Warning: The images in this poem are very graphic and contain two vulgarities. Peruse at your own risk.

Background

Not many high-school students know this 1931 e.e. cummings poem, published as poem XXX in the book, ViVa, for the very reason that it is graphic. Most high schools have banned the poem. Not only does it contain the words "shit" and "fuck" but also the images it produces of Olaf being tortured are quite obscene. Finally, it is a poem of nonconformity. I doubt an education system, which relies upon complete conformity, would want to send this message across to its students. In fact, Arizona State University charged three of its students who distributed this poem with "conducting oneself in manner that might discredit the university." The ASU lawyer conscientiously objected to charging the students. How ironic.



Line-by-line analysis

i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or

The first three lines of the poem establish Olaf as a conscientious objector. He is in the military but he does not wish to be. The last line, "a conscientious object-or" has two meanings. If taken without the hyphen, it simply means "a conscientious objector." However, taken without anything after the hyphen, it says "a conscientious object." This suggests the idea that he is merely an object of the military. The military views him as just a thoughtless body with which they can kill their enemies.


his wellbelov├ęd colonel(trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand;
but--though an host of overjoyed
noncoms(first knocking on the head
him)do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,

The next nine lines begin to describe the torturing of Olaf. The noncoms (officers who entered the military as soldiers, not officers, but rose up) treat Olaf to the following: hitting him on the head, throwing him in icy water, and striking him with brushes covered in fecal matter. The soldiers subject him to such torture because he was a conscientious objector. He was not loyal and did not even attempt to feign loyalty.


while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments--
Olaf(being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds,without getting annoyed
"I will not kiss your fucking flag"

The next seven lines talk about the consequences of the torture. The other soldiers, if not loyal, begin to conform as soon as they start getting the shit kicked out of them. Olaf, however, maintains his nonconformity to the point where he simply states, "I will not kiss your fucking flag." (as an aside: this line and the other quotation had to be censored for most of this poem's life, so Cummings just substituted the words with f.ing and s. He let the readers come to their own conclusions as to what they meant) The significance of Olaf stating this line without getting annoyed is that he wants to show the torturers that he is unfazed by physical harm. Olaf's "wanting of any rag / upon what God unto him gave" states that the soldiers literally strip him naked.


straightway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)

The meaning of the next two lines is clear. The silver bird is the colonel introduced in line 4. The silver bird is a rank insignia of the Army denoting the position of colonel. He looked grave because the torture was getting quite out of hand. His departing hurriedly means he wants no more part of it. It is significant that he departs hurriedly to shave because it means he really wants no more part of it and will take any reasonable excuse to depart.


but--though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation's blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,

Lines 22-33, I feel, are the most significant parts of the poem. This is talking about how the officers would kick and otherwise beat the nonconforming soldiers. It paints an image of a few officers beating up on one soldier while the rest cheer in "clarion voices." Line 23 is quite significant. In most US World War I recruitment posters, soldiers are shown as ideal Americans -- blonde-haired with blue eyes. That the officers torturing Olaf are blue-eyed shows that even the most ideal soldiers are not above torturing their peers into conformity.


and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease

The word mesh in line 27 establishes myriad meanings for the line. By writing firstclassprivates as one word, Cummings attempts to paint one mind image instead of three; he tries to get the reader to think of first-class privates as one atomic entity. Writing it without spaces also lets the reader know the word is quite important. The first-class privates are probably proud of their rank and at every opportunity, remind everyone else of their rank. Thus, when they say it they probably say it quickly as one word, just as Cummings wrote it. There is also sexual innuendo in the line. If you take the word to be a phallic symbol, those two lines take on a whole new meaning. The officers are figuratively (and later on, literally) raping Olaf. After establishing firstclassprivates as meaning a tool, one can easily see that Cummings views the first-class privates as mere tools. Not to mention, tools of the military.


by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat--
Olaf(upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
"there is some shit I will not eat"

These lines represent the apex of the torture Olaf receives. The soldiers are now raping him with piping-hot bayonets just because Olaf would not conform. Keep in mind these are the ideal soldiers mentioned in the "a yearning nation's blueeyed pride" line. Cummings writes "upon what were once knees" to show that Olaf, after going through this horrible torture, is just a shadow of his former self. Even though he has endured all of this, he still taunts his torturers by saying, "there is some shit I will not eat." The "shit", of course, being the idea of conformity.



our president,being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon,where he died

These lines reinforce the idea that nonconformity in the military is generally a bad idea. The president throws Olaf into jail for life, probably under the charges of treason. Olaf is a yellowsonofabitch because he would not fight. He stuck to his own beliefs and not the beliefs forced upon him. The word mesh links the words firstclassprivates and yellowsonofabitch for obvious reasons. Cummings is saying the real yellow sons of bitches are the first-class privates.


Christ(of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too

Cummings finally explicitly evokes Christianity. Christianity is a purely pacifist religion. Until recently, America has considered itself (albeit not officially) a Christian nation. Cummings points this out in this poem. How can a nation which (for the most part) follows a pacifist religion ever go to war? The idea is absurd. Americans, like these soldiers, had considered themselves Christian but chose to ignore the whole idea of pacifism. To paraphrase a quotation from Gandhi, "I would consider myself Christian, but I would not want to be the only one." This quotation flows quite well with the message of this poem. The whole poem, of course, alludes heavily to Olaf as Jesus. Olaf could even be considered Christ as he is a messiah for nonconformity.


preponderatingly because
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you.

These final lines show how much respect the poet has for Olaf. Olaf is more brave than the poet. The last line is one of the most quoted lines from Cummings' work.


Miscellaneous analysis

The poem's message is very clear: Think for yourself. Question authority.

Throughout the entire poem, Olaf is clearly linked to Jesus. He takes his beatings without a violent resistance. He only tells the torturers that he is undaunted by such violence.

The rhyme scheme is very interesting. It starts out ABB ACDDC but quickly degenerates into seemingly random lines rhyming. This type of poem is known as a doggerel.

Cummings is very well known for his peculiar capitalization. He refuses to conform to the normal capitalization standards. Instead, he only capitalizes what he feels is important. In this poem, the capitalized words are: Olaf, God, I (when Olaf is speaking), Christ, and His (when referring to Christ). The capitalization reinforces the link between Olaf and Christ.


Poem used without permission, but hooray for Fair Use!
CST Approved
If you have anything to add, feel free to either either /msg me or add your own writeup. I will be happy to share anything I know either way.

Sources:
Analysis: Mostly myself, but with some help from my English class
The court case: http://dpg.lib.berkeley.edu/webdb/meiklejohn/meikcase?sortno=1300&caseno=24.69&title=&desc=&sortno=1300

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