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ee cummings

my sweet old etcetera

More 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:

mother hoped that

i would die etcetera
bravely of course"
  • Why would his mother be wishing for such a dreadful thing to happen to her son? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the poet hastily add the words "bravely of course"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is the purpose of the "etcetera" here? (2)

[Need help?]

"my father used
to become hoarse talking about how it was
a privilege and if only he
  • The poet uses innuendo twice here, allowing the reader to finish his thought. How is the father's thought meant to be ended? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why would his father become "hoarse" talking about it? (2)

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"meanwhile my

self etcetera lay quietly
in the deep mud et


cetera, of
Your smile
eyes knees and of your Etcetera)"
  • The word "etcetera" is used no less than four times within the space of these few words. Explain each usage. (6)

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  • Explain the use of brackets in the last five lines. (4)

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"Your smile
eyes knees and of your Etcetera"
  • In the course of the entire poem, the use of the upper-case occurs only twice. Explain the purpose of this sudden reversion to the upper-case. (4)

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  • What is climax? Explain the poet's use of climax in these words. (4)

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