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On "i sing of Olaf glad and big"

 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 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.

Brian Docherty

Another poem which contrasts institutional thinking with the plight of the individual is ‘i sing of Olaf glad and big’. Again there is a strong rhythm and deftly placed rhyme, employed to make the message clear. Olaf is a principled individual, probably a second-generation Swedish American from the Mid-West farm belt, brought up in the Lutheran church. He is a heroic figure who dies for his beliefs after enduring barbaric treatment, including the ultimate obscenity with red-hot bayonets. American democracy and freedom suffer grievously at the hand of their supposed defendants, ironically described as ‘(a yearning nation’s blueeyed pride)’, while the pacifist traitor is lauded as ‘more brave than me: more blond than you’. cummings is impartial in his attitude to regimes where correct attitudes are instilled and maintained by force. America and Russia are two faces of the same coin as far as he is concerned.

From Docherty, Brian, "e.e. cummings." In American Poetry: The Modernist Ideal. Ed. Clive Bloom and Brian Docherty. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Ó 1995 The Editorial Board Lumiere (Cooperative Press) Ltd.

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