This piece is one of Cummings’ easiest to read. It is also one of his earlier poems. But, readers can still find elements of his later, more experimental poetry in the lines—for example, the lack of consistent capitalization or punctuation. The word order, or syntax, is also quite jumbled at points. But, ‘the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls’ is still easier to read than poems like ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’ or ‘All in green when my love riding by.’
The poem was first published in Tulips and Chimneys, Cummings’ first poetry collection, in 1923. At the time of its publication, it was untitled. But, since then, it’s come to be known by its first line.
Explore the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
‘the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls’ by E. E. Cummings speaks about the lives of women who lived around the poet and whom he could not help but critique.
In the poem’s first lines, the speaker begins by describing the Cambridge women. These women are not beautiful, live comfortable lives, and are happy in their ignorance. They do not have the mental capacity, or the willingness, to engage with issues outside their own social bubbles. They wear masks, creations to help them fit in as they move from one function to the next and pretend to care about one cause for a limited period of time. These women, the poem concludes, would not notice if the moon rattled in the sky above their heads.
You can read the full poem here.
the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
daughters,unscented shapeless spirited)
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker begins by using the line that later came to be used as the title. As noted above, when this poem was first published, it was untitled.
The speaker notes that ladies living in Cambridge are “unbeautiful” and they have “comfortable minds.” This suggests that these women are ignorant and have some fundamental disinterest in life around them. This is backed up by the speaker’s description of their daughters in the fourth line of the poem.
In the third line, the speaker says that they are “with the church’s protestant blessings.” The women go to church and believe themselves to be good people because of it. They are within the blessings of the church and therefore do not feel as though there is anything about themselves they need to critique. Their daughters, the fourth line says, are “unscented shapeless spirited.” Their young daughters are turning out in the same way that these women are. They are going to be just as uninteresting and spiritless.
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead,
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
The second stanza begins with the speaker stating that the same uninteresting women believe in “Christ and Longfellow.” Both of these men, who are suggestive of the women’s understanding of the world, are “dead.” This suggests that they are uninterested in and unattached to modernity. Their modern world is moving around them in a way that does not inspire them as past ideas do.
The speaker suggests that it’s important for these women to be out and about. They are “invariably interested in so many things,” a clearly sarcastic statement. (The poet’s use of sarcasm throughout this poem is one of its most important features.) They go to parties, attend various functions, and pretend to care about the ins and outs of their neighbors’ lives.
At the present moment, the speaker says they still find ladies within this group, “knitting for the is it Poles?” This clever statement alludes to the passing interest these women show in various causes. This speaker is mimicking what he sees as their broader ignorance about the world. While they might pretend to care about a cause for a limited time (the Poles, for example), it is only a passing fancy that allows them to participate in society.
perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy
The next three lines suggest something that readers probably already predicted. These women are always concerned with scandals. Their ears are always turned to which scandal is next. The social masks they wear ensure that they fit in and are always prepared for gossip.
The poem concludes with a wonderful example of imagery. The Cambridge ladies do not care if, above Cambridge, the “moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy.” These women, whose understanding of the world is so limited, partially by their own choice and partially by their station in life, wouldn’t notice if the moon shook.
Structure and Form
‘the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls’ by E. E. Cummings is a fourteen-line poem. The number of lines suggests that Cummings was interested in writing a sonnet. But, as readers of his poetry might expect, the piece does not follow traditional poetic convention. While there are some examples of end rhymes throughout the poem, the poet does not use a traditional Shakespearean pattern or Petrarchan pattern. For example, “souls” rhymes with “Poles,” and “candy” rhymes with “bandy.” There are also half-rhymes like “bandy” and “D.”
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions that appeal to the readers senses. These lines should allow the reader to easily visualize the subject matter the poet is describing. For example: “sky lavender and cornerless, the / moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, the use of “ladies” and “live” in line one and “believe” and “both” in line five.
- Enjambment: it occurs when the poet cuts off a line before the natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four as well as lines seven and eight.
- Sibilance: can be seen when the poet repeats the same “s” sound in succession. For example, “unscented shapeless spirited” in line four.
The tone is sarcastic and judgemental. The speaker passes judgment on these women from his own perspective. He sees their flaws, their ignorance, and their unwillingness to break out of their social bubbles. It’s clear the speaker sees himself as a very different person.
The themes at work in this poem are those of social norms and ignorance. The latter is one of the speaker’s primary issues with these women. They do not have a decent understanding of their contemporary world, nor would they notice if something terrible were to happen to the entire planet, like the moon rattling.
The meaning of this poem is that some people, specifically these Cambridge women and people like them, live lives that separate them from reality. They create fiction around them that allows them to operate without ever dealing with reality.
It is a non-traditional sonnet. The poem is fourteen lines long, but it does not make use of a specific rhyme scheme associated with conventional sonnets. This poem has numerous examples of end rhyme and half-rhyme, but the lines do not follow a pattern.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other E. E. Cummings poems. For example:
- ‘All in green went my love riding’ – speaks on a dangerous relationship through an elaborate hunting metaphor.
- ‘[I carry your heart with me(i carry it in]’ – is a love poem in which the speaker is telling his beloved that wherever he goes, he always carries his lover’s heart with him.
- ‘when god lets my body be’ – is about the cycle of life and death. The poet E.E. Cummings describes how he wishes to be part of nature through death.