I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
What place is this?
Where are we now?
Let me work.
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.]