What does E.E. Cummings suggest about love in his poems ‘since feeling is first’, ‘may my heart always be open to little’ and ‘You are tired’?

Cummings explores the relationship between love, wisdom and age in his poems since feeling is first, may my heart always be open to little and You are tired. While since feeling… clearly focusses on the relationship between love and knowledge, suggesting that love is ruined when people focus on irrelevant things other than love, may my heart… adds an extra dimension to this. Not only does Cummings criticise the effect of knowledge on love, but also presents the idea that it is in fact desirable to reject knowledge purely for love – with readers left questioning the extent to which they agree with this. However, Cummings’ poem You are tired offers a more matured narration, proving that love is able to withstand knowledge and age. Therefore, while Cummings questions the relationship between love and knowledge, he also presents love as a strong enough force to overcome any obstacles.

In his poem since feeling is first, Cummings presents the idea that the beauty of love is ruined by human obsessions with petty details. By declaring that ‘since feeling is first’ in the first line, Cummings establishes that ‘feeling’ is the most important thing in love, unlike the ‘syntax’ that people focus on. ‘Syntax’ is thereby symbolic for human obsession with minute details, which the speaker presents as ruining love. Certainly, his descriptions of ‘syntax’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘paragraphs’ appear dull compared to the natural imagery of ‘Spring’ and ‘flowers.  The first stanza is certainly ironic and thereby emphasises his point: rather than readers focussing on the ‘feeling’ of the poem, they are left feeling jarred by the incorrect phrasing of ‘since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you’. Readers are thus left focussing on the ‘syntax’ of the poem rather than appreciating to its true beauty. Moreover, Cummings presents our obsession with fine details as corrupting love – as long as we pay attention to this ‘syntax’ you will never be able to ‘wholly kiss’ (with ‘kiss’ symbolising love). Perhaps Cummings is criticising human desire to dissect things to their core: the traditional symbols of love like ‘flowers’ are no longer flowers, but are ovules, stems, pollen and petals – in dissecting these images to their very basics (dissecting their ‘syntax’) they no longer appear romantic. However, Cummings rejects these technicalities, instead focusing on the beauty of his love. The verb ‘flutter’ in describing his lover blinking carries natural connotations, with this natural imagery highlighting how love is natural and, ultimately, beautiful – it is something to admire rather than to study. Indeed, his description that ‘my blood approves’ holds sexual undertones, further emphasising how the speaker is living in the moment with his love. Notably, Cummings uses enjambment and the stanza structure of the poem to highlight his key messages: in placing ‘wholly to be a fool / while Spring is in the world’ in its own stanza, Cummings clearly emphasises how he rejects the idea that love should be anything more than a ‘feeling’. The penultimate line of ‘for life’s not a paragraph’ highlights how a poem is a mere snapshot of life; life is not meant to be wasted in ‘wisdom’ and ‘paragraphs’ but to be enjoyed in ‘Spring’ – to be lived. This perhaps carries greater meaning to readers of the modern day, with the increase in work load and rise of social media making it harder to escape inundation of emails and beyond. Cummings is therefore encouraging his readers to enjoy their love while it lasts as, as his last line reminds us, ‘death’ will soon come to end all love. The lack of full stops throughout the poem again stresses how Cummings is rejecting ‘syntax’: he is refusing to conform to convention, expressing the idea that nothing should nor can get in the way of love.

Cummings continues to explore the ideas he expresses in since feeling is first in his poem may my heart always be open to little, arguing that love is more valuable than knowledge. The speaker expresses a fear of growing ‘old’, associating it with a loss of romance. The speaker wants to remain forever young and ‘thirsty’ for love, however, Cummings repetition throughout the poem of the unconditional tense of ‘may’ shows that while he can wish to always remain open to love, he cannot guarantee this. This certainly creates a somewhat foreboding tone as Cummings creates an indivertible sense of fate and old age, to which even love cannot escape. ‘Know[ledge]’ and growing ‘old’ are therefore seen as corruptive to love: the wiser one becomes, the less mystical the world appears. Moreover, Cummings uses the natural imagery of ‘the little birds’ to represent the fine details of life that are often overlooked. While this may appear contradictory to since feeling… in fact compliments it. Cummings informs readers to appreciate the natural beauty of the world (and love), rather than focussing on ‘wisdom’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘syntax’. The line ‘whatever they sing is better than to know’ further expresses the same ideals as in since feeling…, with both poems highlighting how our animalistic nature of falling in love is more important than knowledge. The lack of punctuation throughout serves to emphasise this message, rather than readers being distracted by ‘syntax’. The speaker fears old age and knowledge to the extent that love and knowledge appear as two opposing ideas: beauty cannot be truly appreciated if it is complicated with facts. Cummings’ list that he wishes to stroll about ‘hungry and fearless and thirsty and supple’ highlights how he is eager to learn about love, with the ‘he’ referenced not only describing the speaker but also representing youth, with ‘fearless’ creating a sense of youthful naivety. However, it appears as a welcomed naivety: the speaker (and the youth) are willing to get hurt in order to experience love. To ‘be wrong’ is seen as a positive experience, as Cumming subtly reminds readers that the experience of falling in love is better than to only remember it (‘to know’). Cummings final declaration of ‘and may myself do nothing usefully / and love yourself so more than truly’ again expresses a bold naivety that even begins to seem unhealthy – readers are left questioning the extent to which we should go for love and commit to it at such a young age. While readers are left questioning how far we should allow ourselves to be influenced by love, Cummings declares this to be irrelevant: love is worth getting hurt for. The lack of punctuation throughout the poem also highlights how love is ongoing; since it is natural (like ‘little birds’) it has no beginning or end, while this lack of punctuation also making the poem appear bold and statement like. The speaker has decided to commit himself to a life of love, something which Cummings suggests is a natural and simple choice making readers question what is truly important in their lives, something he also expresses in since feeling is first.

However, Cumming’s creates a much more mature reflection of love in You are tired, making the idea that love is ruined with age from may my heart always be open to the little appear naïve. Cummings initial metaphor of ‘the always puzzle of living and doing’ could be interpreted as meaning that either life without love is literally ‘tiring’, or that modern life is over complicated with work and trivial matters, meaning that we forget about the true meaning of life – love. Indeed, the fact that Cummings establishes that both the speaker and the addressee of the poem are ‘tired’ within the first stanza instantly creates a contrasting tone to the youthful energy of the previous poems, suggesting a much older narration and mature reflection of love. The constant use of punctuation at the end of each line helps to replicate this ‘tired’ tone, slowing the pace of the poem. Cummings parenthesis of ‘(I think)’ also creates a tentative tone, despite his declarative sentence of ‘you are tired’ (a bold assumption). This use of punctuation therefore creates the sense that the poem is a prepared speech to his lover, with the speaker having planned his speech even down to the last punctuation mark. Certainly, the monosyllabic ‘and so am I’ creates a dramatic juxtaposition with the tentative ‘I think’, with this change in tone appearing striking. Cummings use of the imperative verb ‘come’, rather than appearing demanding, makes the speaker appear besotted and desperate to win his lover’s affection. Cummings’ description that his lover ‘broke the toys you were fondest of’ is metaphorical of her previous, failed relationships. Indeed, Cummings’ lexical field of childish imagery created through the use of ‘puzzle’ and ‘toys’ highlights how her love (up until this point) has been in its infancy. This casts a sense of naivety over may my heart…, as the fact both the speaker and the addressee of the poem are ‘tired’ of failed relationships highlights the negative impact love can have – undermining the speaker’s youthful declaration of ‘may I be wrong’ in may my heart…, which almost idolises heartbreak. The final two stanzas of the poem, however, offer a sense of optimism, contrasting with the beginning of the poem (with the pivotal connective ‘but’ symbolising this change in tone). Rather than focusing on past failures, Cummings’ change from past tense to future highlights how he wishes us to look to future love rather than dwell on failed romance. The speaker is deliriously romantic and feels hopeless within his love, with ‘I come with a dream in my eyes tonight, / and knock with a rose at the hopeless gate of your heart’ being metaphorical and full of touching imagery, Cummings’ description that he only comes with a single ‘rose’ appears almost of an understatement compared to the extent of his love. Indeed, unlike the romances expressed in since feeling…  and may my heart… appear lustful (‘kisses are a better fate / than wisdom’) (‘may myself do nothing usefully / and love yourself so more than truly’), the love Cummings expresses here appears practical and a natural conclusion for the pair. The speaker’s assertion that he will show his lover ‘the perfect places of Sleep’ clearly combats her ‘tired[ness]’ and appears caring for her greater wellbeing. Therefore, despite Cummings’ previous suggests that romance is killed with age, he clearly challenges this in You are tired. While the love presented here is more practical and nostalgic than in since feeling… and may my heart…, this matured view of love is nevertheless any less valid. Love is therefore strong enough to overcome the obstacles of heartache, proving the power and the purity of love.

Ultimately, it is clear that the perceptions presented by speakers in both since feeling… and may my heart… have been effected by their youth and love. Cummings’ voice appears naïve and overcome by love throughout these poems, which explains the hyperbolic way in which he rejects all things other than love. While the narrator in You are tired also appears bestowed (‘I’ll blow you that wonderful bubble, the moon’) it is only after admitting the ‘tiring’ effects that love and heartbreak can have. Cummings therefore acknowledges that they are faults in love (something that he rejects in since feeling… but most notably in may my heart… in which heartbreak is seen as desirable as it is still a sign of love) but perhaps this is what makes the makes of You are tired so poignant: despite love having such damming effects, Cummings still presents it as being desirable. Cummings therefore suggests that the only way to cure any ill effects of love is through love itself, something that is moving yet beautiful.

Words by Juliette Rowsell


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