Study Guide

if everything happens that can't be done Analysis

  • Sound Check

    This poem has a pretty complicated form, which you can read about in our "Form and Meter" section, but it somehow still sounds simple, free, and easy.

    Go ahead, read it aloud to yourself. It's fun, we promise.

    In fact, this poem sounds just like the actions from each stanza's second set of parentheses: running, leaping, and shouting with joy. And what's more fun than that?

    This poem is so full of noise and life that it sounds like a whole group of children has gone out to recess and is playing a game in which they run, hop, skip and giggle as much as possible, having fun in the sun.

    Plus, it has that repetitive quality that children's games often do. The repeated rhymes and consistent structure, the simple words and the rollicking rhythms – they all come right out of a child's playbook. How bout a game of Ring Around the Rosie, Shmoopers?

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Technically speaking, this poem doesn't actually have a title. But lucky for you, we'll talk about it anyways.

    Like many of Cummings's poems, this piece is simply known by its first line. It's not printed with a title, so the first line becomes the default title, and there' you have it, folks: "if everything happens that can't be done."

    As luck would have it, this first line/title comes in handy when we're trying to understand this poem. The piece starts off by proposing a hypothetical situation, in which everything happens that can't be done. We're given the first half of an "if… then" statement. When you read every line keeping the first one in mind, it can help you make sense of some of the paradoxes and contradictions in the poem. After all, if the impossible can happen, well, then the impossible can happen.

    Plus, it's important to note that the first line doesn't just come right out and say, "Look, you can do the impossible!" Instead, it tells us that everything is happening that can't be done. People aren't doing these things that can't be done. Nope, those things are just happening. There's some mysterious force at work here, and we're guessing that it might be this whole "one" concept, and we're guessing that it has something to do with love.

  • Setting

    Though we can't be exactly sure where this poem is set, the references to teachers, books, nature, and the childish actions seen in the parentheses make the poem seem like it's set at a playground where children are enjoying their recess. It's likely that this playground is just in our speaker's head, but, nonetheless, the poem has a childish glee.

    More important than the physical place where this poem is set, though, is the type of world this place is. We know from the first line of the poem that this piece is going to describe a world in which "everything happens that can't be done." In other words, nothing is impossible in this world, so when we read we should drop any skepticism that we've picked up from years of living in a world with limits.

    In this poem, love can be brighter than the sun, the world can be a leaf, far can be near, anything can be everything, and even "everyanything." Everything is happening, all at once, and it couldn't be more wonderful.

  • Speaker

    This speaker doesn't come right out and tell us much about himself, but we Shmoop sleuths can guess a good bit about what he might be like, based on what he has written.

    Most importantly, we know that he's in love thanks to line 28, and that the person he loves happens to love him, too. If you've ever been in love, you'll know that it's a pretty wonderful feeling, which gives us a context for all the exhilaration and wonder we've seen throughout this poem. Our speaker is so in love that he feels as if he has become one with his lover, and that they are brighter than the sun. Swoon.

    We don't really know how old the speaker is, or where he lives, but he writes about running and skipping (6-7). So, regardless of how old the guy is, his love sure makes him feel young. Also, no matter where he actually lives, his love has made him feel like it's a place where anything is possible, where "everything happens that can't be done."

    Strangely, our speaker, who's writing a poem, has a strong aversion to books. But we think that Shmoop can let him slide on that one. In fact, we might as well pin it on love too. Why sit in the house reading a book about love when you can go outside and actually be in love? Why not drop the novel, and go bask in the sun with your special someone?

  • Tough-o-Meter

    Snow Line (7)

    The funny thing about the difficulty level of this poem is that, if you read it with an open mind, it's pretty easy to feel, if not understand, what the poem is saying. But if your mind is closed by, say, everything everyone has ever told you about how to read poetry, this poem might prove tricky. It just refuses to make logical sense in many of its lines. There are made-up words and crazy phrases, paradoxes and metaphors left and right, weird capitalization, and no punctuation other than parentheses.

    Our advice is to battle through all the stuff that confuses you, and read the poem based on how it makes you feel, without analyzing every single little part of it. Once you've truly felt the poem, then you can start to analyze it to discover why and how it makes you feel that way.

  • Calling Card


    E.E. Cummings loves to play with words. Of course, many poets play with words, but Cummings has an astonishing knack for it. Not only does he come up with new words, he makes us think new things about old words by simply using them in entirely different ways from what we're used to.

    He'll take a simple word, like "something," a word which most people just gloss right over, and explore its meanings and uses in new and fascinating ways. Cummings's poems are about words, and how they work and fit together, as much as they're about anything else, and "if everything happens that can't be done" is no exception.

  • Form and Meter

    Cummings Original

    The structure in this poem can be so tricky to spot, we're willing to bet that most people who give this poem a light read, especially without reading it out loud, might miss out on the patterns within it. That would be a crying shame, though, because the patterns and rhythms are the key to unlocking this mysterious poem.

    Despite its subtlety, there's a rather complex structure and rhythm here, though it's not any form you'd find in a poetry textbook. In fact, as far as Shmoop can tell, Cummings made it up for this particular piece. But the fact that he invented it doesn't make it any less strict. Let's take a closer look.

    Rhyme and Rhythm

    First, rhyme. In each stanza, the first, fourth, and ninth lines rhyme. In the second stanza, for example, "although," "grow," and "so" rhyme. Plus, the fifth and eighth lines rhyme, like the first stanza's "guess," and "yes." Each stanza follows this rhyming pattern.

    Oh, but we're not done, folks. We've also got some meter action. Each stanza follows a roughly iambic meter. This means that the line has an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable, and we call this pair an iamb, which is a type of "foot" or unit of sound in poetry. It makes a "da-DUM" sound.

    Unfortunately, this poem isn't all iambs. Nope, Cummings likes to toss in these pesky little things called anapests. An anapest, like an iamb, is a foot, or a unit of sound. Except instead of going da-DUM, an anapest goes da-da-DUM. In this poem, Cummings has a habit of combining iambs and anapests in his lines, making for a fun rhythmical romp.

    Let's take a peek at the first stanza, to see this meter in action:

    if everything happens that can't be done
    (and anything's righter
    than books
    could plan)
    the stupidest teacher will almost guess
    (with a run
    around we go yes)
    there's nothing as something as one (1-9)

    So the first line reads a little something like this: da-DUM da-da-DUM da-da-DUM da-DUM. In fact, so does the parenthesis that follows, if we read the whole thing as one line. The fifth line, too, follows this pattern. Each of these lines contains an iamb, followed by two anapests, followed by a final iamb.

    Then, the second parenthesis goes da-da-DUM da-da-DUM da-da-DUM. That's three anapests in a row. And finally, the last line of the stanza goes da-DUM da-da-DUM da-da-DUM. That's an iamb followed by two anapests.

    As it turns out, each stanza follows the same pattern, with a few variations here and there, which makes this poem a formal one, despite its strange grammar and sentence structure.

    If this whole anapest/iamb thing is confusing you, don't worry too much about it. What really matters is that each line of each stanza has a certain amount of syllables, which remains constant throughout the poem.

    Pattern Palooza

    In fact, there are a ton of other patterns going on here, which add to the depth of formality in the poem. Take a look at this list we've compiled, and see if you can spot even more:

    • The second line always ends with a comparative adjective, which ends in "er" (for example, "better" in line 11).
    • Except for in the final stanza, each second line starts with the word "and."
    • Every stanza's third line in the poem is the same two words: "than books."
    • The fourth line of each stanza closes out the parentheses trend, and is only two words (or one metrical foot, long).
    • Each stanza's sixth line always has three words, and always begins with the word "with."
    • Then the seventh line is only one word and the eighth line has either three or four words, and – except in the final stanza – starts with the word "around."
    • The last line of each stanza has three metrical feet.
    • The last word of each stanza repeats as the first word in the next stanza.

    What should we take away from this? Well, though it first seems like it's just a playful and fun poem, "if everything happens that can't be done" has a structure that is marvelously complicated. As you read, think about what the effect of this structure is on the meaning of the poem.

  • Nature

    "if everything happens that can't be done" might be about love, but it sure is crammed with nature. Hmm. Maybe those two things have something to do with each other. Again and again, things in this piece are compared to things in nature, which seems like a place where all of experience is vibrant and wonderful. When you dive into this poem, we'd recommend sitting outside, shaded from the brilliant sun by a big old tree. We think the speaker would like that.

    • Lines 11-13: We're not told directly that "buds" means flower buds here, and in fact it might not mean that at all. The word "bud" can refer to anything that is undeveloped, in an early stage of growth. But if "buds" does mean flower buds, then they're being personified, because the speaker is giving them the human ability of knowing. More importantly, these buds know better than books (which are also personified here) and, perhaps most marvelously of all, buds grow, unlike books. It's in nature, these lines seem to point out, that we get to watch the simple miracles of flowers growing. That's nature 1, books 0.
    • Line 19: This line uses metaphors, comparing the world to a leaf, and a tree to just a bough (or, branch). These metaphors take big things in nature, like the whole world and a tree, and compare them to smaller things in nature, like a leaf and a bough. If the whole world is indeed a leaf, this then makes us think that we must be able to learn something about the whole world just from looking at a little leaf.
    • Lines 20-22: These lines, a lot like lines 11-13, establish the superiority of nature over books by comparing the signature act of birds, singing, to the signature act of books, telling how. Birds do their job in a much sweeter way than books do. Nature 2, books 0.
    • Line 26: The word "fly" in this line connects back to the imagery of birds earlier in the stanza.
    • Line 37: The sun is one of the main elements that make nature possible. So it's pretty powerful when the speaker says that "we," probably the speaker and the person he loves, are brighter than the sun. Note that this comparison is an example of hyperbole, or extreme exaggeration.
  • School

    If there's anything that keeps kids away from nature, it's school. Throughout this poem, the speaker talks about books, and he mentions a teacher once. But for someone who's writing a poem, he doesn't seem to like books so much. There's still a lot of jubilation in this piece, though, that reminds us of the glee of schoolchildren playing outside during recess. When you read this poem, try thinking of the joy you used to feel during recess, when you got to romp around outside before returning to be cooped up in the classroom.

    • Lines 2-4: Here, we get our first attack on books. "Anything," a pretty nonchalant word and concept, is said to be "righter" than books. So, maybe you shouldn't always listen to your teacher when she tells you that the answer in the book is the "right" answer. This is especially the case with poetry, in which there's often several right answers.
    • Line 5: Hopefully, your teacher is not the "stupidest" teacher, like the one in this poem. There's a real disdain for school here, as we can see by the speaker picking on his poor instructor. It's also kind of paradoxical, or contradictory, to talk about a stupid teacher. We would hope that teachers are smart.
    • Lines 6-8: Right after telling us about a stupid teacher, the speaker gives us an image of skipping and running, which makes us think of recess. Note how these words are very concise and action-based.
    • Lines 11-13: Again, an attack on books. Buds – like flower buds, or like budding young students – not only have the ability to grow, unlike books, but also they even know better than books. Perhaps this means that we can find more in nature than we can ever find in a book, or that young, undeveloped minds have knowledge of their own.
    • Lines 15-17: Again, these playful words make us think about recess. This stanza reads like a recess word game.
    • Lines 20-22: These lines again illustrate how nature trumps books. Books might tell us how to do something, or what something is like, but such descriptions will never be as wonderful as hearing a bird sing. There's a hint of irony here, too, because we think this poem, which you'd find in a book, sings pretty sweetly.
    • Lines 29-31: Poor books, they really take a beating in this piece. These lines, though, show us one of Cummings's favorite devices – making up words. "Shuter," here, should probably mean "more shut." But read the rest of the second lines of each stanza, and you'll see that "shuter," ending in an "er" just like all the other ones, fits better than its grammatically correct counterpart.
    • Lines 37: Imagine if you were not only a bright student, but "brighter than even the sun," which is hyperbole, or extreme exaggeration. While these lines could be talking about the school-kind of "bright" (as in, smart), we think they're more about the speaker's love, introduced in line 28.
    • Lines 38-40: The "we" is not only brighter than the sun, but also greater than any meaning you can find in books. Love and the feeling of being a "we" with your special someone, is something that can never be fully expressed in a book. It's not a meaning; it's a feeling, much like the one that the speaker might want us to get from this poem.
  • Oneness

    We hear a lot about this whole "one" thing in this poem, but we never get an explanation of what it actually is. It's up to us to define "one," but to be fair, the speaker does give us some hints, which we've outlined below. Our best guess is that this "one" is the same thing as the "we." Perhaps this oneness could be the way the world feels to the speaker when he's deeply in love. But that's Shmoop's guess. What's yours?

    • Line 9: In this line, we think of one as a "thing" rather than a number, and it's the most "something" thing of all. While we're not quite sure what being the most "something" thing of all means, we figure that this ambiguity is deliberate. Oneness is mysterious.
    • Line 10: Now that we have the less-than-illuminating idea that "one" is the most "something" thing of all, one becomes even more confusing. It doesn't, like many ideas or things, have a why, or a because, or an although. Apparently, there's no need to elaborate on one, even though, ironically, that's exactly what this poem is doing.
    • Line 14: Finally, we get a little bit of concrete information on "one," though it's still pretty ambiguous. "One" is a thing that happens when anything old becomes everything new. This doesn't really seem possible to us, but then we remember that everything that can't be done is happening in this poem.
    • Line 18: Well, gee thanks, speaker. As if you haven't gotten us confused enough about one, now you have to go and make up words about it? But while "everyanything" might seem imposing, it's also just a combination of everything and anything, which is what the speaker is describing "one" as. Open your mind to comprehend everything and anything, and you'll get "one." Sweet.
    • Line 19: This line connects to line 18 because of the word "so." It's because one is "everyanything" that the magical metaphorical transformation of the world into a leaf and a tree into a bough, or branch, can happen. So everything big can suddenly become little, because everything is one.
    • Line 23: Just like the world and the leaves and the trees can be one thing, here can be far, and your can be my. Get it? Got it? Good.
    • Line 28: Though "one" isn't mentioned here, we start to get the feeling that all of the oneness is inspired by the love between these two people.
    • Line 36: "We" is a form in which more than one person can speak about himself or herself with only one word, so another form of oneness is calling to the speaker.
    • Line 45: This line plays with the sound of "one" in "wonderful," and ends the poem with the idea of oneness. Don't forget that one times one equals one, a rare property for a number to have, which makes the oneness even more magical, infinite, and awesome.
    • Steaminess Rating


      There are two people in love in this poem, but sex is nowhere to be found.