Throughout this piece, Cummings experiments with language and grammar. But, in comparison to his other poems, this one is not quite as complicated or as difficult to understand. Readers should, but the end of the first few lines of ‘[O sweet spontaneous],’ have a good idea of what it’s about.
Explore O sweet spontaneous
‘[O sweet spontaneous]’ by E.E. Cummings is a thoughtful poem that directly addresses the search for meaning throughout life.
The poem touches on the way that science, philosophers, and the religious poke, prod, and squeeze the earth, looking for some kind of reason that they all exist. The search for knowledge goes on, but the earth is never going to reveal anything. It is beyond all that. The earth is only ever going to do what it’s always done—greet everyone with spring and move forward with the birth of new life and new beauty. Cummings never suggests the earth doesn’t deserve to be worshiped. His tone is reverential when it comes to the planet. Instead, he’s saying that no matter how much one seeks and prays, no answers are going to come. One should be contented with what plays out in nature.
You can read the full poem here.
O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have
prurient philosophers pinched
In the first lines of ‘[O sweet spontaneous],’ the speaker begins by comparing the “sweet spontaneous earth” to the analytical ways it’s been described. Both philosophers and scientists have poked and prodded at the earth with “doting fingers” or “naughty thumb” in order to figure out what the earth is about. This is a way of alluding to the physical nature of the earth as well as the purpose of life. More spiritual investigations are included.
Cummings uses the word “prurient” in the first set of lines, an unusual word that’s defined as “having an excessive interest in sexual matters.” Y using it, the speaker is in a way suggesting that the philosopher’s methods and intentions are less than pure. There was always something they were trying to get out of their investigations. The use of this word also works well with Cummings use of “fingers” and “thumb” (not to mention “naughty”).
,has the naughty thumb
thee upon their scraggy knees
In the next lines, the speaker goes on to describe how religions have used the art as well. They’ve gotten down on their “scraggy knees” and used the earth as they saw fit. It’s a source of interest for all parts of humanity and everyone is abusing it differently. Everyone is seeking meaning from nature and moments of life.
buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive
them only with
In the next few lines of ‘[O sweet spontaneous]‘ the speaker adds that the religious would get on their knees and squeeze the earth as though if they just tried hard enough, they would force the earth to “conceive / gods.” This is an interesting way of suggesting that through their praying and force of meaning, they are attempting to find a god in the natural elements of the earth. They’re attempting to force that specific meaning of it just as scientists and philosophers have their own goals.
Rather than answer with clear information about the purpose of life, gods, and any other meaning that one might be seeking, the earth answers with “spring,” Cummings concludes. Cummings uses an example of personification in these lines, comparing the earth to a lover, completing the references to touching, sex, and love that began in the first lines.
Structure and Form
‘[O sweet spontaneous]’ by E.E. Cummings is a twenty-seven-line poem that is loosely separated into four stanzas. The lines of the poem use alternative indentations and make use of Cummings’ experimentation with grammar. For example, the placement of the comma in “has the naughty thumb.” Cummings’ poem is written in free verse. This means that the lines do not conform to a specific metrical pattern or use a rhyme scheme.
Throughout ‘[O sweet spontaneous],’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as lines seventeen and eighteen.
- Personification: the use of human descriptions to describe non-human things. For example, “the naughty thumb / of science.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “prurient,” “pinched,” and “poked” in lines seven and eight.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses especially interesting and evocative descriptions. For example, “often have religions taken / thee upon their scraggy knees / squeezing.
The tone is respectful and descriptive. The poet uses lyrical language to describe the earth and all its supplicants, as well as the reasons they strive to find meaning there. This is a purposeless quest. The speaker implies because the world will answer the only way it knows how with “spring.”
The purpose is to describe the search for life’s meaning and how no solid answers are ever going to be found by science, philosophers, or by religion. No matter who squeezes and pokes the earth, it’s not going to reveal anything over than its change of seasons and bountiful life.
Personification is used when the poet refers to the earth as a lover and describes science’s “naughty thumb.” These moments help bring together the images Cummings was interested in.
Readers who enjoyed ‘[O sweet spontaneous]’ should also consider reading other E.E. Cummings poems. For example:
- ‘in Just’ – speaks on the beginnings of spring, a concerning balloonman/satyr, and the children he calls to his side.
- ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ – a complex poem that depicts the life and death of “anyone” and “noone”.
- ‘next to of course god america i’ – expresses controversial beliefs in regard to America and war that may belong to Cummings himself.