How does the order of the allusions to battle determine the sequence? And how does it suggest the action of the grass and the time?
Carl Sandburg wrote the poem “Grass” in 1918 when veterans, politicians, and ordinary people in Europe and the United States were confronting the immediate effects of the First World War. Told from the point of view of the poem’s subject, “Grass” conveys in simple, blunt terms the horror of war and the futility of human struggle.
The grass mentions the battles in chronological order from Austerlitz to Gettysburg to Verdun, covering a time period of 1805 to 1916. The chronological recitation indicates the increasing stakes implied in each battle and the ensuing changes in western society that occurred in each era. Austerlitz represents Napoleon’s initial success while Waterloo symbolizes his defeat. The Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 signifies a shift in the U.S. Civil War toward the eventual victory of the Union Army as well as the event that had the most casualties. Ypres in Belgium was the site of several battles between the Allies and the Germans, with the Germans using poison gas in 1915. The Battle of Verdun between the German and French armies lasted for most of 1916.
Prolonged trench warfare, employment of new technology in the form of chemical warfare and tank combat, and the subsequent political and economic upheavals delivered a profound shock to the western world. People questioned the validity of their previous world views, leading to a sense of cynicism.
With its dry tone and repetition, the grass echoes this cynicism. The free verse structure of the poem indicates the strict order that guided the world before the war is now broken. The grass speaks in its own rhythm and repeats its instructions “shovel them under and let me work,” a callous commanding showing indifference to the dead and human memory. The grass will cover them all no matter how high the piles of bodies are and will continue to grow over the years.
The last sections of the poem can yield different interpretations. The grass refers to “two years, ten years” as a passage of time although the actual time period of the battles is much longer. The grass seems to think people will forget the dead in rather little time.
The grass also refers to passengers and a conductor, phrasing which readers can interpret literally or symbolically. The passengers could be on an actual train riding through the U.S. or Europe and because people forget, they don’t understand the significance of the places they’re traveling through, asking “What place is this?” Or the passengers could be the souls of the war dead, their conductor a Charon figure, and they’re expressing bewilderment at their passing and eventual destination, asking “Where are we now?”
To both questions, only the grass replies, repeating its phrase, “Let me work” to fulfill its purpose to “cover all.” Despite our struggles and years of effort, Nature will have the last word and will continue after humans are gone.
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