By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘may i feel said he’ is one of E. E. Cummings’ most playful poems, detailing the to-and-fro between a man and a woman engaged in a fling (the man’s wife is mentioned, so the female speaker here must be his mistress). It’s one of Cummings’ more straightforward and easily comprehensible poems; nevertheless, some words of analysis may help to tease out the seductive and erotic power of the poem. You can read ‘may i feel said he’ here.
We began by saying that this poem is playful. But it hides a potentially more sinister set of undertones. First, let’s summarise the poem and then dig down into an analysis of it.
In summary, a man and woman engage in frisky and high-spirited horseplay: after the male speaker asks the woman (his mistress) ‘may i feel’, she responds by telling him she’ll squeal. ‘Just once’, the man pleads. The woman replies by saying ‘it’s fun’, suggesting she’s happy to be ‘felt’ by her lover.
By the second stanza, the man’s request to ‘touch’ has been granted – even if he touches ‘a lot’, the woman is happy to acquiesce: ‘why not said she’.
But in the third stanza, as the man embarks on his exploration of the woman’s body, she cautions him against going ‘too far’. But what’s too far, he asks? Well, he’s already reached that point…
In the fourth stanza, though, we’re moving beyond transient horseplay, as the man asks the woman if he can stay, and she agrees – as long as he kisses her. The longing for a deeper tenderness after the physical lust has been satisfied?
The fifth stanza gets even bigger in its requests and implications: the man seems to be asking the woman if he can ‘move’ (in?), and she responds by asking if he loves her. The man asks if the woman is willing to love him, and she responds by saying that he is ‘killing’ her. Why? We’re about to be offered a pretty big clue…
In the sixth stanza, we discover that the man is having an affair and the woman in the poem is not his wife, but the ‘other woman’. He shrugs and says that this is ‘life’: he is married to another woman, but he loves (and physically desires) this woman, his mistress. He seems to tease her at some point, perhaps by playfully poking or prodding her (‘now [come on…]’, he seems to say in the third line. She responds with an ‘ow’. Once more, physicality has taken over.
The seventh stanza shows that the man’s change of tack appears to have had the desired effect: everything is now ‘tiptop’, and the woman doesn’t want him to stop his lovemaking. The man assures her he won’t, but she cautions him to go slowly, to take his time…
In the eighth and final stanza, however, things appear to be approaching their climax, shall we say (‘cccome?’ leaving us uncertain as to whose it is, or whether it’s both). We’ll pass up on the opportunity to engage in a ribald joke concerning nominative determinism (Cummings taking the opportunity to unleash the punning potential of his surname, etc.), and simply note that the woman responds, not with words, but with a satisfied moan, and the man exclaims ‘you’re divine!’ And then we come to that final line, which sees the woman declaring that the man is hers.
‘may i feel said he’ is unusual among E. E. Cummings’ poetry, in that it contains – gasp! shock horror! – a CAPITAL LETTER. We have to wait until the final line of this most joyously teasing of poems, but when we come to that capitalised ‘Mine’, the shock for those who know Cummings’ poems is palpable. Is this a hint of sexual jealousy? Surely the man is his wife’s, in so far as he ‘belongs’ to anyone.
There’s a quietly aggressive hint of possessiveness in that final line: he is not just ‘mine’ but ‘Mine’, after all. This goes beyond sexual desire and seems to cross over into an acknowledgment of the complications that can arise from a casual extramarital affair: it may have started off for the lovers as just a bit of fun, as the jaunty ‘said he / said she’ rhythm of the poem’s quatrains captures, but real feelings (even ‘love’) have crept in.
‘may i feel said he’ is a fun poem, but the two people in the poem aren’t just having fun with each other, although there is a sense of their enjoyment in teasing each other, engaging in foreplay, and talking as well as touching. (Note that in the era of #MeToo, Cummings’ man does ask permission to ‘feel’ and ‘touch’…)
But if this is an Edenic world of sexual pleasure, it’s one into which a serpent has crept, as the passively aggressive ‘Mine’ of that final line suggests.
Finally, ‘may i feel said he’ uses its seesaw rhythm (said he/said she) to suggest that the two participants in this act of sensual play aren’t quite on the same wavelength, as the man’s questions and requests are either rebuffed by the woman, or quietly assented to only on certain conditions.