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 sings of arms and the man. Olaf is a new kind of personal and private hero who refuses to merge his will with the gods and persists in maintaining a gentle and patient rather than warlike attitude. Nevertheless, Olaf cannot be classified as passive, since he combats his ignoble humility with brutal obscenities, invectives that his tormentors will understand. The poem offers an alternative to violence: the heroic value of moral strength. This strength allows Olaf to achieve epic stature even when his torturers try to strip him of the last vestige of human dignity. These attempts to destroy him are countered by Olaf’s love and courage, traits which are misinterpreted by the masses as weakness or cowardice.
The poem closes by forcing the reader into more intense involvement with Olaf and a recognition that Olaf’s plight is a universal dilemma. If the qualities that society prizes are epitomized in the poem’s officers and noncoms, readers will no doubt see more value in Olaf’s renunciation of renown, reputation, and life in the face of their repressive actions. His courage allows him to die not for a cause, but because of a cause, not for his country but because of his country. The value of individualism and integrity is stressed, and Cummings’s humorous contempt for the military establishment reiterates his approval of nonconformity, both in life and on the printed page.
Forms and Devices
E. E. Cummings’s work is characterized by unorthodoxy, invention, and especially by experimentation with language. Some of the unusual writing techniques normally present in Cummings include pun, paradox, inversion of cliché, grammatical turning, and typographical experiments. The purpose of these techniques is their immediacy of effect: Cummings wishes to surprise the reader into a new and unique vision about the topic under discussion.
Several evidences of Cummings’s unorthodoxy are evident in “i sing of Olaf glad and big.” Cummings avoids traditional capitalization. The narrative “i” is in lower case to indicate his own humility, while the importance of Olaf is indicated by the fact that each “I” referring to him is capitalized.
Word choice is yet another indicator of Cummings’s refusal to follow the norm. For example, there is formal speech (“being of which/ assertions duly notified,” lines 34-35) which is appropriate for legal documents, while there are also colloquialisms such as “yellowsonofabitch.” Obscenities seem to be included for shock value, yet there are also archaisms which seem out of place in a modern poem.
Syntactical changes exemplify...
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