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Poems

[ViVa] (1931)

I sing of Olaf glad and big (CP 339)

XXX

i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or

his wellbelovéd colonel(trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand;
but--though an host of overjoyed
noncoms(first knocking on the head
him)do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,
while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments--
Olaf(being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds,without getting annoyed
"I will not kiss your fucking flag"

straightway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)

but--though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation's blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion     
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat--
Olaf(upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
"there is some shit I will not eat"

our president,being of which
assertions duly notified     
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon,where he died

Christ(of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too

preponderatingly because
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you.

from [ViVa] (1931)

 

Richard S. Kennedy (1994)

...Part of [the poem’s] icy irony is brought about by Cummings’ having used an irregularly rhymed tetrameter doggeral for such a terrible story. To heighten the irony he chose a formal diction such as one might find in a Victorian moralistic tale about a naughty boy who mistreats a kitten....

The pose of a medievel balladeer...is maintained right up to the end with the summarizing prayer....

from Richard S. Kennedy, E. E. Cummings Revisited (New York: Twayne, 1994): 76 and 77.

Gary Lane (1976)

"Arma virumque" sang Vergil, beginning an epic distinguished for its civility; Cummings, adopting and adapting that classical form, sings the man alone. The difference is implicative of both the spirit and the art of Cummings' poem. Olaf embraces an integrity of private rather than public convictions; acknowledging only his personal sense of truth rather than merging his will with the gods', he is a veritable anti-Aeneas, a new kind of hero. His poem...neatly reverses classical expectation by a series of ironic twists. It is a small new epic....

From the outset, the poem's force resides primarily in its play upon heroic tradition. We learn not "the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus/ and its destruction" ...but the gentleness of Olaf, "whose warmest heart recoiled at war"; big and blond, our hero may be the physical image of the Germanic warrior, but his temperament is otherwise. The form does not undercut heroism--we do not deal here with mock epic--it instead offers alternative heroic values. In the Iliad, Achilles is a hero of physical strength, sulking like a child when Briseis is taken from him, but at last achieving immortality by slaughtering Trojans. Olaf's strength is moral. Scarcely annoyed as his self-righteous and sadistic torturers attempt to strip him of human dignity, he achieves epic stature by refusing to kill.

The shift has important implications. Heroic epic... is based on communal values; a hero's greatness is a measure of the degree to which he exemplifies the qualities his society most prizes. With Olaf it is different. He must give up not merely his life but also the good name that valiance customarily wins, the hero's renown and reputation.... He can do so lightly, however, defying both the military force of his nation and its massively conformed opinions, because he answers to an individual rather than a collective truth, to personal vision rather than social regard.

Cummings' instrument of truth here is irony.... As the irony gathers, Cummings unmasks the modern bankruptcy of collective values. In a society so perverted that torture has become socially correct--it is administered by the "wellbeloved colonel(trig/ westpointer most succinctly bred) "--sometimes only profanity can express the sacred heart. Refusing to "kiss your fucking flag,"' Olaf avoids the polite Latin that in our century has time and again been used to justify atrocity. His taut Anglo-Saxon, direct as his behavior, is comment enough on his suave persecutors.

from Gary Lane I Am: A Study of E. E. Cummings' Poems (Lawrence, Kansas: UP of Kansas, 1976): 39, 40 and 41.