The Beauty of Living: e. e. cummings in the Great War by J. Alison Rosenblitt:
Everything from France swirled around Cummings’s mind during these miserable months at Camp Devens: sex, prostitution, thoughts of venereal disease, Marie Louise, the poplars. In the war zone and in Paris, sex and the army and venereal disease were all of a piece. This trinity was no less operative in America. Dos wrote that the army camp to which he himself was posted in Pennsylvania was known locally as Syphilis Valley. Cummings meanwhile observed the ludicrous nature of attempts to confront VD at Camp Devens. Nothing, he said, was accomplished by designating two latrine seats as “crabs only” and “venereal only”—except that the available seats in the latrine were effectively reduced by two, since no man would ever consent to mark himself by using the crabs or venereal seats. One of Cummings’s most satirical war poems comments on “yon clean upstanding well dressed boy” who is fêted off to war, “with trumpets clap and syphilis.”
His iconic statement about the Camp Devens experience was not published until much later, in 1931 in his collection W [Viva], when he finally channeled his anger into one of his most searing indictments of brutality inflicted in the name of patriotism. In “i sing of Olaf glad and big,” Cummings immortalized a conscientious objector whom he had known at Camp Devens. The power of “i sing of Olaf glad and big” lies in the straightforward quality of Cummings’s anger, as he recounts the imagined treatment of Olaf, rolled through freezing water, beaten with fists and boots and shit-covered toilet brushes, and then anally tortured with heated bayonets, before the army concludes that his pacifism is irremediable and throws him in prison to meet his death. The story is fictionalized, but the man remembered in this poem as “more brave than me:more blond than you” did in fact die while incarcerated for his pacifism at the military prison at Fort Leavenworth. “i sing of Olaf glad and big” carries a protest in its meter as well as its subject. “i sing of . . . ” immediately signals the famous opening of Virgil’s epic Aeneid, “I sing of arms and the man . . . ,” but Cummings rejects both the hexameter meter of classical epic and the pentameter meter of many English epic poems in favor of tetrameter, a four-beat line associated with the Romantic poets and their celebration of individualism and emotional liberty. Cummings offers an epic hero in a Romantic mold—the man who is true to his own conscience, even to death.