A Lost E.E. Cummings Poem Discovered

by James Dempsey

One day last year, while working on a biography of the publisher Scofield Thayer, I opened a folder of papers related to his magazine The Dial. The folder contained undated letters from the poet E.E. Cummings to Thayer, early versions of a couple Cummings’ poems and one poem by Cummings I couldn’t remember ever seeing before. It was called “(tonite” and, until I came across it, it was unknown. Evidence suggests that the poem was sent sometime around 1916, when Cummings was embarking on his career as a poet and artist. At this time the two men had known each other for about three years. Their friendship, which would last until Thayer succumbed to paranoid schizophrenia a decade later, was based largely on a shared passion for art and literature. Cummings benefited most from the relationship, as the wealthy Thayer gave Cummings money to write and paint, launched his career with publication in The Dial, and blithely assented to Cummings romancing, bedding (and, as it happened, impregnating) his beautiful wife.

The friendship had begun when, a century ago this year, a young Edward Estlin Cummings entered Harvard. There he met Thayer, fabulously wealthy and an influential figure on campus. Today, Cummings is widely read and anthologized, and Thayer all but forgotten. But at the time, Cummings looked upon Thayer as a mentor. The first piece of correspondence between the two is a polite fan letter from Cummings regarding a poem Thayer had published in the Harvard Monthly. Fans of the poet’s later work may be amused by the letter’s excessively twee formality.

Dear Mr. Thayer,

I shall feel better when I have made trial of expressing, to you, my admiration of your poem. I shall be very proud and happy indeed when I can say the thing so completely, so purely, and with such a true and fine ring as you have said it:

‘Her body is a reed, so slender
Whereon God’s lips do blow,
And in each petty human motion
The great hymns come and go.’

If this letter needs an apology, it is that I love poetry.

Your sincerely,
E. Estlin Cummings.

After receiving Cummings’ letter, Thayer, who was secretary of the Harvard Monthly, invited Cummings to join the board. That summer Cummings visited Thayer and his family at their summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. The two also explored the seedier side of the nightlife of Boston and Cambridge. In his personal notes, Cummings described one adventure in which the pair hit it off with a couple of young women. “ST & I — 2 gals, 1 healthy and attractive, other wicked and sicklooking take us to Hotel ‘Richmond,’” he wrote. Thayer evidently had sex with his young woman, while Cummings, “afraid of disease, only went to a certain point.”

Cummings’ background was solidly middle-class — his father was first a Harvard professor and then a Unitarian minister. Thayer, by contrast and by any measure, was rich. His father, who owned textile manufacturing mills in his hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, had died when Scofield was 17, leaving his son and only child the majority of his fortune. Thayer had no interest in running mills in central Massachusetts, an area whose cultural outlook he likened to that of an “alpine village.” He attended Milton Academy in Massachusetts, where he befriended Thomas Stearns Eliot, then earned his degree from Harvard and sailed for England, where he did postgraduate work in English and philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford. His fellow students included Prince George of Teck and the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII. There he again spent time with T.S. Eliot, who was also studying at the university.

The Beautiful Ones

Thayer left England in 1915 when it became obvious that the Great War would lumber bloodily on for many years to come. He returned with Elaine Orr. The two were engaged in April, 1916, and Thayer brought his fiancée to Cambridge that spring to meet his Harvard friends. Cummings probably met her around this time, perhaps at a party hosted by Thayer following a performance of John Galsworthy’s Justice. Many were struck by her loveliness. Hildegarde Watson, a friend of Thayer’s and herself a beauty who acted in her husband’s avant-garde movies, said, “I never saw anyone prettier than Elaine.” Thayer was also strikingly good looking. Erect, exquisitely turned-out, commanding, his face had both a severity and a softness, with a bowed lip that women described as Byronic. Cummings was intrigued by Thayer’s lips, and drew his caricature many times.

Cummings was the most heavily stricken by the lovely Elaine: “I considered EO as a princess,” he wrote, “something wonderful, unearthly, ethereal, the like of which I had never seen.” So struck was Cummings that immediately after meeting her, he wrote Orr, including in the letter one of his signature hand-drawn elephants. She replied three weeks later, saying she admired the elephant, was grateful for a compliment he had paid her, and hoped to take drawing lessons from him someday. Orr’s family was prominent in Troy, N.Y., where their paper-manufacturing business had prospered.

Thayer commissioned from Cummings an epithalamion, a poem celebrating his forthcoming marriage, for which Cummings was to be paid $1,000. This was patronage, of course, a way of giving Cummings money to support himself while he wrote, drew and painted. It was the first of many gifts and gestures of support Thayer would make to his friend and to others. The poem opens with an image of infidelity that would turn out to be prophetic:

Thou aged unreluctant earth who dost
with quivering continual thighs invite
the thrilling rain the slender paramour
to toy with thy extraordinary lust,
(the sinuous rain which rising from thy bed
steals to his wife the sky and hour by hour
wholly renews her pale flesh with delight)
 — immortally whence are the high gods fled?

The Thayers’ honeymoon seemed fine on the surface. The couple stayed at the palatial Potter Hotel in Santa Barbara and eventually moved into a rented house. They swam, rode, read and traveled around the state. All in all, this young, good-looking, wealthy couple seemed to be living an idyllic existence, but behind closed doors the marriage was unraveling at a calamitous rate. In his notes, Thayer described what seems like a moment of horror and desperation experienced by his bride: “E.O.’s cry at the Potter was not only the cry of the broken virgin,” he wrote, “it was also the cry of the lost soul when, driven backwards, without the strength of backbone to withstand the Devil’s push — when it feels the earth give way and only air beneath it.” He went on to describe her vulnerability thus: “The eyes opened wide like windows to break.” Thayer’s writing was often expressionistic rather than journalistic, and while one cannot surmise the specifics of what he is describing here, it was obviously a moment of shock, pain and fear for Elaine, one that drained her. “E.O. at Montecito like a snake that’s had its back broken,” Thayer wrote.

But that was not all. Another note suggests that, while still on their honeymoon, Thayer told his wife he wanted nothing more to do with the marriage and that they were to live separately: “E.O. pausing in her breakfast at Montecito looked half-sick of her evil bargain.” Their romance had begun in great passion, but Thayer seemed to recoil from the intimacies of marriage, even with a beautiful woman. Later he would write in his notebook, “Marriage occupies same relation to love as the forced activities of sinners in Inferno do to their activities in this world. Marriage is as if a profound and penetrating punishment for love.”

Elaine remained fond of Thayer, however, for many years, and even admired him for the choices he made. She would tell Cummings, “One thing I know: I owe him everything, he taught me the lesson of my life[,] gave the shaking-up of my life.”

When the couple returned to the East in June 1917, just a year after their wedding, friends saw that the relationship was undoubtedly over. Thayer set up his wife in a Greenwich Village apartment and himself moved into the Benedick, an apartment building that catered to bachelors.

Cummings came to New York in early 1918 and began escorting Thayer’s wife around town. Thayer was thoroughly sanguine about the situation and even sent a check to Cummings “for the time, energy and other things you have expended upon Elaine.” Much of the speculation around Thayer has been that he was homosexual, and that this accounted for his failed marriage. While there are a few suggestions of homosexuality in Thayer’s private writings, there is much more evidence that he enjoyed a vigorous heterosexual life in line with his adoption of the philosophy of free love: “Love should be free,” he said, “and a mere social institution should not interfere with sexual adventure.” Thayer’s wife and Cummings were certainly acting on this directive; by 1919 they were intimate. Cummings, however, was not so detached in his philosophy of love as Thayer, and was fated to be utterly obsessed with Elaine. He wrote close to one hundred poems to her, including his longest poem, “Puella Mea,” and his notes are full of references to her and to his fascination with her. Through all of this, the two men remained friends, even escorting Elaine together on nights out on the town.

In 1921, the Thayers went to Paris for a quickie “French divorce,” and Cummings finally married his muse Elaine in 1924. Unfortunately, this union was even more short lived than the one with her first husband. Just three months after Cummings’ father had married the two in Cambridge, Elaine announced that she had met someone else and wanted a divorce. Her new love was Frank MacDermot, a senior partner in a firm of merchant bankers. Nancy, the daughter of Cummings and Elaine, would grow up in Europe believing that her father was Thayer, and only when she herself was a mother would she find out, from Cummings himself, that Cummings was in fact her biological father.

Bounding Toward The Pantheon

By late 1919 Thayer had become the owner, along with his friend James Sibley Watson, of The Dial, a magazine that had recently moved from Chicago to 152 West Thirteenth Street in Greenwich Village. The magazine, despite some progressive stances on political issues, had a reputation for staidness. Thayer, by introducing to its pages Modernist and avant-garde work from Europe to America, much of it aimed at shocking the bourgeois, quickly made the world of art and culture pay attention to what he was doing. A list of the writers and artists featured in The Dial under its new owners demonstrates the astonishing breadth of work it published. Verse by Yeats, Edna St. Vincent Millay, H.D. and James Joyce; fiction from D.H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust and Djuna Barnes; art by Picasso, Matisse and Wyndham Lewis. As importantly, The Dial also provided a forum for criticism that was taken advantage of by writers like Eliot and Edmund Wilson. Philosophical writings came from Bertrand Russell, John Dewey and Edward Sapir.

The magazine was a hit, and soon both avant-garde and traditional writers and artists were jockeying to have their material appear in its pages. Not everyone was impressed. The poet and critic Robert Hillyer wrote to a friend: “They published a perfect sheaf of awful unnameables by Estlin and some line drawings by him of trollops with their limbs spread wide apart.”

While working as an editor at the magazine, Thayer had tried to persuade the editorial staff to publish Cummings’ work, but they rejected the unorthodox experiments of the young poet. In the first issue under the new owners, however, published January 1920, Thayer thumbed his nose at the old guard by publishing seven Cummings’ poems and four of his drawings of performers at a local burlesque theater. The poet Amy Lowell, a skeptic of both The Dial and Cummings’ work, bet Thayer $100 that Cummings would not ascend to the pantheon of American poets.

The Dial’s success came at a great cost to Thayer. The magazine never made a profit, and at one point he and Watson were supporting it to the tune of $100,000 a year. The magazine made enemies, too — Ernest Hemingway was perhaps the most famous. Hemingway never forgave the magazine for rejecting his work, and accused Thayer of buggery and Thayer’s editor, Marianne Moore, of being an “aged virgin.”

Thayer also quickly found out that being forward thinking in matters of art was not without its dangers. He had to work tirelessly to ensure that the magazine did not fall afoul of John Sumner, the new head of The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who was successfully prosecuting and closing magazines deemed to be politically radical or immoral. Modernism itself, being an import from Europe, was often conflated in the public mind with immorality, and the vice societies were as likely to prosecute artists and intellectuals as they were the purveyors of smut. One of the more celebrated cases of the period was that of the magazine The Little Review, which was put on trial after publishing the “Nausicaa” section of Ulysses, a chapter that includes an allusion to masturbation. Thayer agreed to testify for the defense. The Dial was never prosecuted, largely because of Thayer’s genius at knowing how far he could go in publishing the unorthodox and risque.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that The Dial made Cummings’ career. For his part, Cummings recognized how lucky he was in having Thayer and Watson champion his material. He wrote his father: “I need not say that I am extraordinarily that is as usual lucky in having what amounts to my own printing-press in Thayer and Watson — by which I refer to the attention which such minutiae as commas and small i’s, in which minutiae my Firstness thrives, get at the hands of these utterly unique gentlemen.”

Through the early ’20s, as The Dial became more established, Cummings was living in an apartment in Patchin Place that was maintained and paid for by Watson. There he painted, wrote and lived a generally bohemian lifestyle that was not appreciated by all. In a letter to Thayer, Alyse Gregory, one of the Dial’s editors (she preceded the poet Marianne Moore), described Cummings’ empty apartment at Patchin Place:

[T]here are books and papers of his and a suit case and a litter of dirt which the wildest savage would blush to leave behind!! Really some men have no more aesthetic sense than certain animals I would not care to mention. Since Watson is paying for the rooms one would think that so immaculate a man as your young friend might be a little more considerate. Matches all over the floor, broken bits of glass, old orange peels — but I refrain. I am in a bitter mood.

For his part, Thayer cheerily responded: “I am astonished you should accuse the most distinguished poet of your country and generation of being devoid of aesthetic sense. Have you not seen La Vie de Bohême? Can you not admire a youth sedulously modeled upon so austere an ideal?”

Thayer’s own career as a writer never took off. His verse was awkward and antiquated, and much of his prose writings in The Dial were baroque and needlessly allusive. (His personal notes are another matter, packed as they are with apothegms and caustic descriptions of his contemporaries.) But Thayer did know how to pick a winner. That’s how he built up his magnificent art collection, most of which is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He had the same touch with literature. He recognized that Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice was a masterpiece before it had been translated into English. He was the first American publisher to bring out T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. He wrote in The Dial the first general survey of all of James Joyce’s work to that point, from Chamber Music to Ulysses. He pointed out, correctly, that the censorship cause célèbre of the early ’20s, the trial of James Branch Cabell’s novel Jürgen, would soon be forgotten, whereas the trial of The Little Review for its printing of the Ulysses would eventually be remembered as a watershed moment in literary history. All of this demonstrates a sharp critical faculty and a sincere and aesthetic love for literature and art.

Thayer, who from his mid-twenties had been showing signs of paranoia, lived for two years in Vienna as a patient of Sigmund Freud. In 1926, he suffered a complete mental breakdown and was brought back to Massachusetts. He was declared “an insane person” in 1931 and spent the rest of his life under care. After his death, in 1982, papers and artwork were found in a storage warehouse in Worcester, including many letters from Ezra Pound to Thayer and Watson, and Picasso’s controversial painting “Erotic Scene,” which was included in last year’s Picasso exhibit at the Met.

Cummings visited Thayer in Worcester in 1930, reporting that his friend seemed a “captive of his nurses and mother.” There is no evidence of any later meeting.

Thayer pondered Cummings a great deal in his personal notes, as if trying to understand what he saw as the curious admixture of “low” breeding and lyrical genius. Here he compares Cummings with T.S. Eliot, another friend of Thayer’s who had become a literary star: “Eliot’s … repressed tones of speech are parallel to Cummings’ small I’s and to certain of his gestures and to turns of speech of his used in deflecting opposition (present or glimpsed as possible) to whatever he may be saying. All these manifestations are defensive shell formations against an environment felt as hostile.” So Thayer did not see Cummings’ much-discussed lower-case i’s as a diminution of self for the sake of humility, or modesty, or a sense of proportion, but rather as a defense mechanism, a way of making oneself small so that one is harder to observe, or perhaps, hit. In another entry, he is even more pointed: “The small I’s of Cumming are not, as he wills them, merely negative or unpicked-out. One infringes upon convention at one’s peril. This I suggests a poet very minute, very hard, very Cockney, yet very American, and having a little penetrating stink all his own.”

There is much else in Thayer’s notes pejorative of Cummings. He is a “cheap boulevardier,” “a soft-shoe poet”; he “is to Am. lit what [Al] Jolson is to Am. stage.” But the fact of Thayer’s support for (and perhaps need of) his friend right up to the end — he vainly begged Cummings to come to him in Europe when he was having his breakdown — shows another side of this complex and fateful man. In his writing, Thayer was never able to rise above his own snobbery, but when it came to what mattered — and art mattered to Thayer more than anything — he made the right choices and did the right thing.

I’ve been researching Thayer for about five years now, with the aim of writing a biography that would give him his share of credit for publishing The Dial. It was while researching that book at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, that I came across the previously unknown, unpublished poem by Cummings, “(tonite.”

The poem — which appears in full on the next page — begins with a parenthesis, which has the effect of softening or diminishing the opening lines, as if putting them into a minor key. The opening of the poem is an exposition of a snowscape.

in nigger

the snow is perfectly falling,

the noiselessly snow is
sexually fingering the utterly asleep


The word “tonite” is emphasized by its spelling, by its isolation on the line, and by its primacy as the first word of the poem. This stressing of a single word is in tension with the subduing effect of the parentheses. The misspelling suggests not so much ignorance or willful illiteracy but rather the world of advertising and entertainment. It was at the time an attention-getting word one might see on a poster for a burlesque or vaudeville show. This mixing of art and popular entertainment is common in the Cummings of the period.

“Nigger” is and was at the time of writing a hard word, of course, one that was unmistakably insulting and disparaging, though not exclusively so. Carl Sandburg, by then a respected poet, had published, in 1916, a poem titled “I Am the Nigger.” That poem is sympathetic to its subject but indulges in many of the stereotypes of the African-American as being muscular, lusty, instinctual and threatening. Cummings largely avoids such stereotypes in “(tonite.” But that the word is used six times in a one-page poem perhaps gives us a clue as to why the work was never published. (This was not Cummings’ only use of the term; the word appears in at least one other poem.)

Two books of posthumous poems were published following Cummings’ death in 1962, 73 Poems and Etcetera, the latter of which, published in 1978, is almost wholly composed of uncollected poems from Cummings’ papers in the Houghton Library at Harvard. Now we have this new, unknown and unpublished text, like an echo of Modernism coming down the years, the poem “(tonite,” which shows a young writer experimenting with language and form, trying to make his words do things they had never done before. It seems appropriate — wryly so — that one hundred years after Cummings met the man who would support his art and launch his literary career, and who would share with him the woman who became his muse, that Scofield Thayer should yet again be the agent by which a poem of E.E. Cummings is published.

James Dempsey is the author of The Court Poetry of Chaucer (verse) and Zakary’s Zombies (novel). He’s also working on a biography, Tortured Excellence: The Life of Scofield Thayer.

Next: The previously unknown Cummings poem, “(tonite”.

This previously unknown E.E. Cummings poem was discovered in a folder of correspondence between the poet and his friend and publisher, Scofield Thayer. (Main story.)

© 2011 by the Trustees for the E. E. Cummings Trust. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Use of archived materials courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Gaston Lachaise’s bust of Scofield Thayer on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.