E.E. Cummings Month: “All in green went my love riding”

The following Cummings poem is not much like his usual at first blush, but is really full of simple wordplay and tricksy manipulation of conventions that conceals a more complex meaning than simple medieval ballad — which is much more in keeping with what you’d expect, yes? “All in green went my love riding” has been set to music and sung by, among many, Warren Kinsella and one of my patronessiest of patron saints, Joan Baez. The most widely accepted meaning of the poem is that it is a subtle retelling of the myth of Artemis and Actaeon. (Variations of the myth here.)


Modesty Blaise.

As far as I can tell, in the version on which Cummings has based “All in green went my love riding,” Actaeon is a merciless hunter who desires to marry Artemis after he sees her bathing. The virgin warrior goddess is furious at this cheek, particularly that he would spy on her and then imply she owes him marriage (she fiercely protected her physical privacy and chastity).


The lovely and talented Marguerite Empey.

Artemis punishes Actaeon by warning him that, if he ever speaks, he will be transformed in to a stag and devoured by his own bitches, which is where it seems Cummings picks up the thread. Here it is.

All in green went my love riding
on a great horse of gold
into the silver dawn.

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the merry deer ran before.


Fleeter be they than dappled dreams
the swift sweet deer
the red rare deer.

Four red roebuck at a white water
the cruel bugle sang before.


Horn at hip went my love riding
riding the echo down
into the silver dawn.

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the level meadows ran before.


via sabino on the tumblr.

Softer be they than slippered sleep
the lean lithe deer
the fleet flown deer.

Four fleet does at a gold valley
the famished arrow sang before.


Photographed by Neil Krug.

Bow at belt went my love riding
riding the mountain down
into the silver dawn.

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
the sheer peaks ran before.


Paler be they than daunting death
the sleek slim deer
the tall tense deer.

Four tell stags at a green mountain
the lucky hunter sang before.


Amber Weber for I.D., September 2008.

All in green went my love riding
on a great horse of gold
into the silver dawn.

four lean hounds crouched low and smiling
my heart fell dead before.

(E.E. Cummings, “All in green went my love riding.” Tulips and Chimneys. 1923.)

He just had to sing all triumphantly, didn’t he, in front of the green mountain? Heart = hart. A synonym for stag. Pretty sure that between the line about stags and the repetition of “all in green,” Artemis changed him in to one of the “Four tell stags” and his own dogs ripped him to pieces.


Liv Tyler.

Also I noticed on this re-read that she dwells longer than I remembered over her four dead does. This makes sense because besides being the ruler of nature and the hunt, she held deer and cypress as her closest animal and plant brethren. The victims of Actaeon’s arrow and his ravaging dogs, those four deer emerge in her description unquestionably as females: they are slender, pale, lithe, slippered — red and rare. Virginal language, am I right? That purity and feminity gives the “Four” power and deserves honor, just as does Artemis’s own virginity, which bathtime-peeping Actaeon and his sleazy, brutish hounds do not seem to understand or respect.


via thechocobrig on the tumblr. fabulous photojournal.

By contrast, in all of the lines which describe his four animals, Actaeon’s “four” appears in lowercase letters — the only Cummingsish punctuation-play in the poem, as the four remain in lowercase despite following periods, which Cummings otherwise obeys with great restraint for the rest of the poem. Actaeon’s four are the four hounds; the miniscule rather than majuscal “f” usage denotes the speaker’s low opinion of them and bodes very badly for them, considering Artemis’s usual respect for nature. The number four, besides paralleling the count of her lost deer, is suggestive of pursuit of living creatures in all four of the cardinal directions, a kind of inescapable squared threat in terms of the swath a disrespectful hunter might cut through the planet of a goddess who considers herself the mother of nature — because of its relationship to “four corners,” “four winds,” etc, the total of four hounds is exactly the right number to appear confounding and problematic. An unignorable affront which must be dealt with.


Abbey Lee Kershaw for Dazed and Confused.

The four hounds may also perhaps be a reference to the Horsemen of the Apocalypse who accompany Death in the Revelation of St. John: the hunter brings destruction to what Artemis is sworn to protect; she is the patroness of life on earth, a mother-warrior figure who gives her attention to springs and deer, and Actaeon is that life’s death, a sanguine, horn-blowing archer with attendantly destructive hell hounds that tear her living creatures apart. An essentially unforgivable encroachment on all that Artemis stands for. Those four lean crouching motherfuckers act as a smirking antithesis to her binding and symbiotic method of mothering the earth, by dismantling and devouring everything they encounter, famished agents of a chaos she is sworn to repel. They tear things up.

In this case, their master, too. Does the punishment fit the crime?

I’ve read that there are allusions here to “The Knight’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I never make it far through those. I know as a happy medievalist I’m supposed to read and adore them and that what I’m about to tell you could get me yelled at and kicked out of the society of nerds who read material that predates van Leeuwenhoek, the inventor of the very lenses the best of the best wear to strain our eyes over the stuff we love, but I feel that poring over Chaucer is something akin to people in a thousand years venerating the script of Rat Race. Great movie, solidly entertaining, good cast with varied backstories, but, like, how dire is reading it to the quest of accurately intrepreting society in this era? Not much. (Commence lambasting, Chaucer-lovers. Change my mind?)


Journey Into Perplexity right here on the wordpress.

Anyway. If you follow that link to the wiki list of variations on the Artemis and Actaeon story, you can see that different authors have spent time cataloguing the precise names of the up-to-fifty hounds involved in Actaeon’s punishment.

I guess the lesson here is that, if you want even a chance with Artemis, you need to be green in deed as well as dress. Keep your elbows out and for god’s sake recycle, dudes.

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One Response to “E.E. Cummings Month: “All in green went my love riding””

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I like the titties

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