Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
This poem presents a strong antiwar statement as Cummings lauds a conscientious objector for his resistance and eventual refusal to participate in battle. Although Olaf’s actions eventually result in his death by torture, the narrator believes that he will see Olaf in heaven: Olaf has chosen a Christ-centered path and will be forgiven for his lack of “patriotism,” since in this case patriotism is evil.
The poem begins with a positive picture of Olaf—his massive physical frame, his joyful attitude, and his warm heart—but in line 3, Cummings hyphenates the word objector (“object-or”). This hyphenation establishes a new mood in the poem by suggesting that Olaf is merely an object, manipulated by society to meet its own ends. Cummings sarcastically describes Olaf’s colonel as “well beloved” and “succinctly bred”; these two back-handed compliments play against the word “erring,” used to describe Olaf. The real intent is to evoke pity for the nonconformist and to portray the military figures as inhumane and cruel. This purpose continues with the sarcastic description of the noncoms employed to convince Olaf of the war’s correctness as “overjoyed” (line 7) and “kindred intellects” (line 13): These men are happy being brutal. Olaf, in contrast, is calm and controlled. He recognizes that he is “a corpse”; these men will eventually kill him, but he coolly (without annoyance) replies to their abuse with defiant words....
(The entire section is 371 words.)
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