I Sing Olaf Glad and Big

Perhaps it is just a Monday morning after a particularly bad Friday afternoon, but I find myself thinking about e.e. cummings’ great anti-war poem today. If you aren’t familiar with cumming’s “i sing Olaf glad and big,” it’s worth reading about once a month.

My attraction to Olaf isn’t necessarily his status as a “conscientious object-or” (although we must admit cummings’ brilliance at the dash). While I’m no fan of war, I also recognize there are times when the big stick has to go into motion. Certainly, the poem’s irony is difficult to miss: Olaf asserts his independent thinking only to be beaten and jailed by the very protectors of the democracy he is supposed to serve. cummings’ irregular rhythm and rhyme heighten the disconnect between ideal and practice. For our military to work effectively, Olaf can’t exist, but for our democratic ideals we need Olaf to tell us, on a semi-regular basis, “I will not kiss your fucking flag.”

What I most admire about cummings’ poem is the terrific conflict between Olaf’s sense of individual values versus the collective good. At a time of war, we must struggle with such decisions. Winning requires collective sacrifice. Some of those sacrifices are relatively easy–gas rationing, food shortages, can drives, curfews, etc. But Olaf doesn’t die because he wants one less pork chop at night.

In times of crisis, we are faced with the ethical and moral dilemma about our willingness to sublimate our self to the larger social system. Notice, I didn’t write that we have to sacrifice for the greater good? It seems to me that’s the rub, here. The greater good, cummings seems to say, isn’t bowing down to the collective will. In fact, cummings points out, bowing down to the collective good forces us to sacrifice those very things that make any collection of people good.

But the poem isn’t just about free will or some libertarian, anti-government call to arms (or lack of arms). Olaf “ceaselessly repeat [s] ‘there is some shit I will not eat.'” If it were appropriate, this would be under the signature on my email. It’s important that we don’t mis-read Olaf as simply an anti-war activist. Olaf is “more blond than you” not just because he’s a revolutionary. Olaf is akin to the founding fathers who recognized that individual rights supersede governmental control. For those men of the enlightenment, this was an easy claim to make. Jefferson, et al imagined that, as reasonable people, we would, when given a chance, choose good. The goal of government was to get out of the way and let people be reasonable and good. The irony in cummings’ poem, of course, is the institutional ideal is protected by robbing the individual of the very rights promised by the ideal.

When I have a chance, I like to teach cummings with Voltaire’s Candide. Voltaire ends his satire with Candide telling his companions we must “tend our gardens.” It’s easy to read this ending as a kind of isolationist turn for the novel, but we err when we do so. For Voltaire, the concept is relatively simple: if we tend our gardens, all gardens will be tended. When the gardens are tended, things go well. Large governments emerge when gardens get messy because someone isn’t taking care of his garden or when someone wants to take care of more than one garden. Large governments have a history of telling us how we must tend our gardens, requiring we forfeit our reason (that thing that defines us as individuals according to the founding fathers) for some standard method created by “succinctly bred” colonels.

For me, though, the poem is also about that line in the sand we all have to draw. Institutionally and often culturally, we are encouraged to sublimate our self to the larger good. Don’t make waves, go with the flow–Doing so, of course, forces us to ingest things we regret, but begin to tolerate. While Olaf’s situation is extreme, we face this same kind of decision on a daily basis at work and at home. More to the point, we are faced with others whose “kindred intellect” willingly encourages us to just sit at the table and grab a fork. Allegiance, in too many places, takes precedence over conscience.

Olaf reminds us how important that conscience is to ourselves and our country. Opposition for the sake of opposition isn’t productive, but we should remind ourselves daily which flags we will kiss. Doing so defines who we are and who we aren’t willing to be, what we will or will not eat, and, most importantly, whether we will be “the firstclassprivates” or Olaf glad and big.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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