if i have made,my lady,intricate
imperfect various things chiefly which wrong
your eyes(frailer than most deep dreams are frail)
songs less firm than your body’s whitest song
upon my mind-if i have failed to snare
the glance too shy-if through my singing slips
the very skillful strangeness of your smile
the keen primeval silence of your hair

-let the world say “his most wise music stole
nothing from death”-
you only will create
(who are so perfectly alive)my shame:
lady through whose profound and fragile lips
the sweet small clumsy feet of April came

into the ragged meadow of my soul.

Analysis, meaning and summary of e.e. cummings's poem if i have made,my lady,intricate

2 Comments

  1. M. Mansouri says:

    One practical way of approaching sonnets, generally, is by what I call the “entry point”. Now, let us check how the “entry point” approach plays in the reading of a sonnet by E. E. Cummings. The entry point to Cummings’ “if I have made, my lady, intricate” is that it looks like a sonnet, but not quite (as we shall see):
    if i have made, my lady, intricate
    imperfect various things chiefly which wrong
    your eyes (frailer than most deep dreams are frail)
    songs less firm than your body’s whitest song
    upon my mind – if I have failed to snare
    the glance too shy – if through my singing slips
    the very skilful strangeness of your smile
    the keen primeval silence of your hair

    – let the world say “his most wise music stole
    nothing from death” –
    you only will create
    (who are so perfectly alive)my shame:
    lady through whose profound and fragile lips
    the sweet small clumsy feet of April came

    into the ragged meadow of my soul.
    The speaker, recognisably a lover and a poet, addresses his lady. His address runs thus: “if . . . if . . . if” / “- let”. The series of “if(s)” develops an admission of the inability to “create”: no similes, metaphors or other rhetorical devices, such as developed by predecessor sonneteers will give justice to the lady’s ineffable looks and other graces. No conceits (extended metaphors) will “snare / the glance too shy”, and the “very skilful strangeness of [her] smile” will slip through the ‘net’ of his “singing” (song = sonnet). This is what the octave (the first eight lines of a Petrarchan sonnet) develops.
    A volta (or turn) is signalled by a structural shift “- let the world say”. We have moved with this turn into the sestet (the second six lines rounding off a Petrarchan sonnet). The “world” (critics / rival sonneteers) will say that “his most wise music stole / nothing from death” (i.e. failed to immortalize his lady in ‘words’). “Wise” is ironical, as he has already engaged in some trickster practice: describing her through ‘negatives’ of capability to poeticise. The speaker, then, pits the lady (the holder of the original that challenges his capability to “create”), against his predecessor ‘creators’ (the holders of contrived copies): “You only will create”. “Create” what? we might ask. The fresh conceit (extended metaphor) responds to the creative impulse, not in rivalry with the old sonneteers and vain attempts to replicate their conceit of “ink and paper”, but in responding to the challenge that the “perfectly alive” sets you as a belated sonneteer experiencing a bout of an ‘anxiety of influence’.

    The poem is a variation on the sonnet form, with a major destabilising structural element creating tension between the convention and the act of revisiting it, and, thus, denying the reader an automatic recognition that would, otherwise, obtain through familiar categorisation. The destabilising move consists in splitting line 10 into 2 segments. Upon enquiry, this is found to serve an emphatic purpose: causing the second half line (“you only will create . . .”) to read, of course, as a run-on line with a delayed object (“you only will create” what? “my shame,” but also to read as a end-stopped/ self-contained line: “you only will create . . .”), thus moving the act of ‘creation’ from the poet to the subject of his verse (recalling and reversing, in the process, the Greek meaning of “poet” as “maker”). The lady now ‘creates,’ as she is the one who holds the original which the predecessor/precursor (the Elizabethan sonneteer) assumed he could immortalize through the conceit of “ink and paper.” Unlike the Elizabethan sonneteer (the ‘maker’), who starts with the assumption of mastery over the subject of his description, the modern poet starts with the awareness of a challenge, i.e., that the subject of his description eludes his art of versification. The modern poet is aware that language is impotent. He is aware that were he to ‘make intricate/imperfect various things’ which ‘chiefly wrong’ his lady’s “eyes” and other graces, the critical “world” (i.e. the custodians of the canon) will say that “his most wise music stole/nothing from death,” i.e. that he has failed to compete with them in the generic metaphorisation contest, the use of the immortalising conceit.
    However, he emphasises—in the split 10th line, made a key line by the destabilising structural twist—that their judgement about his art, as a belated poet, will not ‘create his shame,’ as the precursors’ hold a copy, while she holds the original (she ‘only will create his shame’ (to read as ‘only she will create his shame,’ but “she” is topicalised/fronted). In the contest for agency, the lady is not a “she”; she is an emphatic you—as Cummings would not let the syntax rob the lady of agency. “[T]he world” (‘they’) are not topicalised/fronted. The play of deixis meets out presence and absence in defiance of the predecessors’ categorisation. In his endeavour to capture the lady’s essence, the challenge is not to seek to outdo the traditional sonneteers’ artful (stultified, dead, clichéd) copies, but to aspire to ‘snare’ what is “so perfectly alive.” He is not in competition with the holders of copies and their artistic feats; he is in competition with the holder of the original and he is challenged in his mastery over his own means of capturing the subtle, the elusive, the ineffable. Instead of him (the poet) making her, she (the absent in the traditional sonnet / the present in the modern sonnet) now makes him by, precisely, setting him the challenge of dealing with a subject, not an object, and prompting him to question his powers.
    By way of entry point, again, one also notices that the text’s layout as a poem jars with the way it reads like prose: “if i have made . . .”/ “- let the world say . . .” Thus, the intertwining of the verse identifier with the prose identifier puts in place a clear destabilisation of poetic identity markers. In a move that recalls Bloom’s precursor/belated poet antagonism, Cummings de-poeticises in order to freshly poeticise. The revisiting of the sonnet form and its ‘prosifying,’ is a dig against the sixteenth-century sonneteer’s conceit of “ink and paper,” as immortalising the lady, and this sonneteer’s self-conceit, as his long-held assumption of being the true maker:
    you will only create
    (who are so perfectly alive)my shame:
    This is disconcerting: the poet, as the traditionally designated maker, is challenged: all he can create is a copy; the original is held by her, and his ‘intricate’ craft cannot match what is ‘so perfectly alive.’ So, against the act of pursuing a convention / tradition that cultivates the ‘intricate’ (the ‘remote’), the ‘individual talent’ advances pursuing the ‘denudate’ (the ‘close’). True, unmatched ‘creation’ of the ‘so perfectly alive’ comes in the poem to be–not confining the lady in verse, but unveiling and celebrating the lady as ‘generator’ of life and beatitude:
    lady whose profound and fragile lips
    the sweet small clumsy feet of April came

    into the ragged meadow of my soul.
    This “ragged meadow” is also the barren poetic landscape, from which—and against which—the narrative of a ‘fresh’ landscape seeks to arise and to which it returns with a difference. The overall pattern is langue; the individual narrative is parole.
    Thus, the destabilisation of the model (the entrenched highly conventionalised sonnet form) operates through a play on a graphic layout that enforces the recognition of a conventional, enshrined, time-honoured poetic form and through a discursive narrativity borne out by prose. We are in the presence of a peculiar lyric. Does this new form of the lyric question a phenomenon of excessive lyricism? We know that the “I” reigns supreme in a lyric. Here, the space of the “I” is reduced (“i”), and dialogism holds sway. Is it an attempt to explore and introduce a new form of discursive cohesion in poetry? We know that the ‘poetic’ holds sway in verse. Here, the ‘prosaic’ is as important as the ‘poetic.’ Is the “I”-dominated sonnet, as a lyric, being challenged? Here, the active presence of the “you” is more prominent than that of the “i” (non-capitalised). The “I” no longer runs/reigns undisturbed; the “they” interject in the middle of its discourse, and the “you” takes over. The “you” is credited with a triple act of (pro)creation: in the biological sense (through her “profound and fragile lips,” the lady begets ‘baby April’); in the artistic sense (the challenge that the lady sets the artist prompts him into forging an unprecedented conceit—immortalisation by creation (she creates), rather than immortalisation by eternisation (the traditional sonneteer’s conceit of “ink and paper”); and in an emotional sense (the lady ushering Spring to the “ragged meadow” of his “soul,” not that—as in Shakespeare (Sonnet 18), for instance—the text (the conceit of ink and paper) securing immortalisation for the lady: “So long as man can breathe and eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”).

  2. R.C. Richards says:

    Any attempt to comment on this poem is an attempted rape on perfection.

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