18 pages 36 minutes read

E. E. Cummings

Spring is like a perhaps hand

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1923

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Summary and Study Guide


E.E. Cummings was an important poet in American modernism. He originally wrote “Spring is like a perhaps hand” for his debut work of poetry, Tulips and Chimneys (1923). After his publisher forced Cummings to remove the ampersand in the original title Tulips & Chimneys and cut many poems from the manuscript, Cummings self-published the poem (along with the others cut) in a collection cheekily entitled & in 1925. “Spring is like a perhaps hand” is a reflection on the spring season, a topic which fits neatly into Cummings’s focus on nature and love. The poem is characterized by its innovative use of punctuation, lineation, and play with syntax. These are all standard poetic practices for Cummings, who is perhaps most well-known for his particular style of syntactical and formal play. “Spring is like a perhaps hand,” written and published early in E.E. Cummings’s long literary career, is a good example of what made him a key figure in 20th century American poetry.

Poet Biography

Edward Estlin Cummings was born in 1894 to upper class parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts. E.E.’s father was a professor at Harvard University, and both of his parents encouraged the young Cummings to explore art and poetry. Cummings wrote one poem a day from the age of eight to 22, honing his writing skills on traditional verse forms. After a childhood spent drawing and writing poetry, Cummings enrolled as an undergraduate at Harvard University, where he graduated with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. It was during his time as a student—where he both began to publish poetry and edited Harvard’s literary journal—that Cummings’s interest shifted to modern poetry, particularly its experimental possibilities.

In 1917, only a year after graduating with his MA, Cummings enlisted in an ambulance corps to assist the French during the First World War. Along with another American with whom Cummings had become friends in France, Cummings was arrested and put in an internment camp for the anti-war sentiments he expressed in letters home. After five months in the camp, the his father’s activism finally got E.E. shipped back to the United States, where he would go on to publish a novel based on his experience.

After publishing this first novel, The Enormous Room (1922), Cummings went on to publish his first of many books of poetry the following year, Tulips and Chimneys (1923). Cummings achieved popular success with his poetry, which amassed him a reputation for formal innovation in a mode uniquely his own. However, his reception was (and still is) not without critical controversy, as some critics considered his formal innovation a mere gimmick covering up his often common, even clichéd subject matter. Despite this, and the political controversies he became embroiled with later in life due to his conservative leanings, E.E. Cummings died at the age of 67 in 1962 as one of the most famous and respected American poets of his age.

Poem Text

Cummings, E.E.. “Spring is like a perhaps hand.” 1923. Poets.org.


Cummings’s untitled poem opens with the line, “Spring is like a perhaps hand” (Line 1), a simile which compares the season to a hand. Because there is no punctuation setting “perhaps” apart from the rest of the phrase, it is ambiguous whether it should be read as a mid-simile caveat (that is, “Spring is [perhaps] like a…hand”) or as an adjective describing hand, changing its conventional grammatical meaning. Regardless, the second line sets up a parenthetical statement commenting on this first simile. Here, spring “comes carefully / out of Nowhere” (Lines 2-3). When the season does arrive, it is a like a hand insofar as it “arrang[es] / a window” (Lines 3-4) and—with people watching—arrives “arranging and changing” its surroundings (Line 6).

In the poem, spring carefully arranges what it finds, adding both “strange / thing[s] and […] known thing[s]” with attentive detail (Lines 7-8). After concluding the first stanza, Cummings injects a single-line-stanza to emphasize a central theme of the poem: That spring is “changing everything carefully” (Line 9). Like much of the poem, this repeats and retreads ground Cummings already covered, though with slight, “carefully” (Line 9) arranged variations.

From a purely narrative or rhetorical point of view, the second full-sized stanza essentially repeats the first. Like its twin, this stanza begins with a simile connecting spring to a (“perhaps”) (Line 10) hand, describes the season’s careful approach to change, and includes an audience of “people star[ing] carefully” as it completes its work (Line 15). Just like the first stanza, this stanza expands the simile of spring as a hand to a larger image: a hand “in a window” (Line 11) changing a display or window arrangement (including, at least “flower[s]”) (Line 17) with onlookers observing all the while. Here, however, spring is even more fastidious. Instead of only placing a “strange / thing and a known thing” (Lines 7-8) or even a “fraction of flower” (Line 17), it goes so far as to place “an inch of air” (Line 18) in its arrangement.

After a longer stanza that follows the form of the first, Cummings maintains the mirrored structure by concluding his poem on another single-line-stanza. The line, once again three multi-syllabic words long, emphasizes not the change that spring brings (as its earlier twin does), but how it accomplishes this change “without breaking anything” (Line 19). In this way, the poem concludes a reflection on the changes of nature with an assertion of trust in its care.