The Cambridge Ladies Who Live in Furnished Souls Analysis

This article is an analysis of The Cambridge Ladies Who Live in Furnished Souls by E. E. Cummings.

Here's a poem that is pretty typical of E. E. Cummings. Both in style and subject matter. Let's read it and see what we can make of it.

The Cambridge Ladies Who Live in Furnished Souls Poem:

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls 
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds 
(also, with the church's protestant blessings 
daughters,unscented shapeless spirited) 
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead, 
are invariably interested in so many things— 
at the present writing one still finds 
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles? 
perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy 
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D 
.... the Cambridge ladies do not care, above 
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of 
sky lavender and cornerless, the 
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy 

So stylistically we can immediately see that this is not conventional. The grammar is unusual there's only one period in the whole poem and it comes in an unusual place.

The capitalization is odd sometimes it occurs where we don't expect it and other times we might expect a capital but it's not there. And then, of course, the word order is unusual forcing us at times to slow down go back and reread. By the way, did you notice that this is a sonnet?

It's extremely unconventional. But the first eight lines do sort of comprise an octet. Although the word perhaps spills over into line nine. And the last six lines sort of make up a sestet. Although those lines aren't exactly a response to the first eight in the way we normally think of a sestet.

My point is that even though Cummings often was seen to be a very untraditional poet. Usually, at some level, he makes some use of traditional techniques.

Well having said all of that let's look at the details. First EE Cummings grew up in Cambridge Massachusetts. It's a university town most notably it is the location of Harvard University. it's an old town steeped in the convention.

We know that Cummings was committed to moving beyond the conventions of thought and behavior. Now people often associate universities with free thinking but the social life around universities.

Especially old institutions like Harvard are often pretty traditional and formal and that's what Cummings is addressing in this poem.
The Cambridge ladies live in furnished Souls 
That's an interesting phrase. Think of a furnished apartment when you move in everything is already there. It contains furniture that is of an appropriate style placed in an appropriate location.

The decor is re-established. Somebody else has determined what it will be. Well, a furnished soul in which is a soul in which the ideas and feelings are inherited from others from the community. There's no originality or free-thinking involved. So they live in furnished Souls and that makes them unbeautiful. A typical Cummings like word and they have comfortable minds.

Think about the phrase comfort zone a comfortable mind in this context is a mind that never gets out of its comfort zone that thinks conventional thoughts all the time and never stretches out.

Now we have an interesting parenthesis.
"Also with the church's Protestant blessings daughter's unscented shapeless spirited". 
These Cambridge ladies have daughters. They've been christened by the church I guess and these daughters are as bland as the mothers.

Note the three words used to describe the daughters Unscented Shapeless Spirited.

The last one doesn't seem to fit but that's how cummings typically works. We think of spirited as being feisty and independent. But think about unscented and shapeless as being adverbs describing spirited.

what kind of spirits do these daughters have? Unscented and Shapeless ones. In other words, the daughters have bland spirits also.

Remember cummings wants to pull us out of our conventional perceptions thus he tries to use language in new ways.
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead,
It's interesting that Christ is associated with Longfellow who was a very popular poet in the early in the mid-nineteenth century but whose style went thoroughly out of fashion. But the time Cummings came along Longfellow was considered very old-fashioned and poetically irrelevant. Because Cummings links him with Christ the suggestion is that Christ is also irrelevant. But that's what the Cambridge ladies hang on to their relevant ways of thinking.

They're invariably interested in so many things. So what are these Cambridge ladies interested in. at the present writing one still finds delighted fingers knitting for thee is it pols perhaps.

The fingers are delighted because the ladies think they're doing a lot of good. They are knitting sweaters or socks for unfortunate people a long way away. Mainly they aren't even sure who they're knitting for perhaps the poles.

I don't mean to be political here but we Americans can be prone to that. We sometimes do things for others to make our consciences feel good without giving a lot of thought to whether we're actually doing any good or not.

We want to assuage our consciences without inconveniencing ourselves. I once knew a woman who ran a soup kitchen in Erie. She said her most difficult days were Thanksgiving and Christmas because so many comfortable middle-class people wanted to volunteer for an hour to serve meals to the homeless that they couldn't accommodate them all. But all the other days of the year they were struggling to get enough help. That's the idea that Cummings is getting at here. So as they're knitting what else interests them.
While permanent faces coyly bandy scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
The Cambridge ladies are interested in the latest gossip which professor is seeing which lady in the community.

The word coyly means sort of modestly at least on the surface. The word bandy literally means to toss back and forth. So these ladies toss back and forth gossipy tidbits about their neighbors. As we can see they are mostly characterized by small-mindedness.

So we know what they care about what don't they care about.
the Cambridge ladies do not care, above 
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of 
sky lavender and cornerless, the 
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy
 
Well now, this is Cummings so we don't want to get too literal about this. We have to stretch our mine's a little and sink metaphorically. If the whole sky shook if the order of the universe was turned upside down.

the-cambridge-ladies-who-live-in-furnished-souls


These Cambridge ladies wouldn't be interested. They're too focused on little insignificant things.

This poem, by the way, was written in the early twenties. Shortly after Cummings returned from Europe and imprisonment in the first world war. In his mind, the order of the universe had indeed been turned upside down and the quiet traditions that went on uninterrupted in Cambridge social life distressed him.

This is a poem about small-mindedness. The Cambridge ladies represent small-mindedness and to a degree, they represent how Cummings feels about middle-class American culture. 
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