If “feeling is first,” Then Death Is Last
An explication of e. e. cummings' poem "since feeling is first"

Written for English 200 (02)
by Laura Melton
October 6, 1999

    e. e. cummings’ “since feeling is first” is about feeling (802).  This is immediately evident from the title and first line, which emphasize the word “feeling” in several different ways.  The stresses on “feel-“ and “first,” as well as the alliteration between those two words, make explicit their connection and importance, and the repetition of the same line in both title and first line serves to enhance the effect.

    The meaning of the first line is clear, but because of cummings’ characteristic absence of punctuation and capitalization as well as sentence structure, the next few lines are more ambiguous.  The first three lines together could be paraphrased as, “Because feeling comes first, who cares about the rules?”  Feeling is first in order of importance, and the rest does not matter.  “Who pays attention” is a rhetorical question meaning that no one pays any attention.  However, the ambiguousness of sentence structure means that the last two lines of the first stanza, “the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you,” can also be read together.  Linked together in such a way, this clause means that structure, such as grammar, is not engaging; it does not seize the imagination or emotions the way feeling does.

    This thought is continued in the next stanza, with the repeated word “wholly” linking back to the previous line.  Spring is a time of year known for giddy foolishness, and cummings plays off this idea.  The use of the word “fool” implies that there is a lack of intelligence, therefore that intelligence is important; however, in the next stanza, the speaker lets go of intellect entirely, declaring, “kisses are a better fate / than wisdom.”  It is better not to consider wisdom at all; feeling and experience is much more important.  The word “flowers” is a reference to the “Spring” mentioned in the second stanza, and moreover, these flowers are elevated to holiness, something worthy of swearing an oath.  Such a simple thing, like feeling, is now transformed into the most sacred and important.  In the line “the best gesture of my brain is less than / your eyelids’ flutter,” mental exertion, which is usually accorded such importance in our society, is reduced to less significance than the blink of an eye.  The important thing is to experience life, not to analyze it or think about it.

    One great life experience is love, which is present throughout the poem in phrases such as “kiss” and “lady”; however, it is addressed more fully in the fourth stanza.  The line “we are for each other” explicitly identifies the speaker and the addressee as a couple.  “Then” links this line to the next in a causal relationship, meaning “because we are together, laugh.”  The speaker is glad to be in love and revels in the delightful, sensual experience.  The line “laugh,leaning back in my arms” has a lovely anapestic rhythm which coincides with the meaning of “leaning” and gives it a free, joyous feeling.  This stanza urges the full experience of love.

    The last line of the fourth stanza says that “life is not a paragraph.”  This means that life is not about writing; life is about experience and sensation.  This writing-oriented word connects back to the use of “syntax” in the first stanza; there it was used in a similar way, to contrast merely writing about life with actually living it.  However, it also creates a link to the following line, the last line of the poem, “And death i think is no parenthesis.”  With the reference to death in mind, “life is not a paragraph” could mean that life is not even as long as a paragraph.  Therefore it is very short, and we must make the most of it.  A parenthesis is only the end of a phrase set off inside a sentence; however, death is not one of those; it is presumably a period, a full stop, the final end.  Once the “parenthesis” is passed, there is no going back, so it is important to make the most of life while it is there.

    The meter matches the progression of meaning from the freedom of life to impending death.  The poem is in free verse, but many of the feet are anapestic, which gives the poem a rolling, soothing but nevertheless propelling forward motion.  In addition, although there is never any regular meter, the later lines are more regular than the first ones.  For example, the last line of the poem is perfect iambic pentameter.  This fits the meaning of the poem because the first part is about how feeling is so important, but at the end it is driven home that “death is no parenthesis,” meaning that death is a period, the end, rather than merely a pause or the end of a phase.

    The progression of life and death also occurs in a temporal sense.  The introductory “since” in the first line of the poem, if read as a conjunction of time rather than causality, means that feeling comes first in life events, and death is last, both in the poem and in life itself.  Even though during the height of life we may be able to do whatever we want, eventually we will have to follow the rules, so we should make the most of it while we still can.  Because it uses the threat of death to urge the addressee to hurry up and live life to the fullest, especially through love, e. e. cummings’ “since feeling is first” is essentially a carpe diem poem.

Works Cited

cummings, e. e.  “since feeling is first.”  The Norton Anthology of Poetry.  Ed. Margaret Ferguson et al.  5th ed., shorter.  New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

Professor's Comments:
Very well done indeed.  You'll see some suggestions within on particular points, but more generally, two thoughts: 1) you might emphasize the paradox involved--even in trying to throw out "syntax," he can't get away from its terms and metaphors; 2) maybe try to get a bit of a smile into your own tone--a touch of wit to match his.
But as a whole, fine work.

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This page last updated November 18, 1999.