Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Chicago” is a celebration of America’s vitality. It is about boundless energy, about love of life, about the zest and laughter that Sandburg found. Granted, the city has its dark side, but Sandburg’s city laughs in the face of terrible destiny. This attitude is a prominent theme in American literature, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century.

The destiny to which the poet refers is death. Many of Sandburg’s poems address this theme directly, but in “Chicago” it is implied rather than directly stated. The terrible destiny is inevitable; no matter how much life is packed into the sprawling city, its inhabitants will perish. The spirit of the city will eventually soften and become like other cities. This impression of death is reaffirmed in the metaphor of the ignorant fighter. Fighters do lose eventually, even if it has not happened yet. Despite the certainty of destiny, however, the important thing is to live. The affirmation of life lies in the attempts to live life fully, to work, and most of all, to laugh.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, notably T. S. Eliot, Sandburg was a poet of the people. He was widely read in his own time, and his poetry reflects his preoccupation with the common person. The people of his city may be underfed, criminal, or immoral, but they are real people. He writes of workers and farmers. He writes of those people who strain and sweat and swear and laugh and cry in order to celebrate...

(The entire section is 407 words.)