Sandburg’s Collective Poems Chicago

Article Posted in: Research Articles


published in Vol.II, Issue.XX, September 2016

Introduction to the Author:

rosy-002Rosy Maria D’Souza is a post graduate in History and English Literature with B. Ed. Teaching is her passion and she has been teaching for the past 20 years. She is a research scholar at Shri J.J.T. University, Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan.



Carl Sandburg was an American writer and editor, well known for his poetry. He has won three Pulitzer prizes: two for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln. He was widely regarded as ‘a major figure in contemporary literature’, especially for volumes of his collected verse, including Chicago Poems (1916), Cornhuskers (1918), and Smoke and Steel (1920).

‘Chicago’ is a poem about the greatness of the city of Chicago. It first appeared in Poetry, March 1914, the first of nine poems collectively titled ‘Chicago Poems’. It was republished in 1916 in Sandburg’s first mainstream collection of poems, also titled Chicago Poems.

This paper intends to highlight Sandburg’s love affair with Chicago which he has portrayed through his Chicago Poems. He presents profoundly sincere America in his poems. He highlights both positive as well as negative sides of Chicago.


Keywords: Ruthlessness, Brutality, Corruption, Immigrants, Night and day life, Hope.

Carl Sandburg’s poem ‘Chicago’ celebrates both the virtues and vices of the city. It begins with a disconnected list of occupations found in Chicago (hog butcher, tool maker, stacker of wheat). He compares Chicago city to a labourer by calling it ‘Hog Butcher for the World’ and ‘City of the Big Shoulders’ to Chicago. He compares the city to the things people do.


Hog Butcher for the World,

Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;


He also agrees that the city is wicked, cruel and brutal by giving us the picturisation of prostitution, murder, hunger and corrupt legal system. The city has its fair share of failings.


for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps

luring the farm boys.

it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to

kill again.

On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks

of wanton hunger.


But while agreeing to the drawbacks of the city he also challenges his critics especially those who sneer at his city by asking them to show him another city which is proud to be alive in spite of the existence of the coarseness and cunningness. He loves the majesty of the city and the work of the people who build the neighbourhood and skyscrapers.

In the following stanzas of the poem Sandburg describes Chicago as a young man. By using this comparison, he tries to justify that Chicago has many qualities which are there in an immature young man. Both are vibrant and active. But at the same time both have many flaws.


Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young

man laughs,

Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has

never lost a battle


But despite these flaws Chicago has many things to admire about and it will continue to grow. Sandburg glorifies many workers who contribute to the growth of the city – from the hog butcher that feed the city dwellers to the people that build the city’s skyscrapers and commercial buildings. Sandburg uses the poetic techniques of simile and metaphor to describe Chicago.

In the poem ‘The Shovel Man’ Sandburg tries to stress the point that how outsiders who migrate to the city contribute towards its growth. Though ‘The Shovel Man’ is a sweet poem about love, it gives us an insight into the toil of others who contribute for the development of the city.


On the street

Slung on his shoulder is a handle half way across,

Tied in a big knot on the scoop of cast iron

Are the overalls faded from sun and rain in the ditches;

Spatter of dry clay sticking yellow on his left sleeve

And a flimsy shirt open at the throat,

I know him for a shovel man,

A dago working for a dollar six bits a day


The shovel man here represents other workers who migrate from different parts of the world leaving their families behind to U.S.A. and toil hard in order to make the city a vibrant one. The shovel man comes all the way from Italy and has loved ones waiting for him in Italy.

Thus each and every worker who contribute to the growth of the city has his or her own history and story. The shovel man has a woman waiting for him in distant Italy.


And a dark-eyed woman in the old country dreams of

him for one of the world’s ready men with a pair

of fresh lips and a kiss better than all the wild

grapes that ever grew in Tuscany.


In the poem ‘Clark Street Bridge’ Sandburg describes the two vibrant faces of Chicago city. He intends to convey us how the streets of the city are vibrant and full of energy during the day time with people and wagons.


Dust of the feet

And dust of the wheels,

Wagons and people going,

All day feet and wheels.


In the next stanza of the poem there is a picture which contrasts with the first stanza. It describes the streets of Chicago at night. The vibrant city comes to a halt from its busy activities. Only a few people are active during night.


Only stars and mist

A lonely policeman,

Two cabaret dancers,

Stars and mist again,

No more feet or wheels,

No more dust and wagons.


From these poems we can see Sandburg’s love affair with the United States and its working class. He depicts Chicago as a mythic figure, a city personified as a kind of superman—optimistic, aggressive, and stubborn. He celebrates the city’s unquenchable vitality and energy. His “Chicago” is both utterly real, rustic and at the same time strangely mythological.

Sandburg’s poems depict the struggles, frustrations and everyday existence of the working-class people, who make up the vast majority of the city’s residents. He is sensitive to the plight of the mushrooming ethnic populations, especially the Italians and Eastern Europeans. ‘Chicago’ was published in 1914. But even to this day the plight of working class immigrant people is not changed much.

Nowhere in the poems the name of Chicago city is mentioned. Hence the images portrayed in the poem can belong to any city in America. His poems portray profoundly sincere America – both positive as well as negative sides. Therefore, he is regarded as the poet who can speak clearly in an authentic voice for the American people.



  • “Chicago Poem by Carl Sandburg”., 2003, Web 21 June 2016.


  • “Carl Sandburg” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc, 13 May 2016, Web 21 June 2016.

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  • “Chicago Poems Summary”., 2016,

Web 21 June 2016. <>


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