Several critics comment that cummings’s writings are transcendental in their overarching themes of individuality and spirituality (the very touchstones of transcendental thought). Certainly, ‘‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’’ is no exception. The poem’s themes of the passing of time and of mortality mirror the transcendentalist ethos of spirituality. Its focus on the individual (whose significance is as lost to society as it is to death) represents the transcendental disgust for conformist society. Furthermore, the exalted love between Noone and Anyone also reinforces a transcendental philosophy. Love, like the seasons, is a driving force in the poem. Anyone and Noone love each other as they age. Their love is set apart from the ordinary marriages of the other townspeople, who marry as mundanely as they live. Certainly, the love between Anyone and Noone becomes the means through which they are further distinguished as individuals.
Noone laughs when Anyone is happy and she cries when he is sad. Their love is so magical it can only be seen by children (who lose their individuality as they become entrenched in, and consumed by, society). Later, Noone and Anyone are hastily buried beside each other, and life simply goes on as it always has. Noone and Anyone did not matter to society when they were alive, and they do not matter when they are dead. Yet their love both does and does not matter in the face of death. For instance, while it does not matter to the townspeople, as the bodies of Noone and Anyone become one with the soil their spirits live on in their love, a phenomenon that is indicated by line 32. Yet even when they are alive, the exalted love between Anyone and Noone is almost entirely spiritual. The one physical embodiment of the romance between them is the kiss that Noone bestows on Anyone’s face after he has died.
This almost complete absence of physical love should be seen in the context of cummings’s development as a poet. Rushworth M. Kidder, writing in E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry, comments on Cummings’s earlier love poems, which are far more erotic than ‘‘anyone lived in a pretty how town.’’ Kidder makes the following observation about cummings’s erotic poems:
“In an odd and inverted way, these poems are pleas for purity and balance, stifled cries for a higher vision of human love coming out of a wilderness of sensual indulgence. . . . These assertions that flesh is at worst gross and at best slightly unsatisfactory prepare the way of his later metaphysic: to show the repulsiveness of carnality is to prove the need for its opposite.”
In other words, the presentation of baser physicality underscores the presence of spiritual love in the form of its absence. As cummings matured as an artist, this spirituality became ever more present.
The transcendental undertones of the exalted love between Anyone and Noone are further explained by Brian Docherty in American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. Docherty states that ‘‘cummings’s love for the natural world and those free individuals who are able to love and be loved, makes him a true heir of [Ralph Waldo] Emerson.’’ Clearly, this statement can be applied to Anyone and Noone, the only named characters in the poem who are undeniably ‘‘free individuals . . . able to love and be loved.’’ (Notably, Docherty adds that cummings ‘‘represents the end of the New England Transcendentalist tradition.’’) Kidder goes a step further, positing that the bulk of cummings’s work is about love. ‘‘If Cummings has one subject, that is it.’’ Tracing the evolution of cummings’s poetry from an initial exploration of erotic love followed by ‘‘a sometimes amorphous phenomenon seasoned by a not entirely unselfish lust,’’ Kidder states that in his later work, love ‘‘has come to be a purified and radiant idea, unentangled with flesh and worlds, the agent of the highest transcendence.’’ Kidder concludes that this ‘‘is not far, as poem after poem has hinted, from the Christian conception of love as God.’’
Love, however, is not the only transcendental motif in ‘‘anyone lived in a pretty how town.’’ Nature, which also features in most transcendental themes, is represented in the seasons, the snow, the rain, and the moon (which are repeated throughout the poem in varying order to represent time as it passes). An integral part of transcendentalist thought, nature is believed to be the proof of God’s existence. Yet although the poem is less concerned with God’s existence than with Anyone’s existence, nature is still the driving force of the town and its people; they live, love, and die amidst the passing seasons and the ringing of church bells. If nature is evidence of God, and if the natural phenomena of seasons, celestial bodies, and precipitation are used to communicate the passage of time and ultimately of mortality, one could then conclude that mortality also serves as proof of God’s existence. Certainly, the conception of mortality as a dream-filled sleep (a nod toward an afterlife of some sort) gives this idea some validity. This argument is also bolstered by Kidder, who writes that cummings’s work gives credence ‘‘to intuition, to the sensibilities, to the human capacity for responding to metaphysical reality in ways that are beyond the rational.’’ These very principles are demonstrated in ‘‘anyone lived in a pretty how town.’’ One example is the children who notice the love between Anyone and Noone, but are no longer able to see that love as they mature into adults. Another is the description of death as something akin to a dream. Death is described in terms that make it a far more interesting plane of existence than the rhythmic and mundane lives that are lived by the townspeople.
The townspeople, of course, are integral to an understanding of cummings’s transcendental philosophy. The Someones and the Everyones of the town wed and live together. They experience the happy and the sad moments of life. They rise in the morning and go to bed at night. They live out their lives in the rhythmic (and somewhat banal) manner in which lives are generally lived. They also die in much the same way as they have lived, i.e., as a rather dull matter of course. Earlier in his career, cummings coined the term ‘‘mostpeople’’ as a means of expressing his contempt for conformity (another fundamental principle of transcendentalism). Jenny Penberthy, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, describes ‘‘mostpeople’’ as those who ‘‘follow orders’’ and ‘‘do their duty,’’ as opposed to ‘‘the individual [who] is true to himself.’’ Cummings explained the term himself in the preface to his 1938 volume Collected Poems. In an excerpt from that preface (quoted in Penberthy), cummings states:
“The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople—it’s no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squareroot of minusone. You and I are human beings; mostpeople are snobs. . . . Life, for mostpeople, simply isn’t. Take the socalled standard of living. What do mostpeople mean by ‘living’? They don’t mean living.”
The form of ‘‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’’ also underscores the poem’s transcendental content. Cummings, notably, was a painter, and one could argue that his more visual poems were less inspired by the literary zeitgeist (mode of the day) than the visual arts of the day (such as Cubism). Cummings’s visual poems are characterized by broken lines, a lack of punctuation or capitalization, words joined together, as well as words, letters, or punctuation arranged typographically so as to form a discernible image. They are less modernist poetry than they are pieces of modernist art. Because ‘‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’’ is decidedly not a visual poem in this sense, it divorces itself from cummings’s more modernist undertakings; thus its transcendental leanings become even more clear. Other poems by cummings written in this vein include ‘‘maggie and milly and molly and may,’’‘‘my father moved through dooms of love,’’ and ‘‘the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished soul’’ (among many, many others). This interesting phenomenon regarding form and content in cummings’s work is remarked upon by Penberthy, who observes that, ‘‘in general, he reserved the sonnet or metrical forms for his more serious poems which embody a complex, transcendent vision. The looser, more experimental poems, on the other hand, aim to communicate concrete sensations and perceptions in all their existential immediacy.’’ This observation has also been made by Norman Friedman in E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer (quoted in Kidder), who states that ‘‘there is an organic relation between the poet’s technique and his purposes.’’ Friedman adds that cummings typically ‘‘uses metrical stanzas for his more ‘serious’ poems, and reserves his experiments by and large for his free verse embodiments of satire, comedy, and description.’’
As Kidder notes, ‘‘where life for the early Cummings was a matter of birth, maturity, and decay, for the late Cummings it consists in birth, maturity, and transcendence.’’ It would seem that ‘‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’’ lies right on the cusp of this transition. It contains none of the earthy or erotic subject matter, satire, or experimental typography of the earlier works. Yet it is not quite as overtly transcendental as his later works, which were typically shorter, more concise meditations. Nevertheless, ‘‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’’ is squarely grounded in the traditions of transcendentalism. It is equally grounded in cummings’s progression as an artist.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, e. e. cummings, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009
Leah Tieger, Critical Essay on ‘‘anyone lived in a pretty how town,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.