For Prodigal Read Generous

by Edward Estlin Cummings

In the poem For Prodigal Read Generous poet asks the reader to be generous if she or he wants to understand what is prodigal. Only an unselfish person can give large amounts freely. Similarly, ‘age’ will tell him the value of youth. The old person reminds the reader that he too was young and his youth had already passed and that youth is so short. If the reader knows what mere surprise is, he will understand what a pure miracle is. Miracle is the intense form of surprise. After this, the reader is asked to study other aspects of life.

If the reader knows what satisfaction is, he will experience what pure joy is. A satisfied person is very happy. The monotony of prose will show how lively a poem is. If the reader is careful and attentive enough to avoid danger he or she should be curious. Otherwise his curiosity will lead to destruction. After this he is asked not to pay attention to something. Cummings asks the reader to read one set of words and to understand something else for each word. Finally, the reader is asked to close the eyes, probably with satisfaction that is obviously false.

To close the eyes is also not to pay attention to something, not to take notice of it, to ignore it. Thus concepts change from generation to generation. There is the absence of capital letters in this poem. The poet may mean to say that nothing is more important than anything else. In other words, he wants to say that all are equal. The literary devices he developed were intended to show how the outer appearance reinforces the inner vision. His disordered syntax (sentence construction) and typographical disarrangements were intended, not to bewilder, but to heighten the understanding. The poet has dropped the conventional punctuation. We don’t get a period at the end of the sentence in this poem.

The first line of the poem reads “for prodigal read generous” and the third line reads “read for sheer wonder mere surprise”. In the third line the verb ‘read’ is placed first and its object ‘mere surprise’ has been placed at the end. In fifth line the order is completely different: first there is the object ‘contentment’ and after the object is the verb ‘read’ and then is the adjunct of ecstasy. Seventh line also follows the order of fifth line except the fact that there is no verb. The poet has reversed the usual or natural order of words for emphasis. The emphatic words are placed either in the beginning or at an end. The end position is more important than the first. Therefore ‘generous’, ‘surprise’ ‘ecstasy’ and curiosity’ have been especially highlighted in lines 1, 3, 5 and 7 respectively.

In all the eight lines of this poem, the poet has used the imperative form of the verbs read, turn and close. He is asking his reader to read different things, to turn the page and to close the eyes and thus to experience different aspects of life by himself. The poet uses the phrase ‘to close your eyes’ to mean ‘not to pay attention to something’ ‘not to take notice of it’ ‘to ignore it’ and ‘to show satisfaction.’

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