, as itself and not as some backdrop for a heroical, historical, religious, or aristocratic genre painting, was something new in the world.  To this new concentration on the details of object and image, Cummings would add movement—activated in the reader by syntactic dislocation and the visual arrangement of words and letters on the page.
As is true of many sweeping theories of modernist poetry, Langbaum’s interesting thesis fails even to mention Cummings, much less place him within his new paradigm of the modernist nature poet. Usually Cummings is slighted because he is perceived as too idiosyncratic or too romantic or too lyrical, or perhaps too a-political to fit into the grand scheme. In this case, however, Cummings fits certain aspects of the paradigm quite well. For [end p. 110] example, he wrote many more poems about animals than Marianne Moore or possibly even D. H. Lawrence. (By a quick count, Cummings wrote at least 46 poems about animals, in addition to 43 other kinds of nature poems.) One of Langbaum's chief examples of anti-pathetic modernist nature poetry, Marianne Moore's "A Grave," was in fact declared by Cummings in 1933 to be his favorite poem.  There are some differences: Cummings' subjects are more conventional and less exotic than those of his contemporaries: his animal poems are mostly about birds of all sorts (including two poems about hummingbirds), along with other subjects like mice (3 poems), bats, porcupines, a bee, a chipmunk, a very famous grasshopper, and a baby elephant (one poem each). With the exception of the elephant (and even that is a baby), the animal poems focus on smaller, less powerful creatures who often function as stand-ins for the poet's own persona of "small eye poet" (Letters 109). Cummings' nature poems seldom if ever treat whole landscapes, but instead focus on somewhat generalized and also rather conventional natural elements (often in the sky-scape of the city) like the moon, stars, snow, rain, mist, and trees. If Cummings' subjects are more conventionally "Romantic" than those of his contemporaries, his manner of creating syntactic and visual movement of those subjects was "modernist," if not avant-garde. Instead of Lawrence's sometimes pedestrian and rhetorical free-verse or Moore's finely-wrought and formal montages, the reader of Cummings is greeted by his characteristic syntactic deformations and visual puzzle-making. In many of his poems, Cummings, too, avoids the pathetic fallacy in order to present a natural fact, but never with the carefully researched details we find in Moore or with the overt psychologizing we see in Lawrence.
Cummings has two basic modes of nature poetry: 1) presentation of an image, often of an animal and often in a visual format, and 2) more rhetorical poems, often sonnets, using Cummings' characteristic syntactic deformations and abstract nominalized vocabulary. While these modes intertwine to some degree, many of the poems in the first mode comprise a sort of imagist haiku with a high degree of word-splitting, radical spacing, and visual use of punctuation marks. Rather curiously, Langbaum never mentions imagism, which surely must have been an influence on many poets' "direct treatment of the 'thing'" and the effort to present "an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time" rather than simply describe a scene or object (Pound 3-6). Cummings' animal poems are certainly more sparing of verbiage than those of his contemporaries, and more radically imagist in their use of visual effects and in the elliptical ways they present "an intellectual and emotional complex." Let's look at two examples of nature poems with imagist leanings, companion pieces about a grasshopper and a mouse, poems 13 and 14 from the 1935 volume No Thanks (CP 396-397).
The first, the famous grasshopper poem, visually and verbally scrambles the letters of the grasshopper's name in three different ways, turning a common insect into three exotic beasts. [end p. 111]
a)s w(e loo)k
The first scrambled beast, the "rpophessagr," is in lower case with each letter separated by a hyphen. The second, a "PPEGORHRASS," is all in caps with no intervening punctuation. The third specimen, a ".gRrEaPsPhOs)" (grreaps-phos), begins with a period and thereafter alternates lower case with capital letters. In this third version, a mostly reversed, mostly upper-case "hOPPER" sticks out of the lower-case "grashs." The most obvious function of these rearrangements is signaled by the (not rearranged but estranged) text of the poem, which minus the three exotic beasts, reads, "who as we look up now gathering into a The leA!p:S arrIvIng to rearrangingly become ,grasshopper;". (Just like a grasshopper to split an infinitive.) The seemingly arbitrary use of spacing, capitalization, and punctuation shows, or better, re-enacts the seemingly arbitrary leap(s) of grasshopper. Far from using the pathetic fallacy, Cummings instead attempts to present the life-essence of "grasshopper" though a formal visual and verbal patterning of words and letters. Or perhaps he takes the pathetic fallacy to an extreme: instead of humanizing the grasshopper by writing something like "the grasshopper's erratic, willful, athletic leap," Cummings presents the otherness of the insect by deforming that most distinctive human invention, language.
We can see how arbitrary and yet how constructed and patterned this poem is if we look at the corrected proof sheets of the poem that Cummings sent to his Brazilian translator, Augusto de Campos (figure 1). At the top of the proof sheet Cummings notes that "this poem has a righthand margin as well as a left," but the system of elaborate spatial alignments exists only to be broken: the "S" of "leA!p:S" and the "a" of "arrIvIng" lie outside the left and right margins, respectively. The end of the grasshopper's leap and the beginning of its arrival cannot be contained within the formal boundaries of the poem. All the orthographic, syntactic, and visual rearrangements of the poem show the inability of arbitrary language to capture the essence and presence of a being. [end p. 112]
At the same time, however, Cummings' deformations of language symbolize the arbitrary, ordered otherness of a grasshopper's seemingly random leap(s). Perhaps the grasshopper's leap(s) conform to a hidden but arbitrary set of rules, analogous to the ones Cummings invented to create this poem.
It is not often noticed that the poem is paired with its opposite: the grasshopper poem is about unaccountable life and uncontainable movement, while its partner is about a motionless, dead mouse who is wholly contained, wrapped in a leaf and placed in the earth:
tiniest smile?may Be
bigger than the fear of all
hearts never which have
everyone that will Ever love)we
hidden him in A leaf
put(only)a Leaf among dark
;the incredible soft)ness
Though dead, the mouse has somehow "Won"; and through the common magic of a pun, it is also "one." The mouse's continued Being is indicated by the capital letter in line five. If we read only the capitalized words in the poem, we get: "Won / derfully Moved Be (Per / haps) Ever A Opening Leaf Disappears." This second telegraphic poem hidden within the first recapitulates the cycle of nature, stating how wonderfully moved the speaker is by this dead mouse, which perhaps will have an everlasting being by fertilizing an opening leaf, destined to disappear as the mouse did. Like Wordsworth's Lucy, "Rolled round in earth's diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees," the mouse becomes one with earth. As in many of Cummings' nature poems, this one invokes a disappearance into a silence that is seen as the essence of imagination. This silence has profound, transcendent meaning for the poet, as his many poems on silent singing testify.  In his notes at the Houghton Library, Cummings wrote, "it is this silence which P[oetry] translates into sound" [quoted. in Heusser 227; bMs Am 1892.7 (90, #432)].
This vision of nature as transcendent, and at the same time as sparking creativity obviously owes a great debt to the entire Romantic tradition, from Wordsworth to Emerson. Rather than an easy projection of human feelings onto nature (the pathetic fallacy), Cummings creates in the mouse a complex symbol of death and imagination, of a tiny, silent being that transcends (perhaps) the fears and hopes of human lovers. In contrast to the grasshopper poem, this one emphasizes rhetoric more than image. Certainly, Cummings was capable of seeing the dead mouse as fact: consult his drawing of a (the same?) dead mouse above (reproduced from Kennedy's biography, page 369). Another much later mouse poem (CP 784) illustrates how Cummings' version of the pathetic fallacy carries "empathy several steps farther" (Langbaum 104) into the life of the other.
out of the floor
a poisoned mouse
[end p. 115]
still who alive
is asking What
have i done that
You wouldn't have
Like Cummings' lower-case persona, these poems function as a kind of counter-sublime, magnifying the importance of their small protagonists while reducing the pretensions of the human ego.  The sublime, by the way, is a topic never mentioned by Langbaum. It seems to me that the origin of the modernist stress on "the mindlessness of nature, its nonhuman otherness" (102) can be found in the Romantic sublime, which stresses the awesome, terrifying (sublime) in nature over its loving, nurturing, inspiring (beautiful) aspect. For example, in "Mont Blanc" Shelley sees the glacier on the mountain as a "city of death" from which "[t]he race / Of man flies far in dread," and he ends the poem by wondering how we would view the mountain "If to the human mind's imaginings / Silence and solitude were vacancy?" In his counter-sublime mood, Cummings stresses the transformative aspects of nature's small, silent creatures. When Cummings does write in the sublime mode, he often opposes the frailty of the self to the immense power of nature. In some ways atypical of his more rhetorical nature poems, "whose are these(wraith a clinging with a wraith)" (CP 639) is one of Cummings' few works in a sublime mode. The poem also shows that like many of his contemporaries, Cummings does see nature as radically other; however, unlike them, he seeks "miracle" and imaginative transcendence against or within the other. [end p. 117]
ghosts drowning in supreme thunder?ours
(over you reels and me a moon;beneath,
bombed the by ocean earth bigly shudders)
never was death so alive:chaos so(hark
—that screech of space)absolute(my soul
tastes If as some world of spark
's gulped by illimitable hell)
and never have breathed such miracle murdered we
whom cannot kill more mostful to arrive
each(futuring snowily which sprints for the
crumb of our Now)twiceuponatime wave--
put out your eyes,and touch the black skin
of an angel named imagination
It is instructive to compare this poem (first published in 1947) with Cummings' favorite poem of 1933, Marianne Moore's "A Grave." Moore's poem also depicts two people standing before the sea, though in Moore's case the two people in question were Moore and her mother, and their view was obstructed by the "Man looking into the sea" of the first line. Though not as bombastic as Cummings' wave, Moore's sea is even more menacing: "you cannot stand in the middle of this; / the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave." Moore's poem goes on to describe how the bones of the dead "have not lasted" in the sea and how fishermen "lower nets, unconscious of the fact that they are desecrating a grave" (49). The poem ends with an image of how "dropped things . . . turn and twist" when they sink, and that turning and twisting is "neither with volition nor consciousness" (50). This chilling finale contrasts sharply with the ending of Cummings' sonnet, which explicitly states that the sea "cannot kill" the lovers and that their inner consciousness or imagination eclipses the booming sea with the touch of a hand and a blink of the eyes. In imagination at least, the crumb of the lovers' Now cannot be engulfed by the "twiceuponatime wave." Guy Rotella summarizes the more stringent atmosphere of Moore's poem quite well:
In his later nature poetry, Cummings more and more writes of a self that
merges with nature, often at the liminal moment of twilight. For example,
the poem "birds(" (CP 448) presents an image of birds and their songs fading
into the vastness of a twilight sky. The parentheses in the poem represent
swallows flying at dusk, while the diminishing stepped letters at the end
depict the birds' vanishing, soon silent, singing "voices." The birds' voices
fade into "Be" and "now" and "soul" until they "are" "a" part of the silence:
vast [end p. 118]
With the exception of the waves in "whose are these," each of the poems we have looked at has called the natural object a "who." These are not isolated instances: in one poem, Cummings calls the starry night sky a "millionminded Who" (CP 633); another calls a "brIght" star a "Who" (CP 455); another asks "who is the ) [moon?]" (CP 571); and an early poem asserts that "only Nobody knows / where truth grows why / birds fly and / especially who the moon is" (CP 368). One poem even addresses a phoebe as [end p. 119] "you darling / diminutive person" (CP 678), but this anthropomorphism is something of an extreme. In general, Cummings stresses both the personality (the "who") of natural objects and their mysterious otherness. (See the appendix.) Natural objects are selves, "whos," and yet radically other: in one poem Cummings calls a star a "morsel miraculous and meaningless," an "isful beckoningly fabulous crumb" (CP 456). Thus the star is both big and small, sublime and beautiful, a "fabulous" miracle full of life ("isful") and a morsel, a crumb. In these more rhetorical poems, natural objects are often invoked or addressed directly (the trope known as apostrophe) as Shelley does the West Wind. Jonathan Culler has noted that "the apostrophizing poet identifies his universe as a world of sentient forces" (139). To address natural objects as sentient will also reflect back on the self of the poet:
Cummings' view of nature may not be as contradictory as it seems. Guy Rotella
quotes Wallace Stevens: "It is not the individual alone that indulges himself
in the pathetic fallacy. It is the race." Rotella comments: "From that definition
of the fallacy as no fallacy at all but the expression of a natural human
need, he would construct his belief that the urge to meaning must constantly
be exercised as well as restrained" (Rotella 112). In a different way, Cummings
acknowledges his own need to construct meaning out of a possibly empty nature.
His use of the words "nothing" and "nowhere" illustrates his awareness of
these contradictions. For example, "this man's heart" (CP 676) ends like
-here [end p. 120]
"Nowhere" is here and now, yet the snowflake will melt into some "nowhere." The poet is like this snowflake, both part of the world and transcending it. Another example: in "but also dying" the poet reminds his lover that they exist "wherever the sun and the stars and // the // moon // are . . . but/ also // nowhere" (CP 676). I do not have space in this paper to discuss properly what Guy Rotella calls "the transcendentalist paradox of using nature as a model for getting beyond nature and its built-in limits" ("Nature, Time" 290), but perhaps a riddling conclusion will point the way.
In both visual and rhetorical modes, Cummings' nature poetry presents us
with contradictions: nature is seen as radically other, yet addressed as
a fellow being; the small and beautiful become transcendent and sublime; the
fractured syntax of culture represents the beasts of nature. Both nature and
language mean and "unmean"; nature is seen as other and yet completely transcendent,
while language must bear sublime truth and beauty and yet be split into "unmeaning"
syllables and letters:
The snow is everywhere, yet it is also here, now. Many of the words have been sliced into "unmea / ning" fragments, yet the last two mean "snow and "now" and "here's now." The snow is silent, yet voiced in the poem. In fact, it is quite similar to the "nothing that is" in the Wallace Stevens poem quoted at the beginning of this paper. Cummings was enough of modernist to avoid a too-easy use of the pathetic fallacy, but he was also enough of a Romantic to believe that nature and animals possessed a personality which he could address directly. He was enough of a painter and poet to note specific qualities and movements in animals, yet enough of a Buddhist to see that nature was both nothing (an illusion) and everything (the all of the here and now). Finally, he was enough of an ecologist (quite ahead of his time) to see the interconnectedness that should exist among all living things. [end p. 121]
bMS Am 1892.7 (218), folder 4:
the firefly has a tremendous Personality--if one steering at you zooms
up-&-over(so close you feel his greenish light)it's as if a cyclone or
a star had just missed you.
collectively,they're a barrage of distinct outgulphish cannon &
skipquicking shrapnel. . .eerily ecstatic terrors.
the hermits [thrushes] are singing in the daytime,in the sunlight;as well as at dawn and twilight. Whippoorwill belongs to their BELL kind. He's like a lashing bell;but he's a bell.
the "flightsong" of the "ovenbird" amazes me,any dusk; more,toward some midnight. How larklike this miracle is! Nightlark should be his name,if he may not be nameless. . .for namelessness equals just what means immediate this brooklike sweet Whom,just the instantaneous everyness which blossoms in this occult openingly Here
 Josephine Miles notes that among the early Imagists, Lawrence was "the major employer of the fallacy" (53). Perhaps Lawrence's urge to see the human unconscious in animal life led him to use the pathetic fallacy more often than other modernists.
 My all-too-brief account of Ruskin and the pathetic fallacy is much indebted to Jonathan Bate's excellent and more extensive consideration of the subject in chapter 3 of Romantic Ecology.
 See Molesworth 226-227 and Norman 172-173. Norman quotes Cummings: "my favorite poem is A Grave by Miss M. Moore" (173).
 For the theme of silent singing in Cummings, see my "'singing is silence': Being and Nothing in the Visual Poetry of E. E. Cummings."
 The "counter-sublime" is a term borrowed from Harold Bloom, without necessarily endorsing the Freudian drama of mastery and domination that his theories advocate. See The Anxiety of Influence (101). Joanne Feit Diehl has adapted this concept to describe Emily Dickinson's poetics. See chapter two of Diehl's Women Poets and the American Sublime.
 The phrase "Any pastoral seems to pall" can be found in Complete Prose 690. [end p. 122]
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