Cummings’ medieval ballad-inspired ‘All in green went my love riding’ (CP 15) has been a firm favourite among readers. The composition dates to his Harvard undergraduate years and the poem was collected in Tulips and Chimneys (1923); the preferred text is now Tulips & Chimneys (1922 ms), which returns to Cummings’ authorial selection and ordering of the poems.
‘All in green went my love riding’ narrates a hunt, with ‘my love riding / on a great horse of gold’. The chase is accompanied by four hounds, and pursues four deer at a white water, across meadows, into a gold valley, and up to a mountain. The poem has occasioned a fair bit of discussion (Sanders 1966; Jumper 1967; Robey 1968; Gidley 1968: 194; Davis 1970; West 1973; Lane 1976: 59-63; Frosch 2002; some further references are given by Frosch). One notable point of disagreement concerns the gender of the speaker and of the rider. Sanders (1966), Robey (1968), and Davis (1970) argue that the rider is female. Jumper (1967) argued that the rider was male and the speaker female, on the grounds that Cummings depicts a medieval hunt and that: ‘No woman, in her daintiness, would ride “a great horse.”’ Jumper adds that the narrative ‘is, of course, being reconstructed by the speaker of the poem, the “lady” back at the manor’, waiting in hopes of the return of a successful hunt. Other readers have disagreed in strong terms, and have often read the hunter as a Diana/Artemis figure (especially Sanders and Davis).
Frosch (2002) has challenged the whole framing of this debate over gender. Frosch observes that the gender of speaker and rider are not textually resolvable and, moreover, that this unresolvable gendering of the persons in the poem builds on a thematic ambiguity of gender, ‘as we see in the case of the deer, which actually change gender, starting out as “Four red roebuck,” then becoming “Four fleet does,” and then becoming “Four tall stags”’ (2002: 67). Our reading of the poem ought, in Frosch’s view, to embrace this ambiguity.
What Frosch says is certainly a salutary step towards a more light-footed reading of the poem, but there are perhaps a few further observations which could usefully be offered.
‘All in green went my love riding’ is situated in Tulips & Chimneys (1922 ms) within a tightly structured, self-reflexive sub-section consisting of nine poems titled ‘Songs’, where it stands as the exactly middle poem, Songs V. The imagery of that section is consistently reworked across poems. To give just one example (my own emphasis in bold), Songs I (CP 9-10) describes the ‘ghosts’ (souls) of the underworld as
but a rain frailly raging whom the hills
sink into and their sunsets,it shall pass.
Our feet tread sleepless meadows sweet with fear”)
while Songs III (CP 12-13) reworks this image into a reference to death,
(whose hand my folded soul shall know
while on faint hills do frailly go
The peaceful terrors of the snow,
It is tightly connected reworking: souls, hill, ‘frailly’, rain/snow, ‘sweet with fear’/‘peaceful terrors’.
Not only do these nine ‘Songs’ rework imagery and themes intra-textually; they also reply to each other. In ‘Songs III’, the speaker asks why he
Expects of your hair pale,
a terror musical?
and is implicitly answered by the hair of the beloved in Songs IV (CP 14) ‘which / sings’ (cf. ‘musical’) ‘do not fear’.
I have said more about the interwoven nature of ‘Songs’ as a section in E.E. Cummings’ Modernism and the Classics: Each Imperishable Stanza (Oxford University Press 2016). My point for now is that the ‘Songs’ section verges on a poem sequence, by which I mean a set of poems intrinsically connected and presented textually (e.g. via the text’s apparatus or other means of authorial and editorial comment—here, via the section headings) to signal that the individual poems are not a textual unit to be isolated from their sequence setting.
These textual circumstances encourage us to read some consistency into the speaker of the Songs. Most of the gendering in Songs is implicit and based on conventional markers of a male speaker and a female beloved. At a few points the gendering is more explicit: there is a reference to ‘her head’ (the beloved) in Songs II (CP 11) and in Songs IV the beloved asks the poetic speaker ‘for which girl art thou flowers bringing?’. Reading from Songs I-IV forward, there is a clear expectation that the speaker is male and that the beloved—that is, in Songs V, the rider—is female.
It is all the more surprising, then, to find that in early drafts of ‘All in green went my love riding’, the rider is unambiguously male.
Forth went my lord to hunt
Into the dawn my lord rode,
And a merry deer ran before
These drafts represent the very first efforts towards the poem. They lie in a notebook dating to Cummings’ Harvard undergraduate years and now held at the Harry Ransom Center (University of Texas at Austin), among the E.E. Cummings papers, call number 6.1. The figure remains explicitly male in the poem’s early evolution, e.g. ‘Spurs of gold at his heels sparkled’. These drafts also show that Cummings’ first structural concern was the colour scheme of green, gold, and silver, which he lays out in a schematic.
In other words, the plan was to start with green, gold, and silver, then a stanza themed on green; then gold, green, silver, followed by a stanza themed on gold; then silver, gold, green, and a final stanza themed on silver. (Thus stanzas 2, 4, and 6 are themed on the first of the colours to appear, respectively, in 1, 3, and 5.)
At this point in its composition, the overall structure of the poem as we now have it and the rhythms which make it so memorable lie in its future, and so does the ambiguity of gender.
One other aspect of the poem came later: its Swinburnian feel. To repeat here briefly a few sentences from my book:
Swinburne’s ‘Itylus’ (from Poems and Ballads) draws on the myth of Philomela and Procne: in Swinburne’s poem, Philomela, transformed into the nightingale, calls out to her sister Procne, transformed into the swallow. ‘Itylus’ begins, ‘Swallow, my sister, O sister swallow’. Variations on that line become a refrain in Swinburne’s poem: ‘Sister, my sister, O fleet sweet swallow’; ‘O swallow, sister, O fleeting swallow’; ‘O sweet stray sister, O shifting swallow’. The music of these lines is very similar to the shifting refrains used by Cummings in ‘Songs V’. Swinburne’s alliterative tones (‘O sweet stray sister’) are recognizable in Cummings’ phrases: ‘the sleek slim deer / the tall tense deer’. The ‘fleet sweet swallow’ is echoed in Cummings’ ‘swift sweet deer’ and ‘fleet flown deer’. Both poems also end with a sheer, dead weight: ‘But the world shall end when I forget.’; ‘my heart fell dead before.’ (Rosenblitt 2016: 154)
Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads also contain notable explorations of gender ambiguity, including the hermaphroditic subjects of ‘Hermaphroditus’ and ‘Fragoletta’. In the end, Frosch is right in his essential point that the poem as we have it, at least if considered outside of the ‘Songs’ context, is ambiguous as to the gender of speaker and beloved. Indeed, his point about the gender-shifting nature of the deer stands however much the ‘Songs’ context might be deemed otherwise to fix the gender of speaker and beloved. Cummings is not often so ambiguous in gender. It is interesting that a rare exploration of gender ambiguity in Cummings coincides with a Swinburnian moment in his poetry. Kennedy was savagely disparaging about the Decadent influence on Cummings’ poetry (Kennedy 1976: 290; cf. 290-1, 295-6 and Kennedy 1994: 67-71). But Kennedy’s attitude is itself influenced by what Cassandra Laity (1996: 1-28) has exposed as a male modernist construction of an anti-Romantic, anti-Decadent self, generated in particular by Eliot, Pound, and Yeats, who narrativized themselves as male poets who had overcome a dangerous adolescent phase in which they were temporarily seduced by feminized Decadence. It is time to re-value Cummings’ productive dialogue with Decadence, and the beloved ‘All in green went my love riding’ is a good place to start.
Alison Rosenblitt, Ph.D.
Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford
For the opportunity to spend time with the Cummings papers at the Harry Ransom Center (University of Texas at Austin), I owe enormous thanks for a 2016 Research Fellowship in the Humanities, supported by the Frederic D. Weinstein Memorial Fellowship.
Cummings, E.E. 1994. Complete Poems 1904-1962: Revised, Corrected, and Expanded Edition Containing all the Published Poetry. ed. George J. Firmage. New York: Liveright.
Cummings, E.E. 1976. Tulips & Chimneys. The original 1922 Manuscript with the 34 additional poems from &. ed. and afterword George James Firmage and intro. Richard S. Kennedy. New York: Liveright.
Cummings, E.E. 1923. Tulips and Chimneys. New York: Thomas Seltzer.
Davis, William V. 1970. ‘Cummings’ “All in Green Went My Love Riding”.’ Concerning Poetry 2: 65-7.
Frosch, Thomas R. 2002. ‘Eros and Ambiguity in “All in Green Went My Love Riding”.’ Spring 11: 66-70.
Gidley, Mick. 1968. ‘Picture and Poem: E.E. Cummings in Perspective.’ Poetry Review 59: 179-95.
Jumper, Will C. 1967. ‘Cummings’ All In Green Went My Love Riding.’ Explicator 26: no.6.
Kennedy, Richard S. 1994. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E.E. Cummings. 2nd ed. New York: Liveright. (1st ed. 1980.)
Kennedy, Richard S. 1976. ‘E.E. Cummings at Harvard: Studies.’ Harvard Library Bulletin 24: 267-97.
Laity, Cassandra. 1996. H.D. and the Victorian Fin de Siècle: Gender, Modernism, Decadence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lane, Gary. 1976. I Am: A Study of E.E. Cummings’ Poems. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Robey, Cora. 1968. ‘Cummings’ All in Green Went My Love Riding.’ Explicator 27: no.2.
Rosenblitt, J Alison. 2016. E.E. Cummings’ Modernism and the Classics: Each Imperishable Stanza. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sanders, Barry. 1966. ‘Cummings’ All in Green Went My Love Riding.’ Explicator 25.3: no. 23.
Swinburne, Algernon Charles. 2000 [1866/1865]. Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon. ed. Kenneth Haynes. London: Penguin.
West, Philip J. 1973. ‘Medieval Style and the Concerns of Modern Criticism.’ College English 34: 784-90.