– E. E. Cummings
Buffalo Bill’s by e. e. cummings plays with more than one possibilities of meaning and attitude of the poet towards the subject, the dead hero, Buffalo Bill. In one sense, the poem is an expression of respect towards the heroic personality of the man. But if we read the poem critically, we sense that the poet is satirizing the traditional heroism of killing the arm-less and harmless animals with guns, from a distance! The reader is left free to interpret in his own way.
Even after reading the poem it is difficult to say for certain whether the poet is writing about Buffalo Bills life or death, heroism or cruelty on animals, his achievements or the irony that he also died the same death, or something else. Whatever the poet’s intention, we also know that he has left it deliberately untold, and so we are entitled to make multiple interpretations of the poem. The theme of the heroism is also true, but the theme of the irony of Cody’s un-heroic death is also equally true. This is truly a modernist poem in which one and certain meaning is neither intended nor possible.
After all, Cummings attitude toward William Cody could really have been ambivalent (mixed). This unique ‘concrete poem’ is based on the legend of Buffalo Bill, or the American Cowboy William F. Cody. It is partly a tribute to the legendary hero who ruthlessly killed buffalo as well as pigeons, and partly it is an ironic poem that tells us that no one is heroic in front of death. The poem’s typography (typing on the page) is alike a pistol and a gun. Its “howness”, as modern critics say, is more striking than its themes and meanings (or whatness).
Buffalo Bill is “defunct” or dead. The poet remembers how he used to ride a horse and go hunting. In his hunting spree, he would shoot down many pigeons or buffalo at a time, in a series. The poet laments: “Jesus”. This handsome man is no more. What he wants to know now is whether death liked the “blue-eyed boy” or Buffalo Bill. He addresses to death formally as “Mr. Death” and asks this curious personal question. Of course death doesn’t discriminate. The question turns out to be very ironic on a second thought.
The poem begins with the news of the hero’s death. But the word ‘defunct’ is unusually inappropriate. Defunct means “no longer operating, functioning or being used” as in the case of a machine or a law. This is unsympathetic. May be heroism has died with the hero! No one is mortal or even forever famous. The hero used to kill so many animals recklessly. William Cody, a former scout, became a hunter and killed thousands of American brown buffalo, which was almost pushed into extinction. This man was death for the animals. But his own death would not leave him. Cody later became an actor and stereotyped hero of hundreds of novels. He also became the cowboy symbolizing the Wild West. All this popularity and power of the “blue-eyed”, handsome Cody did not last. The poet becomes intimate with Mr. Death at the end of the poem, and he asks the question pretending not to know that death takes everyone whether it likes them or not. The question is rhetorical.
The poem is inconsistent in tone and theme. It begins with a neutral tone, which on a closer attention is actually ironic. Then it develops into serious lament at the word “Jesus”. But again, the address to death makes it ironic. The poet “I” establishes a closer relation with “you” or “Death” than with “he” or Buffalo Bill. Thus the somehow sincere regard indirectly paid to the legendary hero is also complemented by a satire on his reckless killing, and the irony of his death that didn’t spare him.
The visual or typographical dimension of the poem is notable. If we draw lines around the two halves of the poem, the upper half up to the word ‘Jesus’ males the shape of a gun. But the gaps and line breaks are indicators of pause. The typography is also a direction for the reader as to how to read the poem.