The Mormons and Utah
Swenson’s parents converted to Mormonism, more properly known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a religion founded by Joseph Smith in 1830 and established itself under Brigham Young in Utah later in that century. The Mormons dominated Utah in Swenson’s childhood, and the rest of her family was strongly devoted to Mormonism, but even as a child Swenson did not feel strongly connected to it. Part of what the girl in ‘‘The Centaur’’ may be escaping is Mormon rules of propriety. According to R. R. Knudson, in her biography The Wonderful Pen of May Swenson, Swenson as a child liked to play cards and later took up smoking, even though both activities were frowned on by Mormons. The Mormons also had strict notions of gender roles, again something that the girl in Swenson’s poem seems to be escaping, or subverting. It is not that Swenson, in this poem or others, attacked the Mormon religion; it is . . . Read More
The poem is written in free verse (a form of poetry in which no formal meter is used) without any rhyme scheme, though perhaps with a rhymed couplet at the end and some internal rhyme at the beginning, but it is not as free as in some of Swenson’s other poems. There is enjambment, meaning that sentences carry over from one stanza to another, creating a feeling of movement in the poem, but most lines end with the end of syntactic units; phrases generally are not broken over two lines, but come to an end when the lines end, so there is regularity as well as movement, order as well as wildness, reflecting the content of the poem.
Metaphors, Symbolism, and Synecdoche
‘‘The Centaur’’ might be said to contain metaphors, in which one thing is described in terms of another: the willow branch is a horse; the girl’s hair is a horse’s mane; and the girl snorts and paws the ground . . . Read More
The poem is in part a nostalgic evocation of childhood and the sort of thing a child might get up to. This at least is how the poem opens, with the adult speaker remembering the summer when she was ten, but though the poem develops several contrasts, this contrast between present and past fades away, and at the end there is no return to the adult’s world and little sense of the adult looking back. In the opening stanzas the very tenses the speaker uses emphasize that she is looking back; she talks of what she would do each day in that distant summer: she would go down to the willow grove, she would ride her horse, and so on. But by the middle of the poem the speaker shifts to the simple past; her hair blew around like a mane; she shied and skittered, reared and galloped; and then she slowed to a walk and entered her house, at which point the conversation with her mother that ends the poem is presented as a specific scene that . . . Read More
The title ‘‘The Centaur’’ refers to a creature from Greek mythology that was half human and half horse. Interestingly, other than in the title, the term is not used anywhere in the poem. Rather than write about centaurs, Swenson’s aim is to depict a metaphorical centaur, a girl who thinks she is part horse.
The poem begins with an adult speaker reminiscing about her childhood, about the summer when she was ten. Right away there is wonder in her voice because she can hardly believe there was only one such summer. This attitude of wonder is typical of Swenson’s poetry; so is her questioning, inquiring approach to life, indicated grammatically by casting the main part of the first stanza as a question. Another grammatical feature of the opening stanza is that it is largely a parenthetical aside; it is as if the speaker, or the poet, is so full of information and so alive to connections . . . Read More
E. E. Cummings’s ‘‘Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town’’ rolls across the tongue like a preschool song. On one hand, the playful rhythm and sound complement nature’s sequences where life cycles rotate throughout the nine stanzas like a merry-go-round, life on a proverbial fast-paced playground. Masked, however, is life’s monotony and death’s certainty as the four-line stanzas, mostly tetrameters that mirror the four seasons, lead, perhaps, to an immutable certainty: everyone dies.
The poem opens with light, harmonious double dactyls in line 1: ‘‘anyone lived in a pretty how town.’’ Playful rhythm continues in subsequent dactyls such as ‘‘women and men (both little and small)’’ (5), ‘‘someones married their everyones’’ (17), and ‘‘many bells down’’ (2, 24) that stream into trochees like ‘‘pretty’’ (1), ‘‘summer autumn winter’’ (3), and iambs like ‘‘with up so floating’’ (2, 24). Bells, which often . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
Modernism is an artistic movement that began in the early twentieth century, reached its zenith during the 1920 and 1930s (coincidentally cummings’s most prolific years), and remained a prominent movement well into the middle of the century. Modernism was prominent in both literature and the visual arts, beginning in Europe and later making its way to the United States. Several cultural upheavals gave rise to the movement. In nineteenth-century Western Europe, the dominant ideal exalted the progress of humanity over the concerns of the individual. But this began to change early in the twentieth century, in no small part accelerated by the unprecedented carnage of World War I. Arguably the world’s first truly mechanized war, World War I caused artists to question the values of patriotism and politics, and they looked instead to the experience of the individual as a singular being (rather than a representative or part of mankind at . . . Read More
There are thirty-six lines in ‘‘anyone lived in a pretty how town,’’ and eight of them are repetitions of or variants on a previous line. These repeated lines have to do with the list of the seasons, the list of celestial bodies and precipitation, and the bells ringing throughout the town. All of these repeated lines are related to the passage of time and therefore establish one of the poem’s primary themes. Aside from these straightforward repetitions, there are two mentions of children forgetting things as they mature, and of the dream-filled slumber that describes death. The word by is also repeated several times throughout the poem, especially in the second half. The word is used to join similar or identical things, which is a repetition in and of itself. A popular phrase that demonstrates this usage is ‘‘one by one,’’ though cummings uses far less conventional constructions in his . . . Read More
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 . . . Read More
Cummings’s ‘‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’’ consists of nine four-line stanzas. The poem is predominantly written in tetrameter, or lines consisting of four feet (each foot represents one stressed syllable and one unstressed syllable).
The first line of the poem, which is also the poem’s title, introduces the character of Anyone and the picturesque village that he lives in. The next line mentions the sound of the bells that can often be heard in the town. Presumably this refers to church bells, which announce holidays, weddings, funerals, and other events that mark the passage of time and of individual lives. The third line lists the seasons, again underscoring the passage of time. The stanza’s final line, which is a bit nonsensical, is meant to represent Anyone’s exploits as he goes through life.
The poem then mentions the other townspeople, stating that they . . . Read More