Thomas Dilworth: On "Buffalo Bill's"

 ...The subject of this portrait is not, as commentators have assumed, Buffalo Bill. Neither is the poem merely a modern expression of the convention of sic transit gloria mundi, of which the appropriate tone would be sadness. The speaker praises the dead celebrity but also disparages him. The reason for the disparagement cannot be, as one reader has suggested, disapproval of Cody's "blend of hero and charlatan" or reduction of "heroic deeds to circus stunts." The speaker clearly admires the showmanship. Instead, he disparages Buffalo Bill merely to exceed him in worth or stature. The poem is a self-portrait of an admiring but also disdainful speaker, unaware of a logical flaw in his reasoning and the profound irony of his situation.

The speaker admires Buffalo Bill's skill in shooting and his good looks. He also admires the horse Buffalo Bill rode, which had symbolic affinity with its rider since it was male (a "stallion") and "silver," like silver-haired Bill Cody in old age. The speaker's admiration is preceded, however, by irony and followed by sarcasm. The word "defunct" instead of "dead" implies callous or humorous indifference to or even approval of Buffalo Bill's death, and the question "how do you like your blueeyed boy" sarcastically belittles Buffalo Bill and conveys the speaker's sense of superiority over him. Furthermore, the possession by "Mister Death" of a blue-eyed boy has pederastic connotations. The celebrity Buffalo Bill was skillful, superior, and, in the last years of his life, the most famous man in the world. But now he is dead and, the speaker assumes, it is better to be alive than dead. So death, which cancelled Buffalo Bill's skill and erased his good looks, gives the speaker an advantage over him....

...Logically, the self-elevation of the speaker is nonsense, since the dead (nonexistent) differ categorically from the living.... The gloating self-evaluation of the speaker has no reasonable foundation. It is also and more obviously ridiculous because he fails to take into account his own mortality. The poem contains the theme of the passing of worldly glory, but its principal meaning is that pride is blind and goeth before a fall....

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Title Thomas Dilworth: On "Buffalo Bill's" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Thomas Dilworth Criticism Target E. E. Cummings
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Aug 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Cummings' 'Buffalo Bill's'
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