“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
First question; do you know the words to the American anthem? If you remember the tune as most do, then you try to sing the words and should begin with “Oh say can you see…..” and then sing the rest. Now re-read this poem.
When I first saw the title, I thought here we go again, just like the Stevie Smith; weird, odd little poem, sounding almost nonsensical if you tried to say it out loud as it comes off the page.
For example, the first line is a repetition of the title, in that the words are the same, but in context, they seem out of order in a normal sentence. Unless you are Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, taking the mess out of Michael Palin’s character, they simply do not work. Next to of course America i? Even my MS Word package wants to put the capital A in the word America.
So is this meant as a nonsense poem akin to Jabberwocky? I think not.
Instead, this is what I think is happening in this poem. Yes, Cummings has the word order wrong but when I do that in my writing, I am doing it to make a point. The poet is saying that next to God, whatever concept you have of God, then comes the land of the free, as they call it. There is a sense of nationalistic pride that runs through this poem and it is the pride of the writer, who is being creative with the language spoken, on purpose and for effect. In other words, God comes first, then my sense of nation and national pride. There is that sense that the history of this poet’s ancestors is important as a part of life. It is a very American sentiment and one that the British tend not to have. The use of “land of the pilgrims” and “say can you see” link together in the first three lines to bring this about so effectively.
Then, the poet continues. There are “centuries” of history to look back to, using standard and non-standard English [if you do not know the difference you need to look them up. Google them and learn them]. And after all the glorification of the nation [sounds like a rap, glorification of the nation – never mind] we get two lines that really start to get to the point of why it is in the conflict section of the AQA anthology at all.
We see the words:
“why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead.”
It is interesting that there is a rhetorical question being asked here. In my copy taken from the internet, there is a hyphen [dash] between the two parts of the word “beautiful.” If I then try to join the two parts together the lines get all messy, so it is done on purpose. Again, this is someone playing with the language. Can you remember learning to ride a bicycle? You wobbled. You may have fallen, but then you got going and eventually, you learned to balance, cycle and all the rest properly.
Then, you had a go at being adventurous, if like me, and took the hands off the handlebars. “Look Mum, no hands.” It is the same with writing and using language. We learn the basics so we know it and then we can play with it. This is what is happening here, as with some of the other poems in the section as well. “Why talk of beauty?” the poet asks. What reason could there be? What is being said is that there can be nothing more beautiful or glorious than those who have fallen in battle, the ones the poet calls “these heroic happy dead.” In the poet’s words, they “rushed like lions [simile here] to the roaring slaughter” [metaphor used] and did not stop to think right or wrong, death or life.
Now at this point, if you have read all these conflict poem notes on this blog, you should be thinking “hang on, where have I heard that before?” The answer of course, would be Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade. What the poet is saying is that there is no way after such heroism that those who call themselves American will stop thinking and saying glorious things like this, for when can “the voice of liberty be mute [silent]?”
This is, in essence, a very clever, very patriotic poem about a nation’s pride in their armed services and the sacrifices made by them each day, but it is also a poet handling language in a very sophisticated manner. It is a poem that reflects conflict, heroism, sacrifice, death, glory and pride. But it is also one that is equally confusing for some, so for the rest of the notes I refer to a fellow site with extra notes below.
From another website
The poem “next to of course god america i” alludes to the patriotism of a nation, namely the United States. It brings up the issues of what’s a patriot and what in actually the norm of the average American citizen’s response is to war and fighting? The writings style displays sort of a mocking tone of the patriotism of the United States because while we all rally against a common foe it becomes the minimal population that’s doing all fighting. Through my interpretation I saw this work as a member of U.S. Congress who act as if they are the biggest patriot who ever lived in this country, although they can talk the talk they will surely not walk the walk of the paths of war. It’s a matter of who can spew the biggest patriotic speech and act as if they care when in fact they’ll be doing none of the fighting as in most times of our nation.
Furthermore to the poem the element of blind patriotism is as well evident. This element of blind patriotism is apparent in “…who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter they did not stop to think they died instead…”(Cummings). Cummings’ deliberate direction towards close-minded ideals and questioning is the displayed sentiment seen here. We’re able to view individuals who against all common thought are prone to being manipulated and brought on the bandwagon to ship off to war without knowing what they’re fighting for. This delusion is exactly what it comes down to when one becomes a blind follower of a cause or nation that seeks help for the most ridiculous causes: war.
The last line of the poem is important in its own way because it brings into light the reality of dissent in the world of blind followers. The narrator speaks the truth in the text about the reality of who does the fighting and what becomes of the followers who are sent to fight in causes our own Congress does not seek to follow suit. As the narrator finished speaking we see they immediately take a drink of water and essentially swallow their own words when they realize what they just stated was against the ideal patriot’s mindset but something else: truth.