magnificence conquers magnificence

Scofield Thayer portrait by e. e. cummings 1921

One is not half of two; two is halves of one.

e. e. cummings

Epithalamion (An Excerpt)

3

by e. e. cummings

Lover,lead forth thy love unto that bed
prepared by whitest hands of waiting years,
curtained with wordless worship absolute,
unto the certain altar at whose head
stands that clear candle whose expecting breath
exults upon the tongue of flame half-mute
(haste ere some thrush with silver several tears
complete the perfumed paraphrase of death).

Now is the time when all occasional things
close into silence,only one tree,one
svelte translation of eternity
unto the pale meaning of heaven cling,
(whose million leaves in winsome indolence
simmer upon thinking twilight momently)
as down the oblivious west’s numerous dun
magnificence conquers magnificence.


Epithalamion is the first poem in Tulips and Chimneys.  It is unusual in several regards in looking at Cummings complete body of work.  First is its length, comprised of 21 stanzas eight lines each broken into three equal parts, its is the longest poem that Cummings published and yet it was one of his first paying gigs as a writer.  Second, it is one of the most formal, most conventional poems of Cummings career. The title Epithalamion draws on Cummings knowledge of Greek and Latin and it means a song or poem written in honor of a marriage.   Cummings wrote it as a  commission in 1916 for Scofield Thayer, his friend from Harvard, on the occasion of Thayer’s marriage to Elaine Orr.   Thayer paid Cummings the exorbitant sum of $1,000 dollars for the poem and was absolutely thrilled with it.  The money, along with the shot of confidence it created, helped Cummings establish his first move to New York City, before his war years.   But the relationship between Scofield and Elaine was convoluted from the very beginning and only gets more so over the next decade.   

Cummings is quoted as saying in the years leading up to the publishing of Tulips and Chimneys that in Paris he was a poet, but in New York City he was a painter.  Although Cummings legacy as an artist is most widely known for his words, he was a prolific and talented painter though out his lifetime. Cummings had a tilt towards cubism in his water colors and oils, with a penchant towards experimental shapes and compositions (many of which he titled Sound) or portraits, like the one of Scofield Thayer that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.  Several of Cummings paintings have been collected by prestigious museums, like the Metropolitan museum in New York.  A quick google search and you will find there are as many or more images of Cummings as self portraits as sketches or paintings as there of photographs of him on the internet.   

Cummings worked very hard on his craft as a painter.  He entered numerous shows prior to the war and was thrilled at getting his paintings placed in galleries and exhibits in New York City and his success at selling some of them.  Cummings received more positive feedback as a painter in those years than he did as a writer.  There’s no financial accounting in his biographies, but in the years from 1917 to 1922, it is fair to guess that Cummings made more money on the sale of his paintings than he did on the sale of his poetry.  His father prior to the war was disdainful of Cummings focus on all his artistic pursuits, but in particular his painting.  When Cummings returned his father changed his position and was much more supportive with a standing offer in several letters to buy paintings if Cummings  was in need of cash.  Its unclear if Cummings ever took him up on the offer as he was steadfast in trying to make it as a struggling artist, it was part of his psyche and it was in part his driver, his creative force, a sense of him having to make it in the world on his own. 

There was a striking contrast to Scofield and Elaine’s lifestyle in New York City and Cummings’ in those years.  The Thayers lived in an upscale residence with ample funds for dining and entertainment, while Cummings bunked with male room mates in drafty small quarters in Greenwich village.  Scofield and Cummings had a long running friendship.  Cummings was completely smitten by Elaine, her poise, her social skills, her beauty.  Cummings was known throughout his lifetime as an interesting dining companion with endless opinions, quotes, quips and stories to entertain his friends.  Scofield enjoyed his company, appreciated his mind and his art, and encouraged what started out as a platonic flirtation with his wife.   It was well known among Scofield and Cummings circle of mutual friends that everyone was either in love with Elaine or in love with Cummings, (men and women).   

Prior to the war, the Thayers and Cummings relationship was one of youthful exuberance, but it took on a darker tone when Cummings was released from the Army in 1919 and returned to Greenwich Village.  Scofield had somehow lost interest in Elaine and had established separate residences for each of them.  Cummings was still smitten with Elaine and Scofield encouraged their friendship and time together to keep Elaine happily distracted while he did his own thing.   All three were miserable in some regards and it was clear the situation was not sustainable. 

Elaine gave birth to her daughter Nancy on December 20, 1919.  It is not clear exactly when both Estlin and Scofield knew it was Cummings’ daughter and not Scofield’s, but it came to light pretty quickly.   It is possible that Scofield was not having sex with Elaine, and may have been gay, but regardless, the paternity of Nancy was never in dispute, though it did remain a closeted secret until Nancy was an adult.  Eslin, Scofield, Elaine and Nancy’s lives were intertwined from that point forward, before and after Elaine and Scofield’s divorce in 1921, in which Scofield generously established financial support for both Elaine and Nancy, (and by extension, Estlin).   Elaine maintained a separate residence from both Scofield and Estlin, as she had much greater financial resources than Estlin, both from her family and the divorce settlement from Scofield. Also Estlin was not ready to be a family man and did not want to be a financial burden on Elaine.  But Estlin was a presence in Nancy’s life from the time she was a toddler on-ward, kind of the fun friend of the family, like a young Uncle who took Nancy out to the park, the circus, did art together during that period.

 In 1921, Cummings decided to follow in the footsteps of his Harvard friend John Dos Passos and head to Lisbon, Portugal.  Cummings would go on to travel and live across Europe from 1921 to 1924,  meeting and establishing friendships with Ezra Pound, connecting with Conrad Aiken and T. S. Eliot, among other friends from Harvard, while in Europe.  During this period both Elaine and Nancy and Scofield frequently visited Paris to see Cummings, or Cummings traveled with Elaine and Nancy or Scofield, to London, to the French seaside, to Italy, etc.   Cummings and Elaine connected frequently in this period and Estlin was part of Nancy’s early childhood if somewhat distantly.

If you consider the period, it was the roaring 20’s, an improving economy in both the United States and across Europe. It was a period of incredible change in science, art and ideas, with jazz, modernist painting, literature exploding on the cultural landscape.  In addition radical new ideas on the social compact was clashing with the monarchies of the past, with socialism, communism and a rethinking of  the idea of government and wealth distribution all churning in the urban centers across Europe and the east coast of the United States.  There was an era of sexual liberation among the educated elite that ran parallel to the evolving ideas on philosophy and psychology that were coming from Freud and others.  Cummings and his liberal Harvard friends used those years, to figure out where they were headed as writers, artists, social commentators, activists and human beings.    

Two things caused Cummings to return to New York City in 1924: he needed to attend to matters with his publisher (as he needed the funds) and Scofield was encouraging both Cummings and Elaine to get married.   Scofield had consulted Freud himself on the matter, as Scofield was a patient of Freud’s,  and thought it a good idea. 

Some of Cummings best work published in Tulips and Chimneys was written with Elaine as his muse, prior to and after the Thayer’s divorce.  His relationship with Elaine was not public information at the time of its first printing, but looking back with the benefit of history, all the love poems and many of the poems on art and spirituality connect in some ways with the convoluted three way love story that had existed between Scofield, Elaine and Estlin.   . 


Sonnets – Unrealties
Tulips and Chimneys

V

when my sensational moments are no more
unjoyously bullied of vilest mind

and sweet uncaring earth by thoughtful war
heaped wholly  with high wilt of human rind —
when over hate has triumphed darkly love

and the small spiritual cry of spring
utters a striving flower,
                                          just where strove
the droll god-beasts

                                        do though distinctly bring
thy footsteps,and he rushing of thy deep
hair and the smiting smile didst love to use
in other days (drawing my Mes from sleep
whose stranger dreams they strangeness must abuse….)

Time not being for us,purple roses were
sweeter to thee
                               perchance to me deeper.