By Clover Carroll
This innocent, ebullient poem by the unconventional e.e. cummings (1894-1962), who preferred to write his name and initials in lower case, perfectly captures the fleeting joy of very early spring, in which we are now fully involved—or maybe even slightly past.
Cummings effectively uses word and line spacing as well as sound effects to control the speed of movement and tone of the poem. He sets the mood in the first line by causing us to catch our breath in the middle of his invented title—indicated by the initial capital letter—for the brief but memorable season of “Just-spring.” By ending the line in the middle of the word, he conveys that high-pitched “just” accompanied by the thumb and forefinger close together, indicating something so tiny that it is barely there. He is so taken with this trick that he repeats it for mud-luscious, a reference to the typically copious spring rains like those we had last weekend. This idea is repeated a few lines later with “puddle-wonderful, both of which phrases feature the repetition of the “u” or “uh” sound associated with relaxation and fun.
Soon we have pairs of children who are such close friends as to be always together, indicated by the running together of their names into one entity: eddieandbill and bettyandisbel. An additional effect of this running together is to speed up the pace of the lines, suggesting their running and dancing through muddy streets. It is finally warm enough for outdoor games of marbles and hop-scotch as well as harmless crimes (“piracies”), but they abandon these as they run toward the sound of the balloonman. Contrast this with the many short, often one-word, lines that cummings uses to emphasize each word, especially “spring” (repeated three times), and to convey distance and space in describing the faraway whistling sounds. The repeated, soft “l” sounds reinforce the sweetness of the season, as in luscious, little, lame, balloon, and bill. Similarly, the soft “p” sounds of hop-scotch, jump-rope, puddle, and spring create a euphonious effect.
But what should we make of the “little lame balloonman” whistling from afar, and calling the children from their games? The sound (rather than the balloon man himself) is “wee” because the sound comes from so far away, and at the end of the poem is retreating further until it disappears altogether to become silent. Who or what on earth could cummings be referring to? Balloonmen may be a feature of spring in the city, but why lame, and why whistling? Cummings does divulge a major clue with “goat-footed” in line 20. What creature from history or myth had cloven hooves and played the whistle or pipe? Aha! It must be Pan, the Greek god of fertility, of woodlands and spring and music. You will recall that Pan was half man and half goat, and when the “pipes of Pan” echoed over hill and vale in both Greek myth and British pastoral poetry, animals would come running to him. This allusion to a character from Greek myth adds an element of spirituality to the poem, uniting the children’s innocent joys with the personified spirit of Spring and the annual awakening of life on Earth. Thus cummings’ poem celebrates the connection of humanity with Nature, using balloons as the unifying symbol linking childhood with ancient ritual.
My own personal theory, after years of reflection, is that both Pan and Kokopelli—the flute-playing deity of Southwestern Native American folklore—were in fact inspired by spring peeper frogs, or their singing relatives in Greece and the Southwestern U.S. Both symbols are typically portrayed as fertility gods with huge phalluses, who play their pipes to make the flowers and crops grow. I have not done any research to prove the veracity of this theory, but the sound of the peeper frogs—who happen to be chanting at full voice as I write this, as if the whole Earth were singing—is so mysterious and ethereal that I can easily imagine myths developing to explain it. What better representative of the spirit of Nature’s renewal? Although this poem is usually anthologized under the first line-as-title “In Just-,” cummings himself called it “Chanson Innocente.” May you also be renewed as the beauty and magic of another Virginia spring blooms upon us.