Carl Sandburg’s ‘Chicago’ is a poem about the majesty of one of the United States’s first great cities. Learn what the poem says about Chicago and find out more about the themes used in the poem and why those themes are so important!
Introduction to the Poem
In the poem ‘Chicago,’ Carl Sandburg lists many of the qualities that the city of Chicago has, both industrial and aesthetic. He notes some of the jobs that go on in Chicago and describes the city as ‘stormy, husky and brawling,’ or in other words, loud, big, busy and full of action.After this, he addresses critics of the city by answering their concerns. He admits that Chicago has its issues; people call Chicago ‘wicked,’ ‘cruel’ and ‘brutal,’ and he admits that in some ways, it is. He acknowledges that the issues of prostitution, murder, hunger and a legal system that does not always work the way it should, exist in Chicago.
However, Sandburg ends by countering the bad that Chicago must deal with by sharing the things that he finds great about Chicago. He says that he will ‘sneer’ at anyone who sneers at his city because it is vibrant and alive. He loves the majesty of building a city and he loves the work of the people who build the neighborhoods and skyscrapers. He characterizes Chicago as ‘young’ and ‘ignorant,’ which means that even though it is flawed, it also is vibrant and growing into something healthy and mature.
Sandburg ends the poem by defining Chicago in two ways: as a commercial power (‘Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation’) and as a young and proud city (‘Laughing the stormy, husking, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating’).
Themes of the Poem
When Sandburg wrote this poem about Chicago, it was 1914. Chicago was established as a city in 1833, so it was only about 70 years old.
This is quite young compared to many of the other great cities of the world, such as London, Paris and Tokyo. This is why Sandburg describes Chicago as a young man; it has been around for quite a while, but compared to most cities, it’s quite new.By using this metaphorical comparison of Chicago, Sandburg can show how Chicago holds many of the same qualities as an immature young man: both are vibrant and active, but both also have many flaws. However, Sandburg wants his reader to know that despite those flaws, there is much to admire about how Chicago continues to grow.
Another theme that Sandburg focuses on is the theme of commerce. Chicago was a major city because it was the midwest hub to the Western states. In the time before air travel, Chicago farmers and merchants moved their products both to the West and to the East through the railroad and anyone going from East to West (or vice versa) almost surely would stop at Chicago along the way.Sandburg also celebrates the many types of workers that helped the city grow, from the hog butchers that feed the populace to the people that build the city’s skyscrapers and commercial buildings.
Sandburg wants the reader to realize how important Chicago is as an example of a vibrant modern economy.
Analysis of the Poem
In order to describe Chicago, Sandburg relies on the strategies of simile and metaphor. Simile is a trope where two unalike things are compared directly (often with the use of the words ‘like’ or ‘as’).
Metaphor is a trope where unalike things are indirectly compared.Sandburg uses these strategies in order to compare the city of Chicago to a young man. In this way, he can show some of the qualities that Chicago has. It is immature and young, but it is also strong and vibrant.For example, when Sandburg is striking back against the critics of the city, he calls it ‘fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action’ and ‘cunning as a savage against the wilderness.
‘ These comparisons help Sandburg give a sense of life and growth to the city and give Chicago clear qualities that the reader can understand (it is fierce, excitable and the city and its citizens know how to survive, in the case of our example).Sandburg also uses personification in order to help describe Chicago. Personification is defined as the technique of giving an inanimate object lifelike qualities. For example, even though Chicago as a city is not alive, it does have human qualities in the poem: Sandburg describes it as ‘laughing,’ ‘brawling’ and ‘sweating.
‘ While Chicago itself does not literally sweat, this description of Chicago’s actions make it seem active, loud and even violent, which are three qualities that many people might identify Chicago as having.All of these elements come together to create a Romantic view of the city. Typically, when poems were written about the beauty of a place, those places were in nature. The Romantic Movement that occurred in the 1800s was focused on describing the amazing beauty of nature.
Sandburg wants to describe the amazing beauty of a place as well in his poem, but the catch is that instead of a place in nature, Sandburg wants to emphasize the beauty that a man-made city has as well, making this poem an interesting reversal of the types of Romantic poetry that came before it.
Carl Sandburg’s poem ‘Chicago’ shows the beauty of Chicago as a city and how, even though it is immature and has its problems as a young man does, it is a monument to modern living and commerce. Sandburg uses simile, metaphor and personification to give the city life and to compare its growth to the growth of a young man.
After you have finished, you should be able to:
- Summarize ‘Chicago’ by Carl Sandburg
- Identify the major themes of the poem
- Discuss the figurative language used by Sandburg in ‘Chicago’ and the effect they have on the poem