A Poem by Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)
A Study Guide
Carl Sandburg's "Grass" is a three-stanza poem in free verse with simple words expressing a profound message. Free verse ignores standard rules of meter in favor of the rhythms of ordinary conversation. In effect, free verse liberates poetry from conformity to rigid metrical rules that dictate stress patterns and the number of syllables per line. French poets originated free verse (or vers libre) in the 1880s, although earlier poems of Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and other writers exhibited characteristics of free verse.
Henry Holt and Company first published "Grass" in New York in 1918 in a collection of one hundred three poems entitled Cornhuskers. Sandburg won a Pulitzer Prize for this collection and another one for his Complete Poems, published in 1950.
Theme 1: After humans kill one another in recurring wars, they let nature cover up their dirty work.
Nature—specifically grass—narrates the poem in first-person point of view. The words and repeated phrases suggest a sarcastic tone. Nature seems frustrated that humankind cannot learn from its mistakes and instead allows the grass simply to cover them up. People pay so little heed to their tragic errors of the past that they do not even recognize a battlefield site when they see it. ("What place is this? Where are we now?") Another interpretation suggests that the tone is objective and impassive: Grass has a job to do, and as surely as rivers flow and thunder rumbles, it does what it has to do.
By Carl Sandburg
The dominant figure of speech in the poem is personification, which turns the grass into a person who observes wars and cleans up after them. An implied metaphor equates grass with time, which erases memories of war. The battles referred to call up images of great carnage, as indicated in the following details about the battles:
Austerlitz: Major battle of the Napoleonic wars, fought on December 2, 1805. Nearly 25,000 men died. Napoleon Bonaparte and his army of nearly 70,000 soldiers defeated a force of Russians and Austrians numbering about 90,000. Austerlitz is in the present-day Czech Republic.
1. In an essay, compare and contrast the attitude of nature toward war in Sandburg's "Grass" and Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage.