who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
-- e. e. cummings
Before World War One, E. E. Cummings was young boy from very, very civilized Cambridge, Massachusetts. He practically grew up in the shadow of Harvard University. Nevertheless, like most youngsters of his generation, he was fascinated by Buffalo Bill, whose Wild West Show was a fantastic success for more than twenty years, so successful that it inspired a couple of generations of the little American boys to play "cowboys and Indians." Without any doubt, Buffalo Bill Cody was the biggest show business attraction of that day and time. (In fact, some people give Buffalo Bill credit for inventing the expression, "show business.") However, by the time World War One was over, Cummings was in his mid-20's, the Wild West Show was out of business, and Buffalo Bill was dead. Also gone was the innocence of childhood and youth, replaced forever by a bitter awareness of the reality of death. Thus it seems reasonable to read this poem as a "farewell to childhood" poem.
The central experience of the poem is a re-creation of the innocent and naive excitement of a young boy at one of Bill's shows. Buffalo Bill would ride into the arena on his silver-grey stallion which moved as smoothly as water. Someone would throw up five clay pigeons, and "onetwothreefour five. . .justlikethat" Buffalo Bill -- still sitting in the saddle -- would blast them out of the sky with his rifle. For an innocent youth unaware of the show business trickery behind such "feats" of marksmanship it was a magical moment. Wistfully recalling that moment and the spendid appearance of Bill, Cummings exclaims: "Jesus / he was a handsome man."
But, as the opening lines of the poem put it, "Buffalo Bill's / defunct." Defunct means "no longer functioning or out of business." We usually use the word to refer to some large organization that has ceased to operate -- as in "Though it was a big success for many years, by the time we moved to Trussville, Glendale Mills was defunct." It suggests that Buffalo Bill's death resulted from the impersonal and callous operation of natural and economic law. In other words, Cummings suggests that no matter how big or important or marvelous Bill or anyone else is, Death is impersonal and uncaring. Realizing that truth is, of course, the end of childish innocence.
The bitter sarcasm of the last few lines of the poem is painfully obvious:and what i want to know isThe expression "blueeyed boy" is roughly equivalent to an expression like "fair-haired child" and means someone who is especially favored or especially fortunate. It is clearly sarcastic in tone as the following rendering should make clear: "What I want to know is, what good did you get out of showing Bill such special attention and favor as to claim him for your own. I hope you're happy, Mister Death, because I most assuredly am not!" Such sarcasm and flippancy is only possible for those who no longer see things through the wide-open and naive eyes of childhood.
how do you like your blueeyed boy
So Cummings has recorded one of those universal experiences in life, i.e., a moment when we truly recognize for the first time that childhood's happy-go-lucky days are gone forever. We resent that truth, but we are forced to accept it. However, it's the truth I had to face when Buddy Holley's plane went down, when Elvis died, and when John Lennon was murdered in front of his apartment house. Innocence is now defunct!