Critical Commentary

Degrading the Feminine: E. E. Cummings v. T. S Eliot

E. E. Cummings: 1894 - 1962

E. E. Cummings: 1894 – 1962

This essay discusses and compares the representation of femininity in a selection of poetry by E. E. Cummings [1] and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land [2]. By highlighting the degraded and misogynistic representation of the feminine in Cummings poetry I aim to show that The Waste Land unifies the gender-experience in order to represent a degraded but androgynous human condition.

I will demonstrate how the Cummings poetry I have chosen to analyse is specifically degrading to the feminine whilst maintaining an empowered masculine and this is in fact the most distinctive difference between the two. Where one degrades both genders to represent a degenerate society; the other degrades the feminine using the familiar undertones of patriarchal authority, objectifying women as commodities and using violently aggressive language in its depiction and treatment of them.

Criticism of The Waste Land has come to a general conclusion that it is (in short) ‘about a sexual failure which signifies a modern spiritual failure’ [3]. Eliot’s portrayal of the degradation of both sexes as a means of depicting the failure of human relationships, and thus, the degraded condition of Western civilization, is evident early in the poem. Although there are many characters – male and female – presented through various voices, it is also the expression of a single protagonist, ‘various facets of whose character are represented by the different men and women in the poem.’ [4] Eliot singles out Tiresias, the protagonist, as ‘the most important personage in the poem’ [5]; for it is he, who experiences, foresees and unites the entire collection of individual experiences. He/she is simultaneously the rapist and the raped; the abandoned and the abandoner; the failed and the failure; sterile and fertile; male and female. Tiresias represents this unification of the genders, Eliot again makes reference in his notes ‘… and the two sexes meet in Tiresias.’ [6] This may ultimately emphasise that the expressions of the subjective human experience shown through Tiresias are a depiction of the human condition. And although we cannot write gender out of the equation altogether in The Waste Land, this is strong evidence that the representation of the degradation of society is not necessarily gender specific.

TS Eliot: 1888 - 1965

T. S. Eliot: 1888 – 1965

Misogyny is hard to read in The Waste Land. For although there is almost certainly a degraded feminine, there is undeniably an emasculated Fisher King who dooms the land with his impotency; ‘What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish.’ [7] This seems to strongly suggest that it is the emasculation of the Fisher King that is the cause of the wasteland. Eliot mirrors this degraded masculinity in a female counterpart, one who is ‘a less often recognised archetype: the sexually violated yet sterile female’ [8], who in turn becomes a victim of these conditions. The fragile physical and mental state of these women is often exploited; they are victims of sexual aggression and assault (the typist and Philomela), as well as abandonment (Hyacinth girl, Lil, the typist, Belladonna). The difference in the masculine sexual aggression in The Waste Land and say, ‘’’kitty’’. sixteen,5’1’,white,prostitute.’ [9] is the empathy of the narrator. Although Eliot victimises the women in The Waste Land, he is also critical of their treatment. Cummings appears on one hand candid, on the other, arrogant, ‘Kitty. a whore. Sixteen’, but there is never any expression of empathy. Kitty is held away at arm’s length by the narrator, who is brazenly judgemental and never apologetic. On the other hand, the treatment of Philomela in ‘A Game of Chess’ is meet with empathy by the narrator:

The change in Philomela, by the barbarous king

So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale

Filled all the desert with the inviolable voice

And still she cried, and still the world pursues,

‘Jug Jug’ to dirty ears [10]

The narrator simultaneously victimises and sympathises with the abused feminine, whilst at the same time, being critical of the ‘barbarous king… rudely’ forcing himself into her. The ‘dirty ears’ appear to implicate society, as the silent witnesses to these crimes against her, unashamedly ignoring her cries.

In recognising the sexual failure of the Fisher King’s impotence in The Waste Land, another masculine failure becomes evident. The sexual failure of the male narrator, ‘I was neither/ Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,’ [11] in the ‘Burial of the Dead’ seems to mirror the failure of the Fisher King, and in direct opposition, the presence of the ‘hyacinth girl’, who appears sexually suggestive and available; ‘Your arms full, your hair wet’ [12], suggest an over-abundance of feminine fertility. The importance of ‘wet’ is pivotal here; the barren, dry and infertile land that will not produce vegetation embodies the ‘wasteland’ and the people in it are devoid of any spiritual meaning. The spiritual enlightenment they seek is found in the symbolic representation of water, and Foster convincingly articulates this earth-water symbolism thus, ‘earth stands for material reality, or conscious life; water for the psychological or spiritual values of the unconscious.’ [13] In the poem, the importance of water is made clear, and the lack of it is described literally, ‘Here is no water but only rock/ Rock and no water.’ [14] Taking into consideration Foster’s interpretation it would seem that the representation of femininity in this section is failed by the masculine. In so far as Eliot’s wasteland is concerned, the ‘hyacinth girl’ appears to possess the spiritual values her male counterpart lacks. Furthermore, Sicker identifies the ‘hyacinth’ as a symbol of fertility, ‘worshipped as an aphrodisiac in several primitive religious cults’ [15] which positions the ‘hyacinth girl’ as the female antithesis to the infertile Fisher King, she is neither victim nor predator, but an equal and eager participant in the act of love.

Cummings treatment of women in his poems about sex and prostitution seem to provide more convincing grounds for an accusation of misogyny. Often there is violent and aggressive language used to degrade and objectify women. In ‘the dirty colours of her kiss’ [16] Cummings portrays a sexual encounter with a prostitute who ‘riveted a weeping skyscraper/ in me’, but the use of ‘bite’, ‘tore’ and ‘slits’ seem to imply a forceful masculine sexual desire. The woman is further victimised by the allusions to illness, weakness and disgust, ‘she got up/ with a gashing yellow yawn’ and although she can ‘Boost my huge passion like a business’, once this is over she appears disgusting to, and degraded by, the male speaker; and just like the sexual failures in The Waste Land, the narrator and the prostitute remain ‘sterile’.

Similarly, ‘in making Marjorie god hurried’ [17] Cummings mirrors the vulnerable and degraded image of femininity, and here the narrator goes further in his degradation of her as he assumes a tone of mocking, almost as if he is laughing at her, ‘amusing big vital vicious/ vegetable of her mouth’. The use of ‘quarried’ and ‘quartzlike’ make her appear lifeless, a sculpture made of some specifically invaluable rock mineral by the hand of ‘god’ or in this case, the ruthless narrator. Marjorie’s vulnerability is seen in her ‘unsuspicious legs’ and ‘lean…’, she appears out of control of the situation, and she certainly is – the speaker takes away her power when he associates her with ‘vegetable’, ‘tiny sunset of vermouth’ and ‘quarried’ until she does not even appear human. ‘Marjorie’ is not depicted as a ‘whole’, instead she is objectified and we see her only through the narrator. Furthermore, the importance of her ‘obsolete gaze’ seems to place her ‘out of date’ or over-used, highlighting her position in the masculine world of this male speaker as a commodity.

In ‘A Game of Chess’ the speaker depicts a vain and rich woman, identified by the use of the personal pronoun in ‘The Chair she sat in’ [18]. She appears desperate, neurotic and degraded, pleading with her lover, ‘Stay with me. Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.’ In accordance with Madame Sosostris, and Sicker. [19] it would appear that this is ‘Belladonna, The Lady of the Rocks/ The lady of situations’. [20] Her name is fitting; it translates simultaneously as ‘beautiful woman’ in Italian as well as being the name of a poisonous flower. [21] The Belladonna is also a poison, used as a cosmetic to dilate women’s pupils in order to make them appear more seductive. [22] The Belladonna in a ‘Game of Chess’ is seen amidst a mass of ‘glitter… jewels’, ‘satin cases’, ‘vials of ivory and coloured glasses’, ‘strange synthetic perfumes’, and this suggests the artificiality and superficiality of modern sexual experience. Sitting amidst her cosmetics she is presented as an accomplice in the sterile conditions of the wasteland, despite also appearing a victim of it. The associations between cosmetics and femininity are obvious here and the importance of these cosmetics in the elaborate description, which carefully avoids picturing the woman herself. Her femininity exists in all her material beauty products and decorations and this is femininity defined not by being and feeling feminine, but by ornamentation, once again pointing to the artificiality of the whole experience.

Cummings Illustration

E E Cummings Illustration

Ultimately, the hyacinth girl remains the most important figure of fertility in The Waste Land, appearing as a direct antithesis to the infertile and impotent masculine figures in the poem. This dichotomy is pivotal to the representations of gender; she is not only opposite to the Fisher King through her sex, but also through her fertility. Furthermore, the complex sexual politics in the selection of Cummings poetry can be seen brazenly in ‘she being Brand’ where women are viewed directly as commodities, and thus, the rightful property of men. There are also many violently aggressive undertones in Cummings poetry that seems to imply a more negative representation of femininity, as well as the emotional impact of the lack of empathy in the speaker’s voice. However, it is imperative to mention that this essay does not intend to suggest that Cummings wrote misogynistic poetry and Eliot did not, as there are more than enough convincing academic arguments that range in opinion. In fact, even in the poetry that I have chosen there can be distinct similarities in the treatment of women by both poets.

Further Resources

You can read Eliot’s The Waste Land here:

The Cummings poems I have discussed can also be read here; ‘she being Brand’ –

‘the dirty colours of her kiss’ –

Unfortunately I cannot find a link that I can add here for the poems ‘In making Marjorie god hurried’ and ‘Kitty. sixteen,5’1′,white,prostitute’, but they are easy enough to find online!

[1] Richard Kennedy, Selected Poems E E Cummings (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1994)

[2] Thomas S. Eliot, The Waste Land and other poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1999)

[3] Philip Sticker, ‘The Belladonna: Eliot’s Female Archetype in The Waste Land’, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 30, No. 4, p. 420

[4] Genevieve Foster, ‘The Archetypal Imagery of T. S. Eliot’, Modern Language Association, Vol. 60, No. 2, p. 569

[5] Eliot, op. cit., p. 42

[6] Eliot, op. cit., p. 42

[7] Eliot, op. cit., p. 23

[8] Sicker, op. cit., p. 420

[9] Kennedy, op. cit., p. 91

[10] Eliot, op. cit., p. 26

[11] ibid., p. 24

[12] ibid., p. 24

[13] Foster, op. cit., p. 570

[14] Eliot, op. cit., p. 23

[15] Sicker, op. cit., p. 422

[16] Kennedy, op. cit., p. 93

[17] ibid., p. 94

[18] Eliot, op. cit., p. 26

[19] Sicker, op. cit., p. 424

[20] Eliot, op. cit., p. 24

[21] Sicker, op. cit., p. 424

[22] ibid., p. 424

Further Resources:

Cyrena Pondrom, ‘T. S Eliot: The Performativity of Gender in The Waste Land’, Modernism/ Modernity, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 425 – 441.

Karen Alkalay-Gut, ‘Sex and the Single Engine: E. E. Cummings’, Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 20, No. 2, pp. 254 – 258


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