Love’s “Unknownness”

At times cummings almost seems obsessed with love, particularly with sex, but, in the last part of Collected Poems there seems to be a subtle shift in many of these love poems, not that he wasn’t still writing poems devoted to sex.

Strangely, I marked these two poems both when I first read them in college and this time as I read them, though i can’t imagine that I had similar ideas about love at such different points in my life. Of course, this first one with its emphasis on “unknownness,” seems to be universally true, at least among men.


love’s function is to fabricate unknownness

(known being wishless;but love,all of wishing)
though life’s lived wrongsideout,sameness chokes oneness
truth is confused with fact,fish boast of fishing

and men are caught by worms(love may not care
if time totters,light droops,all measures bend
nor marvel if a thought should weigh a star
—dreads dying least;and less,that death should end)

how lucky lovers are)whose selves abide
under whatever shall discovered be)
whose ignorant each breathing dares to hide
more than most fabulous wisdom fears to see

(who laugh and cry)who dream,create and kill
while the whole moves;and every part stands still:

This “unknownness” of love lends itself particularly well to cummings’ poetic style, its enjambment, it’s Metaphysical conceits and contradictions. Who could argue that love is “all of wishing,” that “truth is” quite often “confused with fact?” Men may boast of their prowess with women, but more often than not it’s they that end up caught “by worms.” Often it’s the mystery of the other, of the lover, the constant sense of discovery that seems to drive love, at least romantic love.

I guess it makes sense if we know so little about this love that is so precious to us that we need to be “More careful” of it “Than of anything:”


be of love(a little)
More careful
Than of everything
guard her perhaps only

A trifle less
(merely beyond how very)
closely than
Nothing, remembers love by frequent

Her least never with most
memory) give entirely each
Forever its freedom

(Dare until a flower,
understanding sizelessly sunlight
Open what thousandth why and
discover laughing)

Although it’s the first stanza that seems to be the most quoted, the most interesting juxtaposition of words to me is the narrator’s admonition that we should guard it “a trifle less” “closely than” … “Nothing.” Doesn’t this suggest that it’s actually impossible to “guard” love at all, precisely because we must “give entirely each/ Forever its freedom?”

5 thoughts on “Love’s “Unknownness””

  1. Just a hunch about cummings. The (sonnet) above has strong Shakespearean touches. I think he was paying homage there, not only in subject matter and treatment, but in the intricacy of his comment and his syntax. The shape, the rhyme, the reversed word order all have an archaic effect. A lot of Shakespeare’s sonnets mess with paradox as their motif. “What’s most unknown is fittest to be deified.” (Montaigne) also comes to mind. As for those hyper-romantic tendencies you’ve mentioned in your notes, he (cummings)often seems like a hustler to me, writing to a love object to impress her, so those romantic excesses are both private for them and public for us. I prefer his anti-war poems. Historical note: during WWI in Paris he was arrested for peeing on a palace lawn, I believe.
    Some expatriate friends picketed the jail, holding up signs that said “Reprieve la pisseur Americain!”
    Seems appropriate that this was the height of his crimes.

  2. I’m not enough of a Shakespearean expert to know whether that’s true or not, Mike, but as i noted earlier many of his poems remind me of Donne and Marvel.

  3. The last line in the original is:
    while the whole moves;and every part stands still:
    (*whole* not *world*)
    This is a common misprint in electronic copies, which is unfortunate because the original carries a much more profound meaning.

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