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ee cummings

my sweet old etcetera

Some challenging questions!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 3 March 2014
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The poet's persona lies in a trench in northern France during the Great War, contemplating what his family is thinking and doing. They are mostly involved either in making oddments of clothing for him and the other soldiers, thinking about his gallantry or considering questions about the war itself. He, in the meantime, is thinking about sex.


ee cummings -- his real name was Edward Estlin -- was born in Massachusetts in 1894. His father was a professor of Sociology and Political Science at Harvard University but who later became a Unitarian minister.

Cummings was himself a Harvard graduate, obtaining a Masters degree in English and Classical Studies in 1916. His intelligence and novel way of thinking, however, caused him to be ostracised and so he found solace in his poetry.

Although he is known for his flamboyant style of writing, he also published a couple of novels and four plays -- and was an artist who excelled in both drawing and painting.

Cummings' way of thinking was often transcendental, i.e. he believed it possible to reach an ideal spiritual state by use of intuition rather than through established religious beliefs. Indeed, he reveals this concept in "i thank You God for most this amazing".

His poetry was shaped by romantic tradition -- for example, he wrote many sonnets -- but he is best known for his idiosyncratic style in which he used little punctuation, often wrote in the lowercase and jumbled up the order of words.

It has been said that his poetry often makes little sense until it is read aloud. On the other hand, several of his poems reveal his artistic flair in that they are pictures painted in words, e.g. "r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r".

He was also known for his satire when addressing social issues, but he had a strong bias towards the exuberance of love, sex and spiritual rebirth.

Cummings died of a stroke on September 3, 1962. He was 68 years of age. He had won many awards for his work.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

The "sweet old etcetera aunt lucy" knows the causes of "the recent war".
  • What war is being referred to? How do you know? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Comment on the poet's sarcasm in the words "could and what is more did tell you just what everybody was fighting for". (4)

[Need help?]

  • Is there any hint of sarcasm when the poem addresses his aunt as "my sweet old etcetera aunt lucy"? (4)

[Need help?]

"my sister

isabel created hundreds
hundreds)of socks not to
mention shirts fleaproof earwarmers

etcetera wristers etcetera"
  • Why would his sister be creating all of these articles of clothing? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why would the earwarmers need to be fleaproof? Is there any irony here? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the poet use "etcetera" twice in such rapid succession when speaking of what isabel was creating? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What is the purpose of the brackets in "hundreds (and hundreds)of socks"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • If you were reading this poem out loud -- which is what you should be doing -- how would you read the words in brackets? (2)

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