no time ago
or else a life
walking in the dark
i met christ
and lay still
while he passed(as
close as i’m to you
made of nothing
E.E. Cummings’ untitled poem 92 beginning no time ago is, overtly, a brief description of an individual’s encounter with Jesus Christ. The poem’s validity and force, though, is not dependent on Faith. While anyone can deny the divine Jesus, none can argue the fact that Jesus exists today in symbolic form or on a symbolic plane and that he embodies an ideal.
For this reason, doctrinal debate is simply beyond the scope of the poem. A secular reading does not necessitate suspension of disbelief, but requires, rather, the acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as symbol. Untitled poem 92 explores this ideal with intelligence and grace. Owing to its brevity and simple diction, the poem lends itself easily to thoughtful analysis.
To begin with, the described encounter occurs no time ago / or else a life. These two lines immediately disorient the reader because they are not readily decipherable on the first swallow and are a good example of the satirist attempting to dishevel is reader, forcing him to float across the surface of the text, as it were.
By not locating the encounter at a specific place in time and space, the writer imbues the piece with a timeless quality. Timelessness in satire is, of course, often indicative of the presence of an ideal. In the case at hand, the ideal the artist has chosen to work with is that of Jesus Christ.
The narrator is walking in the dark. This walking could represent movement through life insofar as this movement might also be conceptualized as a linear progression. Because this movement might also denote a search, this part of the poem serves as a good example of the kind of ambiguity so often found in poetry.
Darkness is, of course, indicative of ignorance or, as might be the case in this poem, journey into the unknown. Placing the narrator in darkness diminishes his stature much the same way as would juxtaposing him with a mountain range of escarpment of gigantic proportions. If, as I believe, the persona is used in the poem as a representative of humankind, this reduction takes on greater meaning and is central to the poem, as we shall see.
In the final line of the first stanza the narrator tells us he met christ. Here, Cummings demonstrates his signature use of lower case I: i met christ. His choice to not capitalize christ is probably not, however, a sleight to the reverent. Instead, his variant of Christ does much to place Christ on the aforementioned symbolic plane; making him as accessible to the irreligious as the devout.
The first line of the second stanza opens with the word jesus and successfully links the first and second stanzas in two specific ways. First, Cummings is consistent in failing to capitalize Jesus. Second, christ and jesus come together naturally to form one recognizable name: christ jesus.Cummings’ inversion of the more familiar Jesus Christ makes his use of the name appear fresh and new. He doesn’t want to alienate his reader by using familiar phrases or standard style which, he know, even the most attentive reader sometimes passes over without fully absorbing. He wants his reader to experience, to inhabit, each and every word. He wants to elicit a response. He is attempting to resurrect the meaning of familiar words by placing them in unfamiliar context.
When, in the same line, the narrator speaks of his heart he is clearly not referring to any blood and muscle organ but to what he perceives to be his centre of being or, at least, his centre of emotional being. In so doing, he makes use of another readily identifiable symbol.
We read in the next line that the narrator’s heart flopped over. This reader immediately envisioned a fish out of water when he read that line. If that’s the definitive image associated with this line it’s significant given the fish as an early symbol of Christianity. The phrase here nicely supports the subject of the poem.
Today, we use the expression ‘like a fish out of water’ to describe someone discomfited because he finds himself in a setting or circumstance to which he cannot reconcile himself. The intimation would seem to be that the narrator has entered a place or state irreconcilable to his state of being.
We can, of course, reject a literal interpretation of the poem, which is often a good thing to do when approaching satire, and regard the narrator’s experience, as related in the poem, as purely symbolic. I suspect this is a more intelligent way of understanding the poem, in which case we must acknowledge that the narrator has not traveled anywhere, he has not, in fact, left the confines of his own mind. Indeed, the narrator is nothing more than a mental construct evolved from the poet’s mind. This view accommodates the principle that nothing is as it seems in satire at the same time offering up greater meaning.
We go on to read that the narrator’s heart lay still. This is significant because a fish out of water, which we’ve already equated to the narrator’s heart, lays still only when somehow traumatized. The narrator’s heart is traumatized and frozen in a kind of epiphanous paralysis by virtue of the emotional depth and intensity of his experience.
Next, the narrator claims to have been as close to christ as he (the narrator) is to his reader. This is a fascinating parallel drawn by the narrator, exposing an equally intriguing duality. Narrator and reader do not have a definable spatial relationship. At the same time, the narrator shares a deep intimacy with the reader. Solely through language, the narrator occupies the reader’s mind.
Without launching an investigation into the mechanics of reversed retinal images and the many particulars of neural transmission, we know that the writer (through the narrator) reaches out and touches his reader through complex, physical processes. We might just reject the individuality of the two in favor of a more potent writer-reader diad.
This complex relationship is not easily defined, paralleling the equally ambiguous relationship between christ jesus, in his role as God incarnate or Ideal, and the narrator in his role as representative of humankind. The reader is reminded that his relationship to christ jesus (Savior or symbol) exists on myriad levels and is not completely comprehensible or explicable.
The point too should be made that, placed in historical perspective, Christ’s appearance and subsequent departure from the world, a life span of just thirty-three years, can easily be seen as but a fleeting moment in the timeline of human history. This is in keeping with the sense that the encounter described in Untitled Poem 92 takes place in a very short period of time. With this perspective, the I in i’m might actually denote some sort of collective consciousness of humankind.
Finally, we are told that this christ jesus is made of nothing / except loneliness. It makes sense forchrist jesus to be lonely because he is distanced from the ordinary man by virtue of his perfection. This, I believe, is the single strongest message of the poem. The juxtaposition of christ jesus with mortal successfully reduces all humankind. The divide is so great that christ jesus ceases to be lonely and, instead, is loneliness.
Because christ jesus is said to be made, there may well be the suggestion that supplicants created God, projecting their noblest ideals into a single,powerful symbol. If this is the suggestion, Cummings would seem to be emphasizing the importance of Christ as symbol.
The structure (form) of the poem is in sympathy with the content. The poem’s division into three stanzas is redolent of the Holy Trinity. The stanzas are not contained, paralleling the nature of the Trinity. Like Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the stanzas are separate yet inseparable, forming one larger thing, co-existing interdependently.
A discussion of form would be incomplete without mention of Cummings’ curious use of parentheses in the poem. What is enclosed in parentheses is, largely the explanatory part of the poem. What is outside the parentheses is what is actually the emotional core of the poem: my heart / flopped over / and lay still / while he passed. Normally, of course, that not contained within parentheses deserves more attention than that which is contained. Cummings plays turnabout with the device to emphasize the poem’s emotive centre.
It’s clearly not difficult to extract meaning from Cumming’s short Untitled Poem 92. We see how poetry, at its best, can be regarded essentially as finely distilled prose. I have no difficulty imagining writing another five thousand words about this most delightful poem.