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Erotic Literature: E. E. Cummings's "the mind its own beautiful prisoner"
– posted to the PDC, Nov. 14, 2016
– posted to the Cabinet, Jun. 28, 2017

The text of the verse is found on-line, here [link]. To note, there is variation in how the verse is published. In the Collected Poems: 1922-1938, it is published as presented on the website (so also, then, I presume, in 100 Selected Poems, the named source for the linked page). In the Complete Poems: 1913-1962, however, the text is presented with spaces after all punctuation. (I do not know how the verse is presented in the most recent edition of the Complete.) As well, in both the Collected and the Complete, the text reads "Mine" in the second line, not "Mind": we can presume that is a typo.


the erotic and the merely sexual


The presentation here is divided, the theoretic discussion first, the exploration of the verse coming after. Most of the work of this essay will lie in that opening discussion; as such, it will be a relatively short exploration. However, because the verse is such a good example for the ideas being presented, it is my thought that by keeping the verse in mind from the start both the verse might work as demonstration of the theory and the theory might work as explication of the verse even as the theoretic ideas are being presented. For that, and because of both the brevity of the verse and the differences in the online version and the version in the Complete, I will break from my normal habits[FN] and give the verse in full, here, to be read as part of my presentation. (As with most of Cummings's work, it is untitled.)

the mind is its own beautiful prisoner.
Mine looked long at the sticky moon
opening in dusk her new wings

then decently hanged himself, one afternoon.

The last thing he saw was you
naked amid unnaked things,

your flesh, a succinct wandlike animal,
a little strolling with the futile purr
of blood; your sex squeaked like a billiard-cue
chalking itself, as not to make an error,
with twists spontaneously methodical.
He suddenly tasted worms windows and roses

he laughed, and closed his eyes as a girl closes
her left hand upon a mirror.


[FN] The main reason I do not normally give the text in the post is because having a link to the text permits having the text open in a separate window for reference.

From very early on in my literary studies I have held to the belief that any theory of literature must successfully account for two test cases: the comedic and the erotic. That is, account for them as inherent to the proffered theory, without, as I have often seen, bracketing them in one manner or another as peculiarities lying outside the central ideas. While the test case of the comedic was to the fore of my puzzling early on, it has not maintained a central place in my thinking as has the erotic. In part, because it ended up being a puzzle solved by happenstance in my early theoretic studies. But in part also because my own creative writing, while often light hearted, is rarely out and out comedic: I thus had no practical impetus to study the comedic beyond a general understanding.

That is not so with the erotic. For not only has the erotic always and ever held interest to me as a field of study (not only in literature but across the arts), it has held and has maintained a position as one of the primary themes of my creative work. As such, I have continually been forced to confront, genuinely and in depth, the question of the relation between the erotic and the aesthetic[FN].


[FN] In my own terminology, I have long used the term "the aesthetic" – including here on this blog – to refer to that mode of writing/reading/thinking that I have in the last however many posts been calling, after Owen Barfield's usage in Poetic Diction, the "poetic." As for the "prosaic" mode, I have come to use the term "nomic." The terms – the aesthetic and the poetic, the nomic and the prosaic – are not, however, synonymous. The aesthetic and the nomic are used in the broader sense, including not just literature and the arts but also culture and society. Poetic and prosaic I generally keep limited in use to referring only to their functioning within literature and the arts.

I might refer you to a small piece I wrote for my home site to clarify the aesthetic and the nomic,"A Basic Statement on the Aesthetic" [link]


"All art is erotic": so it has been said. To a thinking mind the very statement, coupled with the prevalence of the erotic in art, prompts an honest confrontation with the possibility that all art is indeed erotic, even that art might be defined by the erotic. If such is not the case, then there is yet prompted the question of why a person might be led to say that all art is erotic. A quick answer might be seen in the idea of libido as presented by Freud and Jung. Freud uses the term "libido" to refer to psychic energies of a sexual nature: psychic energies that are qualitatively different from other psychic energies. For example,

We have defined the concept of libido as a quantitatively variable force which could serve as a measure of processes and transformations occurring in the field of sexual excitation. We distinguish this libido in respect of its special origin from the energy which must be supposed to underlie mental processes in general[.] (Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Trans. James Strachey. NY: Basic Books, 1975. 83.)

Jung, however, extends the idea of the libido: for example,

[T]he term "libido," introduced by Freud, is not without a sexual connotation, an exclusively sexual definition of this concept is one-sided and must therefore be rejected. Appetite and compulsion are the specific features of all impulses and automatisms. [. . .] The very fact that it is impossible to derive the whole mass of psychic phenomena from a single instinct forbids a one-sided definition of "libido." (Symbols of Transformation. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1956.128-29.)

In essence, Jung is arguing that psychic energy is a system of energy, which cannot be quantified into discrete types of energy coming from discrete sources. Rather, Jung defines libido by what it does rather than by what it may or may not constituted of: that is, as "psychic energy in its creative aspect" (124).

I do not hold that all art is erotic. I do hold that all true art is libidinous in the sense of Jung; that it engages the individual at the fundamental level of "psychic energy in its creative aspect." Indeed, I would argue that true art, which is to say all aesthetic art, is in no small way defined by being libidinous – which stands there as a loose synonym for the poetic, as opposed to the factual, mechanical prosaic. But with that idea of libido we can see, in that sexual energy can not be readily distinguished within the full system of psychic energy, how it might yet be said that "all art is erotic": in that all art – indeed all engagement with being – is libidinous, true art is always engaging at some level the sexual. Thus we can see how such works as Bernini's The Ecstacy of St. Theresa on one side or Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" on the other generate some level of sexual ideation, but also how they can carry that sexual ideation without it overriding the religious portrayal in the one case or the gustatory portrayal on the other.[FN]

[FN] Thus, also, why I would not call The Ecstacy of St. Theresa, despite it having something of a sexual element in its portrayal of ecstacy, "erotic art."

How, then, are we to understand the idea of the erotic, not in the sense that lies in the broad-brush phrase "all art is erotic" but in a more pragmatic use of the idea of "erotic art" or "erotic literature"? By the presence of sexual content, of course. That is, "erotic literature" or "erotic art," as a category, is recognized by the subject of the work being in some part overtly about sex in specific or sexuality in general. Obviously, while an erotic work is necessarily sexual, a work with a sexual presence need not be erotic. A Gray's Anatomy addresses the sexual organs, with illustrations, but one would not call it erotic. Though, in such we see something of the difference between a prosaic sexual text and a poetic sexual text: the former may be sexual, and may be sexually charged (as with most porn movies); but it is only when we move from the factuality of the prosaic to the creative experience of poetic that we can come to understand the truly erotic as opposed to the merely sexual.

There is here a problem of terminology. Does the term erotic already carry in it enough of an assumption of the aesthetic that it can be used to refer only to aesthetic art of a sexual nature, or is it too contaminated by ideas of the merely sexual to be of use? I believe the term is sufficient to our needs; and, indeed, in texts about erotic art, I have found there is usually some level of distinction assumed between the erotic and the merely sexual (even when not always carried throughout the text). But what to call the prosaic texts? I have already answered the question as regards this post: the merely sexual or, simply, the sexual. (While the term sexual might be put to multiple uses, I believe context will keep it all straight enough.)

The thought did come to mind to call literary or artistic prosaic works of a sexual theme pornography. Mario Vargas Llosa, in Notes on the Death of Culture[FN], in the chapter "The Disappearance of Eroticism," makes something close to that very identification.

Without attention to the forms, to the ritual that enriches, prolongs and sublimates pleasure, the sex act would become again a purely physical exercise – a natural drive in the human organism, where men and women are merely passive instruments – devoid of sensitivity and emotion. A good illustration of this today can be found in the trashy literature that purports to be erotic, but achieves only the vulgar rudiments of the genre: pornography.

It makes for an interesting grounding of the term to define it negatively against the erotic: a sexual text is either erotic (poetic) or it is pornographic (prosaic). The question is whether the usage can survive the cultural connotations that have accreted around the term. If, say, someone of a religious orientation were to point to a text and say "that is pornographic," would it makes sense, from both sides, to be able to respond, "no, it is erotic, not pornographic, and the difference is not trivial" or, "you are right, it is pornographic, because it does not function in the modality of the erotic"? That is, if any two people were speaking of a "pornographic" text, would the term naturally carry some commonly shared idea?

[FN1] Trans. John King, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. I purchased and read Notes after reading the first chapter on the LitHub site [link]. The book is appropriately titled "Notes," as it is seven chapters each on its own subject if to a common theme; however, they are only partially set in any coordinated, extended argument. That said, I do recommend the book as a critique of contemporary culture, or the absence thereof.

My answer to that may be more instinctual than deductive, but I believe those cultural accretions are too heavy to permit the use of the term pornographic to label non-erotic texts. In truth, I rarely use the term pornography. It is one of those terms that are used in such a broad variety of ways that it is almost become useless, in the least greatly problematic in use when not accompanied by a definition. Vargas Llosa does provide something of such a definition in the above excerpt, calling erotic literature and pornography two ends of a genre. And I did use the term porn to refer colloquially to the sexually explicit film industry. But I don't believe, in Vargas Llosa's essay, that the term can be carried that far out from that sentence in which it is offered, indeed not even to two sentences before, which is not about literature but about actual sex: it takes something of ideational strain to consider sex in itself, from the point of view of the people involved, to be in some way pornographic.

Unfortunately, the chapter in Notes on the Death of Culture is somewhat at odds with itself because of its efforts to concern itself simultaneously with eroticism as it functions in literature and art and eroticism as it functions in sex itself. The two ideas obviously overlap, and necessarily must: both are, after all, libidinous. But there is a divide in that the two acts – that of sex and that of creating a work of art out of a medium – are as obviously different: only one is worked for a readership/viewership. That confusion has its effects on Vargas Llosa's grounding of his argument. For example, if we continue with the passage above,

Erotic literature becomes pornographic for purely literary reasons: a sloppy use of form. That is, when writers are negligent or clumsy in their use of language, their plot construction, their use of dialogue, their description of a scene, they reveal inadvertently everything that is crude and repulsive in a sexual coupling devoid of feeling and elegance – without a mise en scéne or ritual – turned into something that is the mere satisfaction of the reproductive instinct. (108)

"pornography," the merely sexual literary text, is distinguished from the erotic by its lacking those qualities that define the erotic. Yet, earlier on in the chapter, when Vargas Llosa gives the most explicit definition of eroticism, in a passage is that is about sex and not about literature, he defines the erotic by the absence of a quality of the merely sexual.

There are many ways to define eroticism, but perhaps the main way would be to call it physical love stripped of animality [. . .]. (102)

The confusing of sex and literature and the arts leads him to define both his terms negatively. The pornographic is that which fails to be erotic; the erotic is that which lacks the qualities of the pornographic. Indeed, it is difficult at best to carry that latter statement from sex into literature. First, how do we define "animality"? Is "animality" a question of perception, and thus something that changes from individual to individual? Why can't an erotic text utilize animality? After all, the prosaic and the poetic are not mutually exclusive modalities: while the prosaic may be defined through the absence of the poetic, the poetic nonetheless utilizes the prosaic in its functioning. You cannot escape that words have denotative meanings or that grammar function mechanically. In the erotic, you cannot escape that texts with a sexual theme will contain the brutely sexual. Thus, is there any reason why animality must be excluded from the erotic, or any reason why one cannot make animality erotic?

Far better – far more interesting – is the second half of that sentence. I will do a little editing to restart the thought:

There are many ways to define eroticism, but perhaps the main way would be to call it [the] conversion [of physical love . . .] from the satisfaction of an instinctive urge into a creative shared activity that prolongs and sublimates physical pleasure, providing a mise en scéne and refinements that turn it into a work of art. (102-3)

"Conversion" is a far better word, and one fitting with the transformation from the prosaic nature of a merely sexual text to the poetic nature of an erotic text. There is still the confusions created by him speaking of physical sex while trying to establish a definition of eroticism that fits both sex and literature and the arts. But there is that marvelous thought in the middle:

[the] conversion [of physical love . . .], providing a mise en scéne

one that is repeated in the later occurring excerpt first offered above:

sexual coupling [. . .] without a mise en scéne or ritual

I am going to hold off on the idea of ritual as my concern here is about eroticism in literature and art, not in sex itself. (Though, it can be understood through the idea of mise en scéne, contrasting the poetic idea of ritual to the prosaic idea of tradition for traditions sake.)

There are two ways to understand the idea of a mise en scéne . . . . Let me take a step back and give that a bit of grounding. Just as one may speak of a text being written in the prosaic or the poetic mode, so also we can speak of the discourse about that text, discourse about literature, discourse about anything, to also be in the prosaic or poetic mode. When it comes to it, to speak the nature of a poetic text requires speaking poetically: else the discourse will collapse the text into the prosaic against its will.

Once it is recognized that discourse itself can be understood as either prosaic or poetic it is easy to recognize in turn that a great many terms and ideas of literary criticism and theory differ in use, scope, and meaning depending on whether they are treated, handled, understood prosaically or poetically. Mise en scéne is one such term.

Using the term in its original context in drama, the prosaically understood mise en scéne is the facts of the production: the general setting of the stage; what is it; where it is laid out; even, the costuming and props as they are connected to that general setting. This is the dictionary definition, such as that offered by the OED:

The staging of a play; the scenery and properties of a stage production; the stage setting.

The play in its mise en scéne is this understanding the description of the play as would be given by a reporter fixated upon the who, what, where, when and occasionally why of the performance. The viewer is irrelevant in the prosaic understanding, as all that matters are the facts of stage with its setting and props, and facts are factual because they are consistently accepted by all viewers. (Or, they are rejected in a logical, yes/no opposition.)

Taking the mise en scéne from the poetic side means taking it from the focus of the viewer in engagement with the performance: it speaks to the experience of the viewer, and how the stage settings, etc. influence that experience and are a constitutive part of the experience of the whole of the performance. The base facts of the event (or thing) are pulled out of categorical factuality and are brought into and energized by a field of play: the "meaning" of the action and its mise en scéne are no longer logically coordinated: this event happened at this place, that place being constituted by these elements. Rather, they form a unity, something greater than the individual parts, something that becomes a unified experience for the viewer. As example, consider the presence of stair cases as part of the sets of television sitcoms, where they exist primarily as visual cue of the fact that the house of the characters is larger than the room in which they are gathered, and as a mechanical means to bring characters into and out of that room. Compare such usage to the long, stark, medieval staircase in Carfax Abbey in Tod Browning's Dracula, which brings an operatic visual to the set and the scene played out therein and thereon.

Understanding the mise en scéne poetically means that not everything on a stage must needs be understood as part of that mise en scéne, as when certain elements of the staging work are irrelevant to the thematics or even a distraction to the performance of the play. In literature, one need only imagine the extreme case of a text that spends inordinate energies in description of the characters, settings, and objects to get an idea of the prosaic use of fact, and how such description would but create a distraction to, if not disruption of the main ideational currents of the text. In terms of a poetic mise en scéne, it is usually quite irrelevant what is the color of the hair of the characters. For it is not information that creates a poetic experience but how the information is presented, how it functions in the play of the text, how it is made part of the microcosmos of the work. The presentation of fact for the mere purpose of the presentation of fact – giving a character's hair color for the mere purpose of giving the character's hair color – is a disruption in the creating of the poetic mise en scéne. You rarely find such details as hair color in the condensed language of sophisticated, poetic verse. That is, except where the describing of the character uses the factual detail to create for the reader something greater than a mere list of physical characteristics, when the hair color is used to speak to something greater than hair color.

The poetic idea of mise en scéne offers an excellent means to understanding the difference between the erotic and the merely sexual. The merely sexual offers but a factual, representative, even documentary presentation of sex and sexuality. Sexuality, as Vargas Llosa describes, when presented without a mise en scéne,

if it is separated out from the rest of the activities and functions that make up the lives of men and women, [. . .] loses its vitality and becomes a limited, caricatural and inauthentic depiction of the human condition.

Separated out from the mise en scéne of being; presented without that "vitality" that is generated, in the literary and artistic, by the poetic mode, by creating texts that engage the individual via the unconscious, one is left with only the factual, documentary presentation of the prosaic. To use our cinematic example, without the operatic nature of the Carfax Abbey set, when Dracula brings Mina down the stairs, you would have only the factual action of Dracula and Mina descending the stairs. But with the long, curving, monumental, shadow-laden staircase, you have an experience of something beyond the presentation of fact.

With this we also have a greater understanding of that first quotation, above:

Erotic literature becomes pornographic for purely literary reasons [. . .]. (emphasis added)

The difference between the merely sexual and the erotic is not a question of subject matter, it is wholly a literary matter, bound in the construction of the text, in the mode in which the text is written. As is hopefully apparent, the idea of mise en scéne is not limited to the erotic; it is central to the idea of the poetic text irrelevant of subject matter: the 'action' of a poetic text always occurs within a mise en scéne; prosaic texts lack that unified mise en scéne and present but the facts of who, what, where, when, and occasionally why. In such we see something of my opening statement: the importance of the erotic as a test case for any theory of literature and the arts. But the sexual is not solely a test case, it can also be an excellent subject for demonstration because of the inheretent potency of the subject matter. It is the mise en scéne that moves a sexual text from the merely titillating to the psychically erotic.


Which brings us to E.E. Cummings and "the mind is its own beautiful prisoner."[FN] Though there is much that can be said about this verse, I am going to limit myself here only to showing how it functions poetically as an erotic text and not a merely sexual text, how the fact of sexuality is brought into the vitality of a mise en scéne.


[FN] The verse is actually the nineteenth of twenty-four that is the "Sonnets Actualities" sequence published in his second collection, &. The verses generally are not traditional sonnets: they are sonnets in that they all are fourteen lines in length and sometimes more sometimes less follow a structured rhyme scheme. If you are unfamiliar with how Cummings organized his books, while the sonnets are numbered as a sequence and there is some repetition of words among them, they are not connected by a running narrative or such. The sonnets are meant to be able to stand alone and are often published as such. To say, though, I do possess an anthology that presents the whole of the sequence as a unit (Poetica Erotica, ed. T.R. Smith, NY: Crown Publishing, 1921, 1949).

In transparency, I hold Cummings to be at the pinnacle of writers of poetry in U.S. literature. He is undoubtedly the greatest sonneteer – and one of the greatest writers of erotic verse – U.S. literature has to offer. I consider him requisite study and his Complete Poems requisite possession, both for scholars of poetry and practitioners.


We begin at the epicenter.

your sex

It is but a statement of fact: in context, "I see your sex." But, as said, the difference between the poetic and the prosaic is not the presence of fact but how the text uses fact: the prosaic never leaves the modality of the factual, which the poetic uses fact to generate and experiential engagement with the text.

The groundwork to such a poetic expansion was already laid, as, in a way, attention had already been called to the woman's sex:

The last thing he saw was you
naked amid unnaked things.

The lines do not merely state that the woman was naked. It gives a potency to that nakedness: her nakedness discerns her from the otherwise homogeneous reality of unnaked things. That potency does (at least) two things. One, it calls attention to what would be most naked about the woman: her sex. It creates a synecdochic relationship between the woman as a naked whole and one naked part thereof. As such, the fact of "your sex" appears already within a field of play that is the woman in her environment, the woman contrasted to her environment. You cannot understand the sex of the woman without understanding the woman herself, in a manner that cannot be condensed into a neat, logical relationship. When the woman is described,

[The last thing he saw was]
your flesh, a succinct wandlike animal,
a little strolling with the futile purr
of blood;

that synecdochic relationship is reversed, the sex of the woman being present in the language of the description of the woman, perhaps most especially in the elided noun. Simultaneously she is a "little" woman and a "little" sex strolling about with a "purr of blood." That is not the description merely of a naked woman, it is the description of a naked, sexual being, and a powerfully sexual being at that.

Two, the literary potency of the creative presentation of the power of the woman energizes the passage, so that when it does speak directly of her sex the language can move from that of vision to that of sound in what becomes a kind of synesthetic melding.

[. . .] your sex squeaked like a billiard cue
chalking itself

Of course, the sound is not real: it is imagined, it is an extension of what was seen. Yet it is also the most intensely sexual part of the verse: the man[FN] is seeing – simultaneously imagining – the physical effect of the woman's motions upon her sex, and those motions in turn has an effect upon him. I'll use that phrasing to make explicit the difference between the prosaic and the poetic.

I see the effect your motion has on your sex

your sex squeaked like a billiard cue chalking itself

One is factual; one cannot be read as factual. One presents a representation of the event; one invites the reader into an experience of the event: and all a text can ever do is invite a reader in, as reading poetically is reading actively – the reader must do the work of engaging the text.

[FN] In context of the sonnet series, it is explicit that the speaker is a man.

Remember, in the context of the verse, the primary engagement between the man and the woman is visual: ergo, "the last thing he saw." Yes, there is something of the visual – the twisting motion – to be found in the simile,

your sex [. . .] like a billiard cue chalking itself

if one complicated by that word "itself." But similes are but one-to-one matchings; they are usually but restating a fact in different terms. The energy of the full phrase comes into being through the ideational dynamo of the word "squeaked." No longer are we in the domain of fact; no longer can we rest in the modality of factuality. Literarily, the text has moved from fact to metaphor, a metaphoricity energized by the coincidence of sound and sight and the coincidence of the possibility/impossibility of the woman's sex actually squeaking. At the same time, the erotic energies have been amplified through the text's being intensely focused – through the lens of the man's psyche – upon the woman's sex.

But that metaphoric linking of the woman's sex to chalking a cue is only the first level of poetic effect. We have already seen how the woman is first presented as an irruption in the "unnaked" world. The text extends those energies into a full – vibrant – mise en scéne: one generated through the "life" (to refer back to Vargas Llosa) of the man and woman, a vital relationship in which the man cannot be understood but through the being of woman, and the woman cannot be understood but through the being of the man. This expansion is worked first by giving if not purpose then direction to the chalking.

your sex squeaked like a billiard-cue
chalking itself, as not to make an error,
with twists spontaneously methodical.

"As to not make an error": the woman's sex is not a neutral thing, it is something that can be wielded, and not only does the woman plan on wielding it – in context it can only be assumed the man will be or is, in that very moment, the target of that wielding – she plans on wielding it with precision. This is not, however, a tale of sexual manipulation. The energies are already created that the woman's sex is in synecdochic relationship with the whole of her naked being ("naked" and "being" carrying there something of a synonymous relationship). It is her whole naked, irruptive self that is being "chalked," that is being wielded. And we see the erotic energies being pulled away from mere sex to the full, psycho-emotional relationships of desire between the man and the woman.

The description of the depth and extent of that relationship does not end there. There is yet one more layer, already offered in the first line of the verse.

Mine looked long at the sticky moon
opening in dusk her new wings

then decently hanged himself, one afternoon.

That is, the layer of the primary action: the most basic event of the man seeing the woman and the ultimate result thereof. Confronted with the potency of the woman in her nakedness his mind can do nothing but surrender: the word "decently" there may be the word on which the whole of the verse pivots.

I cannot help in closing but speak to the structure of the verse. It works backwards from how sonnets normally work: it opens with its 'argumentative' conclusion, the necessity of surrender before the nakedness of the woman, before the woman herself, her being revealed in her (sexual) nakedness. After presenting the conclusion, the verse backs up in time and gives the event that led the man's mind to hang itself: seeing the woman "naked amid unnaked things," seeing the woman discerned, emerged out from the uniform reality of factual existence. Finally, the verse moves forward to the action of the mind hanging itself:

He suddenly tasted worms windows and roses

he laughed, and closed his eyes as a girl closes
her left hand upon a mirror.

Notice how Cummings does not even leave "hanged himself" in the merely factual, he metaphorizes that as well, completing the vibrant, complex, aesthetic, erotic mise en scéne that is "the mind is its own beautiful prisoner."