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It is perhaps unfortunate that the most famous of the Chicago Poems is the very first one, itself titled "Chicago." The mood of the opening poem is basically an optimistic one. The city, which Sandburg describes as "laughing . . . stormy, husky," with the "brawling laughter of youth," gives the impression of a kind of modern urban corrective to the old, primitive life (which has been idealized by other poets) in which mankind suffered and blamed itself for its sins. Chicago seems to revel in not just "sin" (e.g., the "painted women under the gas lights") but in its ability to produce, in defiance of any restrictions that tradition has imposed upon people. When Sandburg says, "They tell me you are wicked and I believe them," this is his defiance against the old world and its norms.

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What follows, however, in the long series of poems, is much more subtle and, in its way, regretful and melancholy. Nevertheless, it is alive with a vitality scarcely achieved in other poets of Sandburg's era. The thrust of the poems overall is the people of Chicago, and most of them, even in their exuberant productivity (which reveals the success of industrial America), are to some degree victims of the system. We see men who are ditch-diggers, preparing the ground for gas and water mains; a dynamiter; an ice handler; a teamster being sent to jail; a man selling fish on the street; women who work in department stores and offices for six dollars a week; and the man who sweeps away with a broom the blood of hogs on the slaughterhouse floor. The city is peopled by immigrants—Poles, Italians, Hungarians—all of them still connected to the old country and dreaming of it. In the poem "Population Drifts," Sandburg refers to the "new-mown hay smell and wind of the plain" that, in essence, created a woman, who with her man crossed the ocean and in Chicago had "six children [who] played on the stones and prowled in the garbage cans." Even some of the Americans "born here" are immigrants too, in a sense, because they have come from the country to the city. The significant thing about this is that these people are not defeated by the city, by a system that seems intent on crushing them. Chicago is a metaphor, unsurprisingly, for all of earthly life, in which people go on struggling against the odds, working and procreating instead of giving up and allowing themselves to be beaten by the forces around them. Sandburg's poems deal with places as well as people. What, he asks, is the meaning of the great lake on the shore of which the city rests, of the harbor, of "The Fence," or of "A Coin"? The coin is the nickel: the Buffalo nickel with the face of a Native American on it. "We who come after where you are gone," Sandburg writes, "Salute your forms on the new nickel. / You are / To us: / The past. / Runners / On the prairie: / Good-by."

The series of poems is a meditation on not only "life" but the passage of time and the perpetual re-creation of the world by both human hands and by nature. But there is no single, unifying theme, in my view. All of it comes at the reader as a series of images, different scenes, as if in a magic picture show, illuminated by lightning. Much of it, as we would expect, is reminiscent of Whitman. But Whitman was writing at time when "America" was still a kind of mythic idea which was only beginning to be realized, in what Whitman, in "Passage to India" describes as the "strong, light work of engineers." In Sandburg, the myth has become reality and is perhaps a more passionate declaration of invincibility than even Whitman's verse showed us.

The Poem

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“Chicago” is a poem in free verse, one without a set meter or rhyme scheme, running twenty-three lines. The title gives the name of the city that the poet is praising, which does not appear elsewhere in the poem. Without the title, this poem could refer to any industrial city, suggesting a universal love of place.

The poem, written in the first person so that the poet addresses the reader directly, celebrates both the virtues and vices of the city. It begins with a staccato list of occupations found in Chicago (hog butcher, tool maker, stacker of wheat), followed by three adjectives that attach an emotion to those occupations. Carl Sandburg calls them “Stormy, husky, brawling,” creating an aura of vitality. This first section of the poem is abrupt and rapid, like the city being portrayed.

The second section departs from the brief phrasing and turns to long, flowing, melodic sentences. Each of the first three sentences acknowledges a vice of the city in the first half of the sentence. It is wicked, corrupt, and brutal. The poet agrees to each accusation, supplying a specific detail that supports the charge in the second half of the sentence. There are “painted women,” “gunmen,” and “wanton hunger.” The city does, in fact, have its failings.

The poet more than accepts the failings of his city, however; he answers in the remaining lines with a list of positive attributes. His city is singing and loud, “proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” Sandburg celebrates this strength, and it is clear that the vices are a small enough price to pay for the overwhelming vitality and life the city contains.

In the last four lines, an important shift of perspective occurs. The poet personifies the city, saying it laughs as a young man does, laughs “as an ignorant fighter who has never lost a battle.” This suggests a sense of innocence despite the previously mentioned corruption. Only youth laughs and feels confident regardless of circumstances. Only youth swaggers with the assurance of victory. Hence, a sense of immaturity mingles with the confidence and vitality.

The last line repeats the major attributes the poet grants the city. It is laughing, stormy, and proud. This line concludes with the repetition of the poem’s beginning, but as fragments of a single line rather than separate lines. This gives the poem a circular effect, ending right where it began, and creates a sense of closure.

Forms and Devices

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Sandburg wrote in free verse, but this does not mean that the poem lacks any structure. The structure supports the subject matter. A poem about a loud, brawling city would hardly be appropriately conveyed in a tightly constructed sonnet. Sandburg sought to capture the mood of the city in the arrangement of the poem’s language.

The short phrases in the first section are simply a list of occupations. This suggests that the city is primarily a place of industry, all efficiency and business. When the second section begins, the lines are long compound sentences that capture the depth of emotion the poet feels. The poet is in awe of the city even as he admits its weaknesses.

Sandburg was greatly influenced by the poetry of Walt Whitman. Both poets wrote of the common man, democratic society, and celebrations of the ordinary rather than the sublime. Sandburg utilizes the free-verse form that Whitman had made so popular in the nineteenth century, but Sandburg owes other debts as well—particularly to the Bible. The repetition of “and” in the first several lines, for example, is distinctly biblical. By using “and” rather than writing sentences with dependent clauses, Sandburg creates the effect that each independent clause is equally important. The poet’s emotions are equally significant regarding the city’s vices and its virtues.

This parallelism is one of the chief poetic devices employed. In addition to the repeated “and,” the use of the “-ing” form of the verbs after line 13 implies that the action is occurring presently. These are the things the city is doing; it is not resting on its laurels and traditions like other “little soft cities,” but moving rapidly.

The poem is written in the present tense, which lends it immediacy. The poet is currently experiencing the city and its emotion, which is a radical departure from what the nineteenth century English poet William Wordsworth said poetry ideally was: emotion recalled in tranquility. There is nothing tranquil about “Chicago,” and the use of the present tense helps convey this.

Sandburg’s use of metaphor further supports his themes. He compares the city to a dog to show its fierceness. He compares it to a young man, endowing the city with youth and enthusiasm and energy. These comparisons are commonplace; there is no elaborate use of mythology or classical allusions, so the reader has immediate access to the meanings. Sandburg does not employ traditional poetic devices such as alliteration or assonance, preferring the rhythms of natural speech. This is a conscious appeal to the common man, as Sandburg believed that poetry should address the common man.

Perhaps one of the most outstanding devices the poet uses is the personification of the city. Personification, giving human characteristics to inanimate objects, is clear in the attribution of physical traits to Chicago, such as saying the city has a mouth and head. The city behaves in a human fashion, laughing and brawling and singing. In this way, Sandburg furthers the concept of the city’s vitality and life.

Additionally, Sandburg addresses the city directly—the poetic voice is speaking to the city. “They tell me you are wicked,” he says, as if the city will answer him. This conveys the idea that the city will continue, in the same fashion, regardless of the occupants. Indeed, if people move away, the city’s character will not change, and Sandburg acknowledges this self-perpetuating ability in the direct address.

The Poems

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The publication of Chicago Poems created a furor characteristic of the introduction of material that is new both in subject matter and in style. The subject matter frightened and infuriated the conservatives, who insisted that Carl Sandburg’s topics were vulgar, indecent, and scarcely poetic. The poetry itself could not be scanned in the conventional way, was very free verse, and could not be called poetically beautiful. Liberal critics and readers, however, such as Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse who had “discovered” Sandburg as she had also “discovered” Vachel Lindsay, were convinced that Sandburg might be the great democratic poet called for by Walt Whitman and that his style of writing, his Whitmanesque barbaric yawp, was not only his own particular voice in poetry but also exactly the correction that conventional poetry needed.

Even Monroe’s first reaction to Sandburg’s totally new kind of writing was unsympathetic, so different was Sandburg from even the unconventional poets of the day. When Sandburg first submitted “Chicago,” the title piece in the later volume, and eight other poems to Monroe for publication in Poetry, her first response was one of shock. As she read on, shock turned to admiration. She published the poems and subsequently championed the author, defending him against the criticism leveled against him after the appearance of Chicago Poems.

The some one hundred fifty poems in the volume, although of the same style and content, differ rather sharply in quality. At their best they are powerful, harsh when covering harsh subjects, but astonishingly gentle when discussing gentle subjects. At their worst they are chopped-up prose, sometimes duller than spoken language.

In the title poem, “Chicago,” Sandburg looks at the boisterous capital of the Midwest, and with great love and admiration catalogs Chicago’s glories as well as its degradation; or rather, in recognizing its weaknesses and seeing through and beyond them, he arrives at its greatness: the muscular vitality, the momentum, the real life that he loves. He shows Chicago as the capital of the meatpacking industry, the great manufacturer of the Midwest, the crossroads of rail lines. All of these are its glory. He also sees it as the city of wicked people, of crooks and gunmen, of prostitutes. Chicago is fierce, but it is a city of builders, proud of being sweaty, bareheaded, of destroying and rebuilding. Chicago, like the poet who sings its praises, is proud of being all these things.

The volume continues in this vein. Sandburg sees the city from its underbelly, the tenderloin, looking at it through the eyes of the men and women on the streets, the lost, the underprivileged, the exploited, the lonely, and the hated. In these poems he is, as he was called, the “mystical mobocrat.” So comprehensive is his view that to read all the poems is to cover the whole seamy side of city life. Sandburg’s feeling about these people and the conditions of their lives is not, however, one of despair. Although he sees the terror of poverty and lack of privilege, he believes in the happiness, the present, and the future of the poor of Chicago. His treatment of the people is optimistic and romantic.

“The Shovel Man” is a good example of this two-sided view of the same man. The laborer, as the poet sees him, is merely a person working with a shovel, a “dago,” who works for very little money each day. This man’s lot, however, is not discouraging and does not fill him with despair. For to an Italian woman back in Tuscany, he is a much greater success than one could imagine.

Another successful man, glad to be alive and doing what he does for a living, is the “Fish Crier,” a Jew down on Maxwell Street, who with his sharp voice daily cries out his herring to customers. Far from unhappy, he is delighted that God created the world as great as it is.

This theme continues in the poem “Happiness.” Sometimes there is a close approach to the mawkish and sentimental in Sandburg’s sensibility. The democratic impulse sometimes carries him out of the realm of observation and common sense and into that of romanticized fantasy. In this poem Sandburg says he has asked professors and successful executives for the meaning of life, and they could not answer him, looking at him as though they felt he had meant to fool them. Then one Sunday afternoon he observes a group of Hungarians, with their beer and music, answering his philosophic question by unconsciously enjoying life merely by living it.

At times Sandburg quietly, in an undertone, states with telling effect the paradoxes and contradictions that exist in such a thriving city as Chicago, the city of the rich and the poor, the successful and the failures, the working and the jobless. In “Muckers,” for example, he writes that twenty men are watching a group of men dig a ditch in preparation for new gas mains. Among the twenty are two distinctly different reactions. Ten men see the work as the sorriest drudgery, while the other ten wish desperately that they had the job.

The contrast in the ways of life in Chicago is furthered in “Child of the Romans.” In this poem an Italian eats his noon meal of bread, bologna, and water beside the railroad track he is repairing. The poverty of his meal is spotlighted by the train that passes on the tracks he is repairing so that the ride on the train will be so smooth that nothing will disturb the wealthy passengers and their splendid living.

Another aspect of Chicago life, the lure of the city for the country woman, is brought out in the poem named simply “Mamie.” The namesake of the poem comes from a small Indiana town, where she was bored and ached for the romance of the big city. Once in Chicago, however, working in a basement store, she continues to dream of another bigger and more romantic city where her dreams can be realized.

“Fellow Citizen” is another study of true happiness, in which Sandburg barks his belligerent democracy. The poet says he has associated with the best people in the best of clubs, with millionaires and mayors. The happiest man he knows is one who manufactures guitars and accordions. This man is happy because, in contrast with the rich and the powerful, he is not a money-grubber. He manufactures his accordions and guitars because he loves to, and he is so indifferent to money that he will scarcely mention price to someone who wants to buy his instruments. This man, says the poet, is the only person in Chicago for whom he ever held any jealousy.

There are other moods and other themes in this volume. Sandburg was familiar with the Imagist poets, their desire for simplicity and clarity, and although he disclaimed any influence from them, he did admit having been influenced by the Japanese poetry he had read. The section of his volume titled “Fogs and Fires” reveals characteristics of both types of verse.

“Nocturne in a Deserted Brickyard” is a gentle, hushed picture of a static moment of nature. Another quiet understatement is “Monotone.” In “Monotone” the author is concerned with beauty and with what is beautiful. The monotone of the rain has this quality, as does the sun on the hills. Most beautiful of all, however, is a face that the poet knows, for it contains the aspects of beauty caught in all other bits of nature.

Perhaps one of the most deservedly popular of Sandburg’s brief nature images is the six-line poem called “Fog.” With compelling gentleness, the noise and violence of blustery Chicago is diminished to a single image in which fog steals catlike up to the city, looks over it for a moment, and then moves on.

Other themes are evident in the volume. One, the weakness of words in conveying strong emotion, is revealed in “Onion Days,” a poem concerning the Giovannitti family caught in the iron grip of an exploiting millionaire named Jasper. Although they are wracked by economic necessity, there is a dignity about the Giovannittis, a simple goodness that, says Sandburg, no novelist or playwright could adequately express.

Another theme is the transitoriness of life, the ultimate disappearance of all. “Gone” tells the story of Chick Lorimer, a “wild girl” whom everybody loved, but who finally disappeared. Nobody has even the vaguest idea where she went.

“Murmurings in a Field Hospital,” in the “War Poems,” tells of a soldier longing for what is past: a singing woman in the garden, an old man telling stories to children, and his own past. This theme of the stupidity and uselessness of war constitutes many of Sandburg’s powerful statements.

Early readers found Chicago Poems a work of tremendous impact; its voice was that of people talking and protesting in a manner never before attempted; its smell was of sweat, of the stockyards. Though Sandburg’s ultimate status in the history of poetry has not yet been established, there can be no doubt that this volume was a powerful influence on the poetic revival during and after World War I.

Places Discussed

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*Chicago. Illinois’s largest city and the industrial and commercial center of the Midwest. Sandburg’s poetry depicts Chicago as a mythic figure, a city personified as a kind of superman—optimistic, pugnacious, and indomitable. Ultimately, Sandburg celebrates the city’s unquenchable vitality and energy. The most familiar poem in his collection, “Chicago,” is most notable for its form, which, like a jazz composition or the expanding grid of the city itself, keeps going on its own momentum. The city and the poem are open-ended structures, and Sandburg’s “Chicago” is both utterly real and strangely mythological. The stockyards, railroads, skyscrapers, criminals, prostitutes, and marginal characters it describes are painfully accurate.

Many of Sandburg’s poems break Chicago’s massive cityscape down into comprehensible lives, in which frustrations, dashed hopes, and unfulfilled longings define the everyday existence of the working-class people, who make up the vast majority of the city’s residents. Sandburg’s poems are all telling examples of his socially conscious verse. He is also sensitive to the plight of the mushrooming ethnic populations, especially the Italians and Eastern Europeans, as shown in such poems as “Child of the Romans” and “Happiness,” the latter celebrating a family of Hungarians enjoying a picnic on the banks of the Des Plaines River.


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Allen, Gay Wilson. Carl Sandburg. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972.

Callahan, North. Carl Sandburg: His Life and Works. University Park: State University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.

Crowder, Richard. Carl Sandburg. New York: Twayne, 1964.

Durnell, Hazel. The America of Carl Sandburg. Washington, D.C.: University Press of Washington, D.C., 1965.

Hallwas, John E., and Dennis J. Reader, eds. The Vision of This Land: Studies of Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, and Carl Sandburg. Macomb: Western Illinois University Press, 1976.

Niven, Penelope. Carl Sandburg. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991.

Yannella, Philip. The Other Carl Sandburg. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

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