22 pages 44 minutes read

E. E. Cummings

anyone lived in a pretty how town

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1940

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Summary and Study Guide


“anyone lived in a pretty how town” (1940) is a Modernist poem by American writer E. E. Cummings (1894-1962). The poem is typical of Cummings in its fusion of Modernist elements (including Cummings’s unique syntactic structure) and traditional structures (including its accentual style and rhyme scheme). The poem presents a complex, symbolic love story about two characters named “anyone” and “noone” and the town they live in.

While the poem is open to a number of varied interpretations, its main thematic concerns are love, the passage of time, and community. The poem focuses on the universality of love’s power to give people meaning, and it also comments on the isolated, conforming nature of modern culture. Finally, the poem focuses on the repetitive structures of time and nature and how they interact with human life and relationships. While the poem is difficult to follow and complex in its themes and presentation, it remains one of Cummings’s most famous poems.

Poet Biography

Edward Estlin “E. E.” Cummings was born in 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Born to a Harvard-professor father and a loving mother, Cummings enjoyed a stable, comfortable upbringing and showed interest in art, religion, and philosophy from an early age. Cummings spent the majority of his time as a child writing and drawing, and he decided early on that he wanted to be a poet. He attended Harvard, where he excelled and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1915 and 1916.

Shortly after this, Cummings joined World War I as an ambulance driver in France. This would prove to be a major pivot point in Cummings’s life, as he fell in love with the country. However, the French military eventually arrested Cummings under the suspicion that he was a spy. This was the result of some the contents of a letter Cummings wrote home, which government censors read. Cummings spent almost four months in a military detention camp, and his experiences there led to his first novel, The Enormous Room (1922), which became a success with readers and critics. Though Cummings had published some poetry before this and had some notoriety as a painter, the book gave him his first significant experience with literary success. Upon returning to the United States, Cummings was drafted and served in the military for about a year during the tail end of World War I.

Cummings published his first book of poetry, Tulips and Chimneys, in 1923, earning him more recognition and success. Cummings continued to publish over the next four decades, including poems, another book, plays, and essays. His book EIMI (1931) recounts his month-long travel through the Soviet Union, a trip that he compared to Dante’s descent into hell in The Divine Comedy (1321). This trip convinced Cummings that the Soviet Union was a dictatorship that suppressed individuality and liberty, and it fueled Cummings’s conservative politics.

Cummings’s poetic style was one of the most unique avant-garde styles of the 20th century. With his strange use of punctuation, spelling, syntax, and spacing, Cummings’s poems are often full of unintelligible personal references, satire, and double meanings. His interest in art deeply influenced his writing, and much of his work is visual in nature and intended to be read aloud. While Cummings’s style is seemingly inaccessible, he was one of the most celebrated writers of his day and still remains popular. Some critics have attributed this to Cummings’s focus on traditional subjects like love, his poetry’s sensuality, and the playful, childlike nature of his style.

Cummings was married twice but had his longest relationship with Marion Morehouse, whom he lived with for the last decades of his life. He died of a stroke in 1962.

Poem Text

anyone lived in a pretty how town

(with up so floating many bells down)

spring summer autumn winter

he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

Women and men(both little and small)

cared for anyone not at all

they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same

sun moon stars rain

children guessed(but only a few

and down they forgot as up they grew

autumn winter spring summer)

that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf

she laughed his joy she cried his grief

bird by snow and stir by still

anyone’s any was all to her

someones married their everyones

laughed their cryings and did their dance

(sleep wake hope and then)they

said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon

(and only the snow can begin to explain

how children are apt to forget to remember

with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess

(and noone stooped to kiss his face)

busy folk buried them side by side

little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep

and more by more they dream their sleep

noone and anyone earth by april

wish by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men(both dong and ding)

summer autumn winter spring

reaped their sowing and went their came

sun moon stars rain

Cummings, E. E. “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” 1940. Poetry Foundation.


“anyone lived in a pretty how town” is about a man named anyone who lived his life in an unnamed town with “many bells” (Line 2). The opening stanza states that this man “sang his didn’t [and] danced his did” (Line 4), showing his awareness and openness of all the things he didn’t do and his recognition and celebration of all the things he did.

In the second stanza, the speaker describes the people who lived in anyone’s town, saying they did not care for anyone as they “sowed their isn’t [and] reaped their same” (Line 7), meaning they planted the things they didn’t do and harvested the same things throughout the years.

In the third stanza, the speaker introduces children who recognized that “noone” (Line 12)—a woman, as marked by “she” in Line 14—loved anyone a great deal, but as the seasons passed and the children grew older, they lost interest in noone and anyone’s love—“down they forgot as up they grew” (Line 10).

The fourth stanza describes the passage of time and the growth of new life (“when by now and tree by leaf” [Line 13]); presents the image of a bird and snow, movement and “still[ness]” (Line 15); and illustrates the depths of noone’s love for anyone, stating that she intimately felt “his joy” and “his grief” (Line 14) and that anyone was “all to her” (Line 16).

As noone and anyone’s love grew, other townspeople “married their everyones” (Line 17), went about their lives, then “said their nevers and slept their dream” (Line 20), speaking of the things they never did and putting their dreams to a final rest.

More time passes in the sixth stanza, and the speaker states that only “the snow” (Line 22) can understand how children eventually forget the things they forget, with so “many bells”’ (Line 24) floating up and down in their town.

In the seventh stanza, the speaker reveals that “anyone died” (Line 25) and noone kissed his face. The townspeople, while busy, took the time to bury the lovers “side by side” (Line 27) when noone died as well.

Over time, noone and anyone’s buried bodies—dreaming “their sleep” (Line 30) of death deep in the ground—became one with the earth, as did all of the wishes, ifs, and yeses of their lives.

In the final stanza, the speaker states that the “women and men” (Line 33) of the town continued to go on with their lives, hearing the “dong and ding” (Line 33) of the bells throughout the year. They did “their sowing” (Line 35) and eventually “went” (Line 35) out of the world just as they “came” (Line 35), and time marched on.

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