Analysis of Poem "next to of course god america i" by E.E.Cummings
E.E.Cummings and next to of course god america i
next to of course god america i is one of the strangest sonnets ever written. It is a poem that delights in its own satire, that whimsically dances with cliches and pays little heed to punctuation.
Overall, this is a rebel sonnet that ridicules the notion of patriotism, as delivered by an anonymous speaker.
E.E.Cummings remained a controversial poet throughout his career, producing poems that puzzled, shocked and disoriented. His experiments with syntax and form made certain that readers could never be complacent; there was always something new and unusual in his poetics.
He loved to mock convention and in next to of course god america i reveals his distaste for those who blindly spout out political or patriotic rhetoric, especially at election time. There is a strong comic element, and irony surfaces now and again; both serve to highlight the seriousness of the subject matter.
Note also the reference to war in the line containing these heroic happy dead - Cummings, as a pacifist, said 'no artist surely is a mankiller' and in the poem goes on to question the nature of their deaths.
next to of course god america i
"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water.
next to of course god america i is a 14 line sonnet with a rhyme scheme ababcdcdefgfeg and an inconsistent iambic meter (metre in UK) which helps vary the rhythmic stresses of the lines. Basically this is a hybrid English and Russian sonnet with a cumming's twist - a single line at the end.
The poet also plays with syntax, grammar and device to create a single work that is both anarchic and witty.
- Reading this poem for the first time is a big challenge and it needs to be carefully approached: the reader has to keep step and decide where to pause, when to speed up and slow down and how to make sense of the sounds!!
Quotation marks begin this poem. Someone is about to speak, is speaking. This could be a speech about God, America, the ego. All three are right next to each other and all three are written in lower case, which is the poet's prerogative but looks kind of odd.
Does this mean the poet, the speaker, thinks little of all three? Why not use use capitals to signify importance?
- And what about the first line, it ends with an i - does the reader stop before going on to the second line which begins with love? Not really. The enjambment (when a line has no punctuation at the end and sense continues on) means the reader should not take a pause but flow on into the next line.
The first person speaker now declares love for the land of the pilgrims (the Pilgrim Fathers?, who fled 17th century England to make their home in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, birth state of the poet).
But the idiomatic phrase and so forth undermines what initially was pure patriotic praise. It's as if the speaker is reading out a list of cliches....and so on and so forth...blah blah blah, not really too caring.
The second line ends in oh but the reader cannot stop or pause for long because the next line begins with say, part of the opening line of The Star Spangled Banner, national anthem of the USA:
O say can you see, by the dawn's early light
The poet's allusion to the anthem is stark and the patriotic musical association is reinforced as line three ends with my and line four begins with country 'tis of - the opening line of a hymn written in 1832 by Samuel Francis Smith:
My country, 'tis of thee
The speaker cuts short the anthemic lines perhaps because he is so used to giving similar speeches he cannot be bothered to finish them. He's trying to get through the speech in one go, get it over as quickly as he can.
The fourth line continues with a cliche...centuries come and go...as if time and history are worth nothing.
Lines 5 - 8
The centuries are no more.... the speaker reminds the reader that time has gone and what's the use of time? Does a country have to learn from its history? What about the past, the present, the future?
The lines, without punctuation, continue at a frantic pace; fragments of well known songs combine with cliche and personal opinion as the speaker gushes forth his platitudes. Sense is disjointed, which reflects the emotional confusion, or suggests that what this speaker is saying is nonsense.
Line 6 is ambiguous. The reader is left to work out whether or not in every language means the mother tongue of all citizens who should be worried (even those who use sign language) OR could line 6 flow into line 7 to suggest that the citizens are the ones who glorify the country's name?
- Cummings joins deafanddumb to make three words readable as one.
- Note the complete spelling change of by golly to by gorry so that it part-rhymes with line 5 worry.
Line 8 is a regular beat iambic tetrameter which is an echo of soldiers marching past (and is read as such by the poet on the accompanying video):
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
Jingo, in this context, derives from a song that was sung in British pubs when Britain was at war with Russia in the 1870s. Jingoism is extreme patriotism, especially with regards aggressive foreign policy.
Lines 9 - 12
A slight change in rhythm as line 9 brings beauty out of the blue, repeated at the end of the line as Cummings splits beaut/iful in two. This not only allows the line to end with a rising beaut- but ties up the full rhyme later on with mute (in line 13).
- Lines 8 and 9 build into the alliterative line 10 which contains the oxymoron heroic happy dead - happily dead? Not only are they happy according to the speaker, they are also like lions who can't wait to be slaughtered (with inappropriate laughter). Odd, isn't it supposed to be like lambs to the slaughter? Either way, the use of the only simile in the poem is powerful enough.
Line 13 has five regular beats as the monosyllabic words move on, reflecting the thoughtless action of those who died.
Lines 13 - 14
The whole of the speech ends in a question - what of the voice of freedom? Is it better to speak one's mind or refrain? Perhaps liberty should be next in line to god and america and i, for who is to shout up for those heroic happy dead?
And finally the perspective shifts, from the words of the speaker to someone else who has been listening in, observing, recording. Such a speech requires gulps of water, to aid digestion, to swallow all those cliches.
© 2017 Andrew Spacey