“Buffalo Bill’s” by e. e. cummings is a poem that at first seems to be an elegy for a man of mythic proportions.As the poem progresses it is evident that a tonal shift occurs and cummings’ writing becomes disparaging, degrading and sarcastic. The subject of this poem is not a portrait of Buffalo Bill despite what the poem’s title suggests. The apostrophe “s” in the first line is evidence of the poet’s intent.”Buffalo Bill’s” by e.e. cummings is poem about something deeper. It is not a tribute to Buffalo Bill.
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To begin to understand this poem, it is important for the reader to know some facts about both Cody and Cummings. William Cody (aka Buffalo Bill Cody) got his name after he slaughtered 4,280 buffalo to feed laborers of the Kansas Pacific Railways. He was employed as a buffalo hunter by the railway in 1867.One year later, Cody was appointed chief scout and guide for the U.S. Army’s 5th cavalry against the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. He was elected as a State Legislator of Nebraska in 1872 but resigned after one year to become a stage performer in Chicago under the advisement of a well known writer. When the Sioux war broke out in 1876, Cody gave up his stage show and rejoined the 5th cavalry where he fought in the Battle of Indian Creek. During this battle, he engaged in a hand-to-hand conflict with Chief Yellow Hand of the Cheyenne tribe and killed him. It was at the end of the Sioux war that Buffalo Bill Cody returned to his life as a performer and organized a stage exhibition called “Wild West”. The show emphasized the glorious and adventurous “imagery” of frontier life.(1)
Louis Warren extensively researched William Cody and wrote a book titled Buffalo Bill’s America in 2005. One critic claimed that it is “one of the most well written and exhaustively researched, the weightiest and surely the most ambitious books published about Cody and his times”. (DC- (2) Historians have found it difficult to separate fact from fabrication in regards to Buffalo Bill Cody, especially at the end of the old showman’s life. Warren successfully detangles the two and separates biographical truth from fiction. In his book, Warren writes: “The seam between truth and fiction, fake exploits and real deeds, was so artfully sewn as to be all but invisible.” (DC-(2) It is apparent to readers that Warren’s main objective was to try to explain why these lies were told rather than trying to expose them. He discovered that at age 23, Cody began collaborating with writer Ned Buntline. It was in 1869 that Buntline, an Easterner, recognized that “there was big money to be made if the real Cody could be turned into the mythical embodiment of the West”. (2) His experience as a courier, teamster, horse thief, Civil War soldier, gold seeker, buffalo hunter/meat supplier and Indian fighter gave enough credibility to “authenticate” the lies. Cody invented his Wild West shows and took it on the road in 1883. (2) The combination of these shows and the mythical stories of western life elevated Buffalo Bill Cody to legendary status.
Edward Estlin Cummings wrote over 2,900 poems, two autobiographical novels, four plays and several essays during his fifty eight years of writing.(3) Most people recognize his poems for their unconventional spacing of words on a page, his use of capital letters and his signature in lower case, without periods. Many publishers perpetuated the use of his signature in lower case despite his disapproval. Cummings’ himself used both versions of his name (capitalized and lowercase) throughout his career. It is thought he used the lower case version of his name and did not capitalize “i” when he wanted to convey humility. Cummings’ poem “Buffalo Bill’s” is an example of this.
Born on October 14, 1894, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, ee cummings was called Estlin by his family. His parents were “very artsy and modern” often encouraging Estlin to use his creativity to its fullest during his childhood. He attended Harvard University and graduated with honors in 1915 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Classical Studies. Cummings was awarded his Master’s degree in 1916.(3) After graduation; he volunteered for the ambulance service in France during World War I. Five weeks after reporting for duty, he was falsely accused of espionage for expressing anti-war views. Cummings was sent to a military detention camp for over three months. His experiences as a prisoner were purported as the basis of his poetry during that time. In December of 1917, he was released from the internment camp at the persistence and protest of his father. Cummings was drafted into the United States Army in July of 1918. After the war, he alternated between living in France and the United States. His first book of poetry, Tulips & Chimneys was published in 1923. George McMichael said it best when he wrote about Cummings poetic style: “Beneath the surface of trickery and apparent formlessness, his poetry is curiously conventional. He was a love poet in the romantic tradition; he celebrated families, parents, children, fun, and the old-fashioned virtues. He admired youth, spring, and all things natural. He hated automatic patriotism and intellectualism, the rationality that, he believed, stifles man’s ability to feel deeply. He fiercely condemned the inhumanity of science and technology. He found modern conveniences contemptible.” (DC-(4) This admiration for youth, and all things natural was the major catalyst behind Cummings writing “Buffalo Bill’s”. He hated hero worship as a result.
“Buffalo Bill’s” was first published in The Dial in 1920, three years after the death of Buffalo Bill Cody. (DC-(5) In the first line of the poem, “Buffalo Bill’s defunct”, the poet uses an apostrophe “s” as a contraction. This is an informal, almost child-like way of saying “Buffalo Bill is…. defunct”. The word defunct, which is often used to refer to a business entity that has ceased operation, alludes to William Cody’s showmanship of “making” himself a legend ceasing after his death. One would expect cummings to substitute the word “dead” instead of “defunct” if he wanted the reader to believe that the poem served as an elegy or tribute to the man. The next four lines of the poem ascribes to a child hero worship and admiration of Buffalo Bill. The lines “who used to ride a watersmooth-silver stallion and break onetwothreefourfive pigeons just like that” refers to Cody’s talents of riding his horse while shooting clay pigeons with perfect skill. Cummings conveys an image of Cody from the eyes of a young boy who is impressed with the cowboy’s speed and inherent skill. There is something “innocent” about the words “watersmooth-silver stallion” and “just like that”. It conjures up an image of a cowboy who is highly esteemed by men, perhaps even envied; an image any hero worshiping boy would try to emulate. This line is then followed by “Jesus…he was a handsome man”, which further elevates Cody in the physical sense. There is the common notion that attractiveness correlates with success. Show business often plays into this premise and actors that are attractive are casted as intrinsically good people, while ugly people are type cast as inherently bad. By prefacing the sentence with Jesus’ name, it conveys a level of handsomeness not commonly seen in this world. The last three lines of the poem is rhetorical question. In the phrase: “and what i want to know is how do you like your blue-eyed boy Mister Death”, the tone shifts to one that is sarcastic and disparaging. It seems to the reader that ee cummings has come to the realization that William Cody was a poseur, a fake. It is conveyed first when the speaker of the poem uses the word defunct. The tone shifts again at the end of the poem as if to say: “See…even poseurs die and are judged…what do you think of that?” There is a sense that cummings has evolved or has become enlightened. He is no longer an awestruck boy but an “I-know-better-than that” man.
It is reasonable to conclude that Buffalo Bill is disliked by e e cummings. His distain is not necessarily directed at the man, but rather the imagery and the idea of following of false heroes. At the end of the poem, cummings’ sarcastic tone suggests bitterness. It is as if cummings is blaming Cody for disappointing him, which is understandable since most children or young adults are disheartened when they discover that their chosen heroes turn out to be mere mortals. Cumming expresses humility by referring to himself in the lowercase “i” and his lowercase signature, yet he shows respect to Jesus and Mister Death by capitalizing these. He does this so he is not perceived as elevating himself by degrading Cody. The apostrophe “s” is the key to the analysis of this poem. In the end, e e cummings’ tone suggests that the poem is about expressing your true self. This poem is not a glorified tribute to Buffalo Bill Cody.
(2) “Showman of the Wild Frontier” Geoffrey C. Ward. The New York Times Book Review. (Dec. 11, 2005):Book Review Desk: p26(L). From Literature Resource Center.
(3) E.E. Cummings Known as Cummings, Edward Estlin; Cummings, E.E. American Poet (1894-1962) LitFinder Contemporary Collection. Detroit: Gale, 2007.
(4) McMichael, George, ed. Anthology of American Literature, 4th ed. Vol. 2. New York: MacMillan, 1985. (pages 1201-1202)
(5) “Cummings’ “Buffalo Bill’s”” by Thomas Dilworth. The Explicator. 53.3 (Spring 1995): p175. From Literature Resource Center.
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