By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Poets have often turned to classical mythology to shine a light on erotic feeling, and the great twentieth-century American poet E. E. Cummings (or perhaps that should be, following the poet’s own self-styling, e. e. cummings) wrote some of the best erotically charged poetry of the twentieth century. So it should come as little surprise that he sometimes drew on mythological stories to suggest sexual desire and erotic appreciation, as in his famous poem ‘all in green went my love riding’.
You can read this poem here before proceeding to our analysis below.
The poem ‘all in green went my love riding’ first appeared in cummings’ early collection, Tulips and Chimneys (1923; this was something of an annus mirabilis for American poetry, and also saw the publication of Robert Frost’s New Hampshire and Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium). As the critic Barry Sanders has identified, in ‘all in green went my love riding’ e. e. cummings essentially retells the classical myth of Diana and Actaeon: the latter spies the former bathing naked, and is torn apart by his own hounds as punishment.
So, what we have is a love poem (of sorts), but one in which things will not end well for the lover or admirer; cummings here sees himself as a latter-day Actaeon, knowing the hounds are preparing to devour him for catching a glimpse of such beauty.
The male gaze and the sensual power of the scene are captured through the enticing use of colour throughout, as well as the suggestive language (cummings’ beloved has a ‘Horn at hip’, for instance – reminding us of Diana’s hunting horn, since she was goddess of the chase among other things). All of the ingredients of the Diana and Actaeon myth are here: the beautiful woman, the deer, the woodland scene, the hounds, the male observer.
In summary, then: ‘all in green went my love riding’ describes a beautiful woman as she rides a golden horse at dawn. (Did Sylvia Plath have this poem in mind when she wrote her dawn riding poem, ‘Ariel’, one wonders?) The deer being chased run in front of her; four hounds accompanying the woman run alongside her and her horse. The woman blows her bugle and rides through the echoes of her horn.
The speaker of the poem describes the deer, including four ‘fleet does’ or female deer, which are nearly struck by the arrow the woman shoots from her bow. There are also four stags, and four hounds involved in the hunt. But the poem ends without any of the animals being shot and killed; the chase seems to go on indefinitely. Instead, ‘all in green went my love riding’ ends with the speaker’s ‘heart’ falling ‘dead’ before all of this.
The meaning of ‘all in green went my love riding’ is not readily apparent, as so often with twentieth-century experimental or modernist poetry. Yet cummings is not out to offer a coherent narrative; he is instead creating an effect, using repetition (note how many times the ‘silver dawn’ is mentioned) and patterning (the various colours mentioned; the number four), which makes his poem more like a dream-vision than a realistic story.
One way to respond to all this is to say that cummings is trying to capture the heady, mysterious experience of falling in love: everything becomes unreal, vivid and yet enigmatic, beautiful and yet threatening (and threatened).
And although cummings doesn’t literally become Actaeon in his poem, his heart is struck dead by the sight of the woman’s beauty: he’s a modern-day Actaeon, where there’s no need for Diana to turn the hounds on him and tear him to pieces, since the power of love itself is enough to render him powerless.
Here, the detail with the arrow is a masterstroke: the woman in green shoots her arrow at the deer, but it’s cummings himself who is pierced (metaphorically). It’s as if Diana’s arrow has morphed into Cupid’s dart.