Buffalo Bill's | Study Guide

e.e. cummings

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Buffalo Bill's | Context

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Modernist Poetry

E.E. Cummings's best-known poetry uses language in unconventional ways to express feelings and thoughts about life, death, nature, love, and other topics central to the human experience. Cummings is a modernist poet. Modernist artists and writers sought to express ideas in innovative ways that spoke to the individual of modern, industrial society. Cummings had served as part of an ambulance corps in World War I (1914–18), a global conflict that left millions of people dead and injured. Cummings was briefly imprisoned but was able to come home alive from this conflict that affected so many young people. Modernist art and literature after World War I reflected artists' and writers' desires to create new forms of expression for an age that had been traumatized by war and shaken by the rapid changes of increased technology and industrialization. Cummings and other modernist poets avoided the use of traditional poetic formats and devices like rhyme and meter in favor of highly individualistic self-expression.

Buffalo Bill

The title and content of Cummings's poem focus on Buffalo Bill, the nickname of William Frederick Cody (1846–1917). Cody was well-known at first as a buffalo hunter and United States Army scout. Cody achieved international fame later in his life as the creator and producer of "Buffalo Bill's Wild West," a live show including feats on horses. It showcased Native Americans and indigenous horse riders of many countries on horseback in traditional clothing, with shooting displays and reenactments of conflicts with Native Americans in the American West. "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" featured violent, aggressive Native Americans attacking white cowboys. This historically inaccurate portrayal served to reinforce stereotypes of Native Americans as the American government took their lands and destroyed their cultures. The show traveled the world and spread Cody's fame as an iconic symbol of physical strength, independence, and bravery associated with the American West.

Cummings uses Bill in "Buffalo Bill 's" as a symbol of human achievements, all of which end up meeting the same fate of death no matter how impressive they are. The narrator is in awe of Buffalo Bill's ability to "ride a watersmooth-silver / stallion" and shoot at clay pigeons. Clay pigeons are discs made of clay that are thrown into the air so people can shoot at and explode them for sport, shooting practice, or entertainment. Buffalo Bill and others would exhibit their shooting skills in his shows using clay pigeons. The narrator reflects on Bill's skillful feats of strength with horses and guns.

Then the poem's narrator exclaims far to the right of the rest of the poem: "Jesus." Jesus is one of the world's main religious leaders (c. 6–4 BCE–30 AD). Followers of Christianity, one of the world's major religions, believe that Jesus is the Incarnation of God. As an interjection, "Jesus!" is used to express anger, surprise, awe, or a variety of other strong emotions. Many Christians feel that using the name of Jesus as an exclamation in this way is inappropriate or vulgar. In the poem, "Jesus" is on the surface an exclamation but the reference calls to mind the name of the Christian savior, whose struggles are associated with death and rebirth.

The narrator's thoughts seem to snap back to human life as he continues his reverie about Buffalo Bill's fascinating time on earth: "he was a handsome man." This line is brought back spatially to the beginning of the line, after "Jesus" is placed out in front of the rest of the poem. Christians like E.E. Cummings might exclaim "Jesus" as either an expression of wonder or bewilderment, or they might feel offended by such use of the name. Cummings may have wanted the reader to reflect on religious interpretations of life and death.

Death Personified

"Buffalo Bill 's" closes with "Mister Death" as its last words. This is a fitting placement for the personified version of death. Cultures throughout the world have personified death in literature, painting, film, and other forms of artistic expression. Cummings likely had in mind the most common representation of death in Western culture, the Grim Reaper. The Grim Reaper is a skeletal being in a black robe with a scythe, a tool to cut down wheat, in its hand. Authors and artists have personified death with the image of the Grim Reaper since the Black Death, a powerful plague that killed about one-third of Europe's population in the 1300s. The Grim Reaper's scythe represents death "cutting down" and removing human souls from the earth.

The death of a human being demands respect, rituals, and a somber appreciation for the life that has come to an end. Death takes down even the strongest, most impressive humans and reduces them to infants and then to dust. The narrator unexpectedly approaches death in a familiar, almost swaggering way asking, "what I want to know is / how do you like your blue-eyed boy / Mister Death." Cummings may suggest that humans do not respect the power and finality of death until it is their turn to face it.

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