15 July 2009

E. E. Cummings

We know that E. E. Cummings grew up studying Latin and Greek (all the way to a graduate degree from Harvard). We know that he used Latin for the title of his longest poem ("Puella Mea"), a poem that we could consider juvenile because of its parodies, but it is, after all, by Cummings, whose juvenilia is a lesser poet's mature work. Have we investigated how his poetry in English is informed by Latin?

Here are two lines from "Puella Mea":

If she a little turn her head
I know that I am wholly dead:

Does the structure strike you as Latin? Unlike English, Latin syntax depends on the words themselves and not the arrangement of words. Hence "she a little."

How about these lines from a "mature" work?

she being Brand

-new;and you
know consequently a
little stiff i was
careful of her

The absolute ablative ("she being Brand / -new") is clearly derived from Latin and not quite "standard" English (even allowing for the fact that English in general is derived from Latin).

Multilingual literary criticism can open up new avenues of understanding even in the case of clearly monolingual poetry.

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