“Grass,” first published in Cornhuskers, presents a side of Sandburg often overlooked: his melancholy in the face of death. Unlike “Chicago,” “Grass” is conventional in subject, language, and tone. It is a “typical” Sandburg poem in its reference to train passengers and conductors in the Midwest and its stress upon the American war dead, but the link between Americans and people of other nations in the first line suggests a common fate.
“Grass” opens with the imperative to pile bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo, then to bury them so that the grass can get on with its work of covering the ground. The second verse calls for the same procedure at American Civil War battle sites: Bury the dead so the grass can grow, and after two years train passengers will ask the conductor where they are. Because of the grass’s work, all who fell in battle will be forgotten. It is the grass’s destiny to express nature’s indifference by obliterating memories of the war dead.
This poem achieves its melancholy by simple words and images, conventional diction, and repetition. Words such as “pile,” “shovel,” “bodies,” and “under” connote death, as do the names of specific battle sites. Graveyards, trains, and conductors provide homely images, but there are no colorful colloquialisms. Instead, simple but standard English provides a formality similar to a chant or funeral dirge. The long lines are instructions to...
(The entire section is 421 words.)