Buffalo Bill's | Study Guide

e.e. cummings

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Course Hero. "Buffalo Bill's Study Guide." August 17, 2020. Accessed September 25, 2021. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Buffalo-Bills/.

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Buffalo Bill's | Themes

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Humanity's Futile Attempts to Control Nature

The poem's narrator considers the physical strength and agility of Buffalo Bill (1846–1917), the famous buffalo hunter and fighter against Native Americans. Buffalo Bill created and performed in his own Wild West show that highlighted his great riding, shooting talents, and death-defying feats. He "used to / ride a watersmooth-silver / stallion / and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat" but he is now "defunct" and will never again rapidly shoot at and explode clay pigeon targets from his strong, sleek horse. The narrator is at first in awe of Bill's ability to seemingly control the wild, natural force represented by the stallion.

The narrator's exclamation of "Jesus" may be an expression of awe at Bill's incredible mastery of nature. It also may signal a pause to reflect on the futility of any human attempt, like Bill's, to master nature, achieve accomplishments, and win fame in light of Death's mastery in the end over humanity. E.E. Cummings focuses the rest of the poem after the exclamation "Jesus" with what can be considered the ultimate conqueror of nature: not humanity, but death.

Power and Helplessness

Cummings develops tension as he shifts his narrator's focus from Buffalo Bill's power and vitality to Bill eventually succumbing to death. Bill is first imagined in all of his former glory: "who used to / ride a watersmooth-silver / stallion / and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat." Bill's powerful shooting skills create loud explosions overhead, one after the other, as he masters his wild horse. The image represents the highest attainment of human strength and earthly success.

The narrator begins to consider Bill's death and admires Bill in a different, more human light as a "handsome man" and a "blue-eyed boy." The narrator imagines Bill at the end of his life, powerless to speak or walk let alone control a wild horse, as a helpless child in the face of death. He belongs to Mister Death now, who has complete control: "how do you like your blue-eyed boy / Mister Death." The generic personification of death is silent in the poem but it is clearly the character who ends up as all-powerful. He overtakes Bill's life and the narrator's voice as he closes out the poem. True power for humans does not last. The powerful forces of life and death, outside human control, are much more relevant than fleeting human achievements, even those as unique and impressive as Buffalo Bill's were.

Death as Equalizer

The narrator of "Buffalo Bill 's" may be comparing his own presumably less exciting and interesting life with that of the international celebrity Buffalo Bill. He is reverential toward Bill at first, reflecting on his feats and skills with horses and guns. But the narrator's tone seems to shift as the poem continues. He exclaims, "Jesus" and then speaks in an overly familiar, maybe slightly confrontational tone toward Mister Death: "and what I want to know is / how do you like your blue-eyed boy / Mister Death."

The narrator realizes that he, like Buffalo Bill and like all humans, will eventually die. But in the moment that he is speaking or thinking the words of this poem the narrator is alive and thus has a temporary advantage over the more successful, accomplished Buffalo Bill. The narrator addresses death in a somewhat irreverent tone, perhaps not realizing in the moment that he too will someday be made a "boy" by "Mister Death" just as Buffalo Bill was.

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