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Two men And A Man, None Of Whom You Want To Be

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 23, 2009

E. E. Cummings (he never changed it to e e cummings) once wrote a set of three poems called the ‘chanson innocentes'(songs of innocence), the first of which – ‘in Just-‘ – we did for English class in college. We had to write an essay on it of one and a half pages for our mid-semester exam. After getting the paper back, I decided to post it here. This is a largely unedited version(I corrected spelling and grammatical errors).

E. E. Cummings’ first ‘chanson innocente’, for me, is a poem about growing up. It describes the bliss of childhood, comparing it to spring, and the call of a balloonman (or two balloonmen and one balloonMan) which the blissful children heed. The interpretation of the poem lies largely in how one sees him (or them).

The poem starts with a reference or a call to spring. The line is ‘in Just-/spring’ which can be read in one of three ways: ‘during the just (as in fair) spring’; a call to injust (as in unfair) spring; and ‘during just (as in only) spring’. This three way reading is essential to the meaning of the poem, as he seems to compare spring to childhood – for example in the lines

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s

where ‘it’s spring’ is like another game they play. This same thing can be seen in the similar lines involving ‘bettyandisabel’.

It is also worth noting that in both sets of lines, they leave their games because of the distant, softly beautiful call of balloonman/balloonMan, suggesting that he is calling them away from spring or childhood. In addition, the girls follow the call of a balloonMan rather than a balloonman, suggesting that the gender, and generally manliness, of the balloonMan is important in that case, as adolescent girls feel particularly attracted towards older men.

Coming back to the three readings of the beginning, it is now easy to see what they may mean. Spring is fair as all children grow up, unfair as all children grow up and just spring as children always grow up. The second meaning is particularly important as it implies growing up is bad.

To explain this we go back to the descriptions of the balloonman/balloonmen. The first one is “little/lame”; he is calling no children, so he is unimportant, little and lame. The second one who’s calling the boys is “queer/old” as boys grow up wanting to be like older boys or men, who are different from them. The third one is ‘goat-footed’, possibly because goats have really insensitive feet and older boys/men rarely know their influence on adolescent girls.

This makes perfect sense if you think of them as three different people. In fact, it still makes perfect sense if they are three aspects of the same one. This latter view, however, shows a greater depth: that the call may be that of the Greek God of nature and wilderness Pan, who has the legs of a goat and the torso of a human. He is the symbol of both pristine nature and decadence in general: his is the call of both nature and decadence.

This would imply that Cummings sees adulthood as both natural and decadent. This is why spring is unfair in its fairness of all-round ephemerality.

I think the poem is really effective in its communication for three reasons: the alliteration, throughout, of ‘l’ that makes up both ‘playful’ and ‘evil’; the word ‘spring’ always on its own, showing how isolated a state it is; and the breakage of lines in the end , which acts like something asking one to stop, slow down, not grow up – or finish the poem – so fast.

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