My translation of E.E.Cummings’ “Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town”

This semester in American Literature II, we had to analyze poetry and various short stories. I’m not a fan of poetry in general, but I really liked this particular E.E.Cummings poem. Although it at first appears very odd and cryptic, it’s easily translatable. Therefore, please note that this is completely my own translation as it made perfect sense to me, and you may reap what you will from it. The numbers in parentheses following various lines indicates correspondence with the lines of the original poem. The following is lifted from my discussion board post:

Now, on to a poem that I enjoyed and really “got”!

“Anyone” is a man and “Noone” (no one) is a woman. He is so named because he was not an overachiever, just an average Joe who did not stand out in the society. Continue reading the poem to see how Cummings portrays the church-going townsfolk and he may also be so named because he is (according to the town’s new ways of thinking) presumed to be ‘one of the faceless drones who blindly follow the Church’s dictates.’ She is so named because she is not from a significant family in the town, society-wise, as in ‘no one important.’ The town being called a “how town” is reference to the townsfolk’s questioning of traditional beliefs since Darwin’s theories had spawned a whole (still continuing era) of questioning of faith matters in favor of proven scientific data and reason (such as “how did we really get here – God or evolution?”). This town has many churches, as illustrated by the references to “many bells” (2) and “dong and ding” (33).

Let’s replace “anyone” with Bob and “noone” with Betty for ease in understanding. The play by play:

Bob lived in a picture perfect village with several churches. (1-2)

Year-round, Bob walked his talk about his faith by living accordingly (3-4).

Townsfolk didn’t think Bob was anything special and may have even disliked him for being too pious (5-6).

The people crying evolution over faith (“their isn’t” as in “ain’t done by God”) and reaped the yield of their disintegrating or discarded faith (7) as the seasons rolled around and they passed this on to their progeny (8).

Young people, i.e. the more innocent and intuitive before they mature and gain more cynical perspectives or lose sight of their innocence (9-11), were the ones who noticed that Betty was falling in love with Bob (12).

Bob and Betty married (“by now” as in “now I pronounce you man and wife”) and grew their family tree (13).

Betty shared Bob’s joys and grief (14), bearing a child in winter who was fragile (“bird by snow”) and died in infancy (“stir by still” as in stirring, alive, then still, dead) (15).

Bob’s son (perhaps another one who lived or this refers to the memory of their lost baby) was everything to her (“any” is a fragment of “anyone” and therefore a piece of Bob, “any” has already been designated as male because it represents Bob, therefore, it’s a son) (16).

No longer unimportant in the world because Bob and Betty have become important to each other; they are “someones” with identities in Christ who married the person who meant everything to them, or “everyones” (17).

They loved, laughed, cried and lived out their lives according to their faith (“their dance”) as indicated by the sleeping/waking cycle of days, hoping according to their faith and “then” as in leaving it to the will of God (18-19).

At last, they promised never to forget each other, or never to marry another or to love another the way they loved each other again as each one then died in faith of meeting again in heaven (“slept their dream”) (20).

Over the years (21), like a blanket of snow makes us forget how the ground looks before it finally reappears new again in spring (22-23), Bob and Betty faded from the townspeople’s memory, the church-going folks who didn’t think Bob and Betty were important people whose lives could teach them a lesson in love and faith (24).

Bob died (25) and Betty kissed him farewell (26).

Betty died soon after and the townsfolk buried them together (27).

The town considered them of little consequence (“little” person next to “little” person), an old couple who were old fashioned, out of date, out of context with the new reality (“was” as in past tense, passe) (28).

 Bob and Betty were everything to each other (she was “all” to him lying beside him who was “all” to her) and deep faith matched by deep faith (29).

Despite death, their faith was deeply embedded and continue in faith to dream of heaven and the resurrection they believed would come (30).

Bob and Betty decompose in the ground, dust to dust, not necessarily by the following spring, but by the dawn of the new age that considers them old-fashioned and out of touch (31).

They died with faith in their “spirit” and “if” the heavenly promises are true, “yes” or God will grant them heavenly rest because they firmly believed; “yes” can also be their unwavering, firm earthly witness (32).

 Church goers (I believe Cummings uses the “dong” and “ding” to say the people’s thoughts and reason are now more important to themselves and to be broadcast across hill and dale – science vs. faith – than the total faith the actual bells used to represent) (33) through the years (34) received the harvest of what they chose to believe in their lives (35) as time continues to roll on (35).

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One response to “My translation of E.E.Cummings’ “Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town”

  1. Suzanne

    Okay, somebody asked me this, but it wasn’t as a post, so I’ll answer it here anyway. The “how” town in my interpretation is because of the emphasis on science and reason, as in the culture wants to know how everything is made and done and created, so “how town” refers to the mindset of the people paying homage to their ability to reason that was especially naive and alive and well through the first world wars.

    The dig on all the bells being references to all the many denominations in the town is a stab as the splintering Christian church that has separated into so many discordant entities where unification is paid lip service to, but in reality, every little argument between people just separates them further. Remember that in the mid to late 1900s, there was a huge religious revival in the US and a myriad of small protestant denominations all popped up claiming they were the only holders of the “truth” and that everyone else was wrong and going to hell. Okay, well, move on into the turn of the 20th century with all of the movements for women’s rights especially that left a bad taste in the mouths of some very staunch religious leaders who insisted that women were inferior and a woman’s place is in the home. Well, even more splinter groups formed their own more and more fundamentalist church sects.

    It’s no wonder to me why Mr. Cummings had such a distaste for all those he considered hypocrites, while writing to extol the heroic virtue of the simple, faith-filled life of his nameless couple who weren’t swayed by the cultural whims of the day. The poem is really (again, all of this is my opinion and analysis) a modern parable, which I personally believe that Jesus would be pleased with. After all, those that get it, get it when they see it through a spiritual lense and don’t try to reason their way through it at face value. 😀

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