Carl Sandburg

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What is the meaning of Carl Sandburg's poem "Iron"?

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"Iron" is an anti-war poem. The title expresses the link between war and death: the metal—in this case, steel—that guns are made of causes death, and metal ("iron") in the form of shovels digs the graves that bury the dead soldiers.

The first stanza describes the myth of war as glorious. The steel guns on warships are "straight, shining, and polished," all positive images, and the soldiers climb on these warship armaments. The soldiers themselves are described using pleasant images of youth and health. They are tanned, with white teeth and "tousled hair." They sit on the guns and sing war songs. All seems vibrant and lively on the warship.

In the much shorter, sparer second stanza, we move to "iron" shovels scooping out graves. The graves are here called "oblong vaults." This is a much more sobering image. The graves are dug for dead men who were once like the vibrant youth described in the first stanza.

Stanza three ends with the idea that the shovel is the "brother" to the gun. In other words, war, which might seem glorious, ends in death.

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The meaning of Carl Sandburg's poem "Iron" is that even though instruments of war may be beautiful and romantic, and may excite the young men serving in the military, they are indivisibly connected with death and destruction.

The first stanza, which is almost a shape poem in that it builds out like a gun jutting from the side of a ship, emphasizes the joy the "jackies" (common sailors) feel in serving the "war god" and his shining instruments:

Glory of tan faces, tousled hair, white teeth,
Laughing lithe jackies in white blouses,
Sitting on the guns singing war songs, war chanties.

The next verse, much shorter, turns to another impliment of iron, the shovel. The allusion it has to make is indirect, requiring the reader to think for a moment and so increasing its impact:

Broad, iron shovels,
Scooping out oblong vaults,
Loosening turf and leveling sod.

The key here is "oblong vaults" -- these must be graves, by implication for the "laughing lithe jackies in white blouses" after they have been killed in battle. Thus, the final line, "the shovel is brother to the gun" means that war, no matter how romantic its tools may seem, inevitably entails death.

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