Skip to main content

"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.