Much has been said about this poem and there are many sites devoted to helping GCSE students get to grips with it. With this in mind, I have annotated a personal response to the poem, with observations, in red type, which may not be found elsewhere. My aim is to explore how cummings uses language, structure and form are used to create meaning.
“next to of course god america i
putting ‘i’ alongside ‘god’ and ‘america’ is the first indication that this poem is satirical. The ‘persona‘ of this dramatic monologue has placed himself in the top three! The target of the satire is the bombastic, died-in-the-wool american patriot – perhaps the politician – who seeks to manipulate his (I do feel it is a ‘he’) audience. I say ‘audience’ because of the speech marks, of course.
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
Why the apostrophe? cummings is deliberate with transcription: this apostrophe is no error. I see it as a ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’ (e.g. banana’s for sale) to show that despite all his grand rhetorical flourishes and patriotic allusions, this man is fundamentally uneducated. The satire is developed further in this line: when the speaker cannot remember any other clichés about his country, he resorts to ‘and so forth’ but then, with a sudden eleventh syllable ‘oh’, has a flash of thought when the title ‘My country tis of thee’ pops into his mind for a moment before his undisciplined mind takes him galloping forward. The absence of punctuation conveys an uninterrupted spewing of inanities. See Richard S. Kennedy
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country tis of centuries come and go
This is the title of a sentimental patriotic hymn to God, America, freedom and liberty, mainly in trite rhyming couplets.
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
His view that the hearing impaired and the mute speak a different language is outrageously offensive – cummings humorously satirises anti-impairment fascists through this blase objectionable derision.
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
‘by gorry’ = by God. The archaic ‘minced oath’ is a strange contrast with the archaic yet reverent and formal lexis of ‘acclaim’ and ‘thy’, which are themselves linked with the clichéd personification of America as a father to its men. ‘gee’, ‘gosh’ and ‘gum’ are also euphemistic oaths.
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
The speaker (but not the poet, of course) makes another random association – this time to a popular contemporary nonsense song about a beautiful girl called ‘Oh By Jingo’ who rebuffs the advances of her admirers. Irony therefore abounds in this devotional poem to America.
The above eight lines, called an octave,comprise two quatrains with a rhyme abab cdcd. Why does this matter? Well, the rhyming of particular words can give another layer of meaning e.g. ‘i’ and ‘my’ seems to enhance the speaker’s ego-centrism. This last line heralds the end of the octave by being the only short line of 9 syllables and the tripled repetition of ‘by+euphemism’. Since the sonnet form has been especially used for love poetry, since medieval times, cummings seems to have added an extra dimension to his humour: he is showing that the sonnet is an ideal form for the ridicule of self-love. Also however, this octave has the same rhyming pattern as the Shakespearean sonnet; compliance with that form, humorously does not extend to specific ideas being explored by each quatrain; the wayward nature of the speaker is thereby enhanced by this departure.
At this point, the sestet begins. Its rhyme scheme, being efgefg, is analogous to the Petrarchan cdecde. It comprises three questions: why talk of beauty?; what could be more beautiful than the dead?; shall the voice of liberty be mute?. The rhetorical questions imply that the speaker believes the answers should be in the negative, whilst the poet, himself, ironically, has diametrically opposed views to his persona – how witheringly destructive is this character assassination of right wing, war-mongering hawks!
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
I love this! The inclusion of this colloquial, abbreviated, inconsequential word ‘beaut’ into the sonnet’s rhyme scheme is masterly.
iful than these heroic happy dead
The persona of the speaker has added ‘iful’, on the enjambed line, after a moment’s after-thought!! cummings further satirises the jingoistic speechmaker with the absurdly alliterated oxymoron of the ‘heroic happy dead’
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
The simile is intended by the speaker to connote valour – however, the use of ‘rushed’ demonstrates an impetuous lack of thought. Ironically, this demonstrates an absence of bravery which, by definition, requires conscious action combined with an awareness of danger. The idea of lack of thought is categorically reinforced in the next line.
they did not stop to think they died instead
The antithesis of death, with not stopping to think, is brutal because of its shallow, matter-of-fact tone.
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”
On one hand, the line above is a magnificent rhetorical flourish, which encourages listeners to say ‘No!’: on the other, it is a non-sequitur which glosses over the senseless loss of life, which is being advocated. The irony is unsettling.
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water
This last line is a single-lined verse and is the main ‘volta’ (see sonnet), which has all the more impact because of the delay. The choice of ‘spoke’ rather than ‘said’ challenges our natural desire for a narrative structure: instead, we have a sense of occasion combined, after the caesura, with the telling, awkward nervousness of the reversed order words ‘drank rapidly’.
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