The American poet e. e. cummings (as he styled himself) was one of the most linguistically experimental mainstream modernist poets writing in the United States in the twentieth century, and his poem ‘next to of course god america i’ is a fine example of his innovative style. But is ‘next to of course god america i’ a patriotic poem or an anti-American poem? It was the American writer Gene Wolfe who once remarked that almost every great work of art comes close to saying the opposite of what it means. Sir Christopher Ricks, the literary critic, made a similar point about great religious works of art risking the charge of blasphemy. The same, we might say, is true of all interesting patriotic poems. You can read ‘next to of course god america i’ by Cummings here before proceeding to our analysis.
‘next to of course god america i’: summary of the poem
Like many of e. e. cummings’ poems, ‘next to of course god america i’ is difficult to follow because he deliberately wrests language into new shapes, bending the rules of syntax, so that we begin (without a capital letter, as is his trademark style) with the declaration ‘next to of course god america i / love you’, which essentially means ‘next to God (of course, he comes first), I love America the most’.
The poem goes on to summon a number of earlier patriotic poems about the United States, such as Francis Scott Key’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ (better known as the US national anthem), specifically the opening line ‘Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light’, and the patriotic hymn ‘America (My Country, ’Tis of Thee)’.
Throughout, cummings mocks or makes light of many of the slogans and features associated with the United States of America, such as when he follows the phrase ‘land of the pilgrims’ with the offhand words ‘and so forth’. We get further casual, colloquial everyday phrases – such as ‘what of it’ – peppered throughout the poem as we read further. Some of these, such as ‘by jingo’, cleverly hint at the nationalism or ‘jingoism’ which cummings’ poem is addressing – and, indeed, mocking.
It’s worth stopping to observe that the first thirteen lines of ‘next to of course god america i’ are in quotation marks, spoken by someone addressing a group of people. As the last line suggests, when we are told this public speaker takes a glass of water, this is most likely a political figure addressing a crowd of Americans at a patriotic meeting or rally.
‘next to of course god america i’: analysis of the poem
Is the poem patriotic or critical of blind patriotism? Since much of the poem is spoken by an imaginary public speaker, such as a politician, it is difficult to gauge cummings’ tone, as is so often the case with modernist poetry. But even if one loves one’s country, one should hold it up for rebuke when it does something reprehensible (such as getting involved in foreign wars: cummings was, famously, a pacifist).
And this is where cummings’ reference to the ‘heroic happy dead’ who have ‘rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter’ might be interpreted as a criticism of a certain brand of zealous patriotism, which glorifies fighting for one’s country and celebrates the dead as ‘happy’ – assuming they were all ‘happy’ to give their lives in service of their great nation.
Although cummings doesn’t tell us how to respond to such words, the fact that his political speaker is clearly getting worked up and enthused by his own words – note how he ‘rapidly’ drinks a glass of water once he has finished his speech – implies someone almost frothing at the mouth in his determination to ‘big up’ America and to see any sacrifice made in service of it as a good thing.
The poem is one of cummings’ famous takes on the sonnet form, although as we’d expect from a technical innovator like E. E. Cummings (or ‘e. e. cummings’), he plays around with the rhyme scheme (rhyming his poem ababcdcdefgfeg), spacing (‘deafanddumb’), and line endings (‘beaut- / iful’ spans two lines).
We might analyse cummings’ poem as a variation on the sonnet. The Petrarchan or Italian sonnet is divided into two sections: an octave or eight-line section and a sestet or six-line section. But unlike a Petrarchan sonnet, which uses the same two rhymes (rhymed abbaabba) in the octave, cummings makes use of seven different rhymes, as we find in an English sonnet (rhymed ababcdcdefefgg). So cummings’ poem is a curious hybrid of the Petrarchan and English sonnet, as if trying to distance itself from both: like the martini (apologies, H. L. Mencken), it takes these two ‘ingredients’, associated with Italy and England, and puts a distinctly American twist on them.