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On "Buffalo Bill's"

 Thomas Dilworth (1995)

 ...The subject of this portrait is not, as commentators have assumed, Buffalo Bill. Neither is the poem merely a modern expression of the convention of sic transit gloria mundi, of which the appropriate tone would be sadness. The speaker praises the dead celebrity but also disparages him. The reason for the disparagement cannot be, as one reader has suggested, disapproval of Cody's "blend of hero and charlatan" or reduction of "heroic deeds to circus stunts." The speaker clearly admires the showmanship. Instead, he disparages Buffalo Bill merely to exceed him in worth or stature. The poem is a self-portrait of an admiring but also disdainful speaker, unaware of a logical flaw in his reasoning and the profound irony of his situation.

The speaker admires Buffalo Bill's skill in shooting and his good looks. He also admires the horse Buffalo Bill rode, which had symbolic affinity with its rider since it was male (a "stallion") and "silver," like silver-haired Bill Cody in old age. The speaker's admiration is preceded, however, by irony and followed by sarcasm. The word "defunct" instead of "dead" implies callous or humorous indifference to or even approval of Buffalo Bill's death, and the question "how do you like your blueeyed boy" sarcastically belittles Buffalo Bill and conveys the speaker's sense of superiority over him. Furthermore, the possession by "Mister Death" of a blue-eyed boy has pederastic connotations. The celebrity Buffalo Bill was skillful, superior, and, in the last years of his life, the most famous man in the world. But now he is dead and, the speaker assumes, it is better to be alive than dead. So death, which cancelled Buffalo Bill's skill and erased his good looks, gives the speaker an advantage over him....

...Logically, the self-elevation of the speaker is nonsense, since the dead (nonexistent) differ categorically from the living.... The gloating self-evaluation of the speaker has no reasonable foundation. It is also and more obviously ridiculous because he fails to take into account his own mortality. The poem contains the theme of the passing of worldly glory, but its principal meaning is that pride is blind and goeth before a fall....

From Thomas Dilworth, "Cummings' 'Buffalo Bill's.'" Explicator 53 (1995): 174, 175.

 Earl J. Dias (1966)

 ...The picture of Buffalo Bill on his "watersmooth-silver stallion" ironic. Moreover...Buffalo Bill is not the only individualist mentioned in the poem; in fact, Jesus is given a line to Himself.

Consequently, His name stands out emphatically in the poem--perhaps as a contrast to Buffalo Bill. Of the two types of individualism implied in the poem--the man of war and the man of peace--I submit that the latter is more akin to Cummings' basic ideas revealed throughout the body of his writing.

As for the last three lines of the poem...they underline the central sarcasm of the work. The question is obviously delivered in acerbic tones; "your blueeyed boy" (the phrase seems to have overtones of "fair-haired boy") suggests that Buffalo Bill has at last found his rightful home--with Death itself.

In is safe and reasonable to conclude that for Cummings, Buffalo Bill belongs in the category of the poet's dislikes--with war, salesmen, windy politicians, the prurient--in short, with all negators of life and the "sweet, spontaneous earth."

from Earl J. Dias, "e. e. cummings And Buffalo Bill." CEA Critic 29 (Dec. 1966): 6 and 7.

David Ray (1962)

...though the poem appears to be a simple elegy, it must be placed in the context of Cummings's obstinate attitude of hatred toward an American culture that invites children (and even men) to create an unworthy gallery of heroes. Cummings is one of our society's best haters; functioning as a Juvenalian satirist, he has long attacked our society's worst indulgences in materialism, hypocrisy, "hypercivic zeal," scientific unwisdom and the following of false heroes and tawdry ideals. He most bitterly, in poems like "Plato told him . . ." reproaches us for not taking the words of our philosophers seriously, but rather insisting on mouthing (vulgarizing and debasing) the poetry of their utterances.


It is important to note, in making a case for the redirection of the poet's fury to Bill, that Bill, in the poem, functions as a destroyer, an agent of death. What has been rather all-embracing. Bill has been destroyed; the poet's childhood, and the kind of innocent faith and wonder that went along with it has been destroyed by his subsequent disillusionment...; the clay pigeons have been destroyed. The poet is in many ways blaming Bill for disappointing both his expectations of childhood and of America, for delivering him rather treacherously to a tawdry world of cheapened values, for America is Bill's "sponsor" as well as that of freedom and breakfast foods.


At last Bill belongs literally to "Mister Death's" team. The poet triumphs over death by having come to an insight into Bill's fraudulence before "Mister Death," who is only now presumably finding out that he has been tricked into treating a sham performer as a great man, cut down with all the panoply of tragedy. The poet has beaten Mister Death to the draw, literally, and leaves the great destroyer to find out that he has the commonest of food for his worms. Perhaps, then...the best elegies are for the least heroic of victims, not for those figures who are true heroes in our lives, but for those who have functioned in our lives at their most tawdry, misguided, or commonplace moments.

from David Ray, "The Irony of E. E. Cummings." College English 23 (1962): 287, 289, and 290.

 Louis J. Budd (1953)

 ...Cummings regards the hero as a distressingly revered caricature of genuinely human actions and values, an avatar of stillborn sentience.

The poem's attitude is epitomized in the word "defunct." Buffalo Bill has not undergone a tragic crisis, he has not passed through a spiritual ordeal; he simply has ceased operating, liquidated like a bank or a poorly-place filling station. The reader primarily realizes that William F. Cody will no longer prance through metropolitan hippodromes as the chief asset of a gaudy commercial venture. More broadly, the reader should recognize that the westering dream and nostalgic enjoyment of that dream are ended, the dream ripped by realities or stultified by vulgar misuse and the nostalgia deflated by post-Versailles cynicism. Buffalo Bill and his cohorts, galloping through this world in a blinding shroud of physical exertions divorced from meaningful reality, never were alive to tulips or the small white hands of the rain and can be scarcely said to have died.

from Louis J. Budd, "Cummings' BUFFALO BILL'S DEFUNCT." Explicator 11 (June 1953): Item 55.

 Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (1938)

 This poem deals with what is a rather common theme, and treats that theme simply. Death claims all men, even the strongest and most glamorous....the most prominent element is the unconventional attitude which he takes toward a conventional subject, and in this particular poem, the matter of tone is isolated sufficiently for us to examine it rather easily ....

In the first place, what is the difference between writing

Buffalo Bill's


Buffalo Bill's dead?

The first carries something of a tone of conscious irreverence. The poet here does not approach the idea of death with the usual and expected respect for the dead. He is matter-of-fact, unawed, and even somewhat flippant and joking. But the things which he picks out to comment on in Buffalo Bill make a strong contrast with the idea of death. The picture called up is one of tremendous vitality and speed: for example, the stallion is mentioned and is described as "watersmooth-silver." The adjective contains not only a visual description of the horse which Buffalo Bill rode but a kinetic description is implied too. How was the horse "watersmooth"? Smooth, graceful in action..... The "portrait" of Buffalo Bill given here after the statement that he is "defunct" is a glimpse of him in action breaking five claypigeons in rapid succession as he flashes by on his stallion--the sort of glimpse which one might remember from the performance of the Wild West show in which Buffalo Bill used to star. The exclamation which follows is exactly the sort of burst of boyish approval which might be struck from a boy seeing him in action or remembering him as he saw him. And the quality of "handsome" applies, one feels, not merely to his face but to his whole figure in action.

The next lines carry on the tone of unabashed, unawed, slangy irreverence toward death. Death becomes "Mister Death." The implied figure of the spectator at a performance of the Wild West show helps justify the language and manner of expression used here, making us feel that it is in character. But the question as asked here strikes us on another level. It is a question which no boy would ask; it is indeed one of the old unanswerable questions. But here it is transformed by the tone into something fresh and startling. Moreover, the dashing, glamorous character of the old Indian fighter gets a sharp emphasis. The question may be paraphrased like this: Death, you don't get lads like him every day, do you? The way the question is put implies several things. First, it implies the pathos at the fact that even a man who had such enormous vitality and unfailing youthfulness had to die. But this pathos is not insisted upon; rather, it is presented indirectly and ironically because of the bantering and flippant attitude given in the question, especially in the phrases "Mister Death" and "blueeyed boy." And in the question, which sums up the whole poem, we also are given the impression that death is not terrible for Buffalo Bill--it is "Mister Death" who stands in some sort of fatherly and prideful relation to the "blueeyed boy."

from Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1938): 185, 186.

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