Passage of Time
One of the most prominent themes in ‘‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’’ is that of the passage of time. This is communicated in the thrice-repeated lists of seasons and of celestial bodies coupled with the rain. With one exception, each time the lists are repeated, the order in which they appear has been rearranged. Used to tell time long before the invention of clocks and calendars, the seasons, heavenly bodies, and weather are ancient signifiers of time as it passes. Additionally, there are two references to children growing up, one in stanza 3 and one in stanza 6. There are two references to the bells ringing through the town, and these are presumably church bells. Church bells ring for holidays, births, marriages, and deaths; in other words, all of the major events that punctuate a life as it progresses. The other, less straightforward, instances that capture the passage of time are the life and death of Anyone and Noone, and also of the townspeople, who live predictable and cyclic lives.
The theme of mortality is linked to the theme of time as it passes. Death is the final outcome of the passage of time and also the event that most clearly measures time. In the poem, mortality is linked to the seasons (specifically winter) and to the heavens (specifically night, via the stars). These are the phenomena mentioned shortly before Anyone’s death is announced. Death as it is envisioned in the poem is not complete extinction, but rather a dream-filled slumber. In contrast to this pleasant image, life is busy and hectic; the townspeople rush about, attending to their daily business. This is particularly shown in stanza 5. The townspeople marry as a matter of course; they feel joy and sadness as a matter of course; they sleep and rise in the morning, little more than automatons. The life described is one without depth or reflection (as is indicated by the children who forget to notice the world as they age). Yet death is described as just the opposite; it seems that the dead are in a sense more alive than the living.
Individualism and Conformity
In ‘‘anyone lived in a pretty how town,’’ Anyone is an individual in a sea of conformity. Anyone sings and dances, but the townspeople do not heed him or care about him. Indeed, they are too busy with their own lives to even notice him. Only the children, who will soon be too old and too busy to notice him as well, are able to see that Noone is falling in love with Anyone. In the midst of the love story of Anyone and Noone, the town life continues unaffected. The routine marriages of the townspeople, when contrasted to the love that Noone has for Anyone, seem small and unremarkable. Even the poem’s speaker does not seem to care about Anyone; he mentions Anyone’s death in an offhanded, and even flippant, manner. There are no details or dates attached to Anyone’s death, only the mention that it happened at some point. Noone is the only person who mourns Anyone, though no one is left to mourn her when she dies. The two are buried by rushed townspeople who do not care for them, or for anyone but themselves and their affairs, for that matter. Whereas Anyone is an individual, the townspeople represent conformity. This is reinforced by the poem’s final stanza, in which the people of the town are likened to the ringing bells of the church, i.e., little more than the background noise marking time as it passes. These uniform people come and go as steadily as the weather and the movement of the heavenly bodies. Yet, in death, they are like Anyone and Noone, sleeping in a dream-filled death. Given this reading, Anyone and Noone’s names are highly ironic. Anyone’s symbolic name makes him at once an individual and everyone.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, e. e. cummings, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009