Grass – Carl Sandburg

‘Grass’

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.

NOTES

This poem takes a peculiar perspective on the war, whereby the human perspective is decentred, placed to one side. The nature of ‘Grass’ is not the nature of the pastoral poets, who take nature as a part of the human experience— a mirror or setting for man’s dramatic struggles. Nature in ‘Grass’ is non-human, unsympathetic, almost alien. Focussing on the grass rather than the men fighting in the war necessarily belittles man- for the purpose, here, of showing his pettiness and violence.

STRUCTURE NOTE: This poem is unusually structured. It is an example of free verse, which refuses the rules of metre and rhyme for a more conversational voice. It’s three stanza’s unusual layout, however, do invite speculation. Are the shorter lines ‘buried’ under the longer ones, as the bodies are under the grass?

Carl Sandburg: Sandburg was an American poet from an impoverished background who served for 8 months in the US army during the Spanish-American War of 1898. He first published as a poet in 1904, and wrote the rest of his life. Sandburg died in 1967.

Grass: This poem personifies grass, which directly addresses the reader. It is a striking tactic in writing a war poem. Grass, of course, shares some things in common with human beings: it lives and dies in abundance. Yet it is far more abundant than human beings, and its omnipresence makes man peripheral: to the extent that the grass personified in this poem is dismissive of man. Grass has religious and literary roots as a symbol for transience too. Isaiah 40:6 declares “All flesh is grass”, that is, nothing human lasts (when compared to the eternal nature of God): and it is interesting that Sandburg uses grass, personified, to explore the transience of man. The American poet Walt Whitman (an influence on Sandburg’s work) self-deprecatingly adopted the title ‘Leaves of Grass’ for his most famous collection, alluding to the possible transience of the poems printed on the leaves within.

“Pile the bodies high…”: The unsympathetic perspective of grass is immediately established. There is a lack of understanding here of the meaning of death for humans. Grass is everywhere, and while life remains on Earth, seemingly eternal, given the long time scales of evolution.

“…Austerlitz and Waterloo… Gettysburg… Ypres and Verdun.”: All famous battles with large amounts of dead. Austerlitz (1805) was fought by Napoleon against the Russians and Austrians; Waterloo (1816) by the British against Napoleon; Gettysburg by the North and South in the US civil war; and Ypres (1914-17) and Verdun (1916) were the scenes of recurring battles throughout World War One.

“Shovel them under and let me work”: Grass has no sympathy for the dead, nor those who grieve for them. The impassive word ‘shovel’ seems important here, replacing the more humane term, ‘bury’. The bodies will sustain the grass. The ‘work’ it does is to cover the ground: “I cover all.” The grass covers the dead like a shroud; it cover’s man’s shame.

“Two years, ten years…”: There is a carelessness about dates here that tells of the different timescales that nature works in.

“passengers ask the conductor…”: this almost has an ecological message to it: men are the passengers, nature is the conductor. The tone here is facetious, conversational, making human concerns seem laughably trivial: “What place is this? / Where are we now?” The conductor does not answer. The grass simply says, “I am the grass. / Let me work.”

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is the first of two poems which decentre human perspectives on the war through nature. These are unusual and rather brave selections.]

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5 thoughts on “Grass – Carl Sandburg”

  1. It’s not possible to oversea the personification in this poem but I think a very important tone is guilt. “let me work” the repetition suggesting that the grass feels guilty to hide the murderous acts by covering the ground. “let me work” to me sounds like I got nothing to do with this I am just doing my job.I think the message of this poem is that some human feel so guilty after committing a inhuman act so how musts nature feel that’s meant to be pure. When I discussed this poem in class everyone straight away said that the tone was carelessness but i straight away thought that its was guilt because I believe the grass must have been personified for a significant reason. The dead bodies turn into a fertilizer for the grass therefore the grass feels guilty.

  2. Monika that is a fair point i think it could be both carelessness and guilt the grass was personified to have an affect on the reader it just depends on ho the reader take the poem by the carelessness tone in the poem such as ‘Pile the bodies high’ portrays to me that the grass doesnt have much sympath for the men that have died or their country also ‘I am the grass; I cover all’ extends this idea that when the grass has covered the bodies completely there will no need to rmemeber them or for them to have significance to anyone or anything, although i do see your point i dont know what you would use as evidence to back up your ideas.

  3. The poem seems to me like through these wars the “grass” just passes through and patches up or cleans up the messes left behind. I do agree it is a first person P.O.V. And is free verse but I feel I’m not getting a part of this poem.

  4. I enjoyed the above discussion. Just thought I would share my own interpretation.

    Analysis of “Grass”

    In the poem “Grass” by Carl Sandburg, the personified grass is the speaker of the poem, and it is explaining the work that it does: “Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo./Shovel them under and let me work—/I am the grass; I cover all.” (1-3) The grass is telling people to bury the bodies at two of the worst battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars, and then the grass covers the gravesites. More bodies are piled up and buried then at Gettysburg, the worst battle of the American Civil War, and Ypres and Verdun, two of the worst battles of WWI (4-5). The line “Shovel them under and let me work” is repeated, suggesting the disrespect and disinterest of the grass—men’s bodies mean nothing to the grass. The poem goes on: “Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:/What place is this?/Where are we now?” (7-9) These lines suggest that after the passage of enough time, as the grass has continued its work of covering all, people no longer recognize the areas where these terrible battles have occurred. The extension of meaning is chilling: as the grass covers each battlefield of each war, people forget what happened there, so another war begins, where even more men die, and the grass covers all, and people forget again, so yet another war begins. Man slaughters man, the grass covers all, people forget, and the process tragically repeats itself. The grass thus symbolizes mankind’s ability to forget the most horrible of events while learning nothing to change their behavior.

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