According to Richard S. Kennedy’s biography of E. E. Cummings, Dreams in the Mirror (1982), “i sing of Olaf glad and big” grew out of Cummings’s experience at Camp Devens, Massachussetts, shortly after he was drafted into the Army in July of 1918. Cummings’s memories of the camp remained vivid until he composed a collection of poetry entitled W for “ViVa,” meaning “long live,” which was published in October, 1931. The book began darkly, dealing satirically with the sordidness of the world, and ended more happily, with an emphasis on the earth and lyrical love poems.
This poem, one of the satires, is number 30 in the series; it has a strongly negative emphasis. Usually considered the most hard-hitting antimilitary piece written by Cummings, it is based on his brief acquaintance with one soldier at Camp Devens who shared his disgust for violence and his unwillingness to participate in war or to use a gun. After a confrontation with the commanding officer, Olaf (not his real name) was seen no more, but rumor persisted that he had been transferred to the Army prison at Fort Leavenworth and would be brutalized for his pacifistic stance.
The poem consists of seven stanzas of inconsistent length, and it praises those individuals whose conscience compelled them to resist war and its destruction. The poem’s beginning parallels the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), in which Vergil...
(The entire section is 467 words.)