Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 421
“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 pile the bodies and shovel them under; the short lines are thematically significant, repeating that the passengers’ questions and the relentless work of the grass prove that all is forgotten.
Even though it exhibits Sandburg’s penchant for repetition, “Grass” is understated and concise. Unlike his better-known poems, “Grass” does not express faith in the people’s ability to transcend life’s difficulties. Its matter-of-fact tone is more reminiscent of Emily Dickinson than Walt Whitman, as it faces a mournful but unchangeable fact of life. In his mention of American battles and trains and conductors, Sandburg implies that even brash Americans with their outrageous democratic ideals are not exempt from war, death, and the silence of an unresponsive nature.
Although not given as much publicity, Sandburg’s somber side is almost as prevalent in his work as his buoyant optimism toward “the people.” He continued to ask large spiritual questions but never found solace in conventional religions. Although Sandburg has been accused of being nonpoetic, his preoccupation with loss and melancholy place him in the tradition of English meditative verse, particularly the English graveyard poets.