Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

Eventually, Olaf’s case is referred to the commander-in-chief of the Army, the president, who sadly agrees about the “yellowsonofabitch” and decides on imprisonment—no doubt solitary confinement—in a dungeonlike prison, reiterating both the medieval/war images and the tactics of torture used in the Dark Ages. Line 42 associates Christ, also punished and killed for his nonconformity, with Olaf. Despite the fact that Christ faced opposition to His actions, Cummings implies that he attained heaven and conquered both torture and death; similarly, Olaf will gain this reward for his fortitude and perseverance. The poem maintains that the American ideal of patriotism has been perverted to depraved cruelty as the war machine grinds any opposition to pulp. On the other hand, Olaf is portrayed as a heroic example of true perfection, a perfection which defies warlike society and advocates peace and pacifism.