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Grass
A Poem by Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Year of Publication
Themes
Narration and Tone
Imagery
Text of the Poem
Study Questions
Writing Topics

Type of Work

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. 

Year of Publication

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.

Themes

Theme 1:  After humans kill one another in recurring wars, they let nature cover up their dirty work.
Theme 2:  People forget the lessons of history. Consequently, they repeat the mistakes that caused the wars of the past.
Theme 3:  People forget the fallen heroes of war after several years pass and grass repairs battlefield scars.
Theme 4:  Nature goes about its business dispassionately and ineluctably even in wartime. 

Narration and Tone 

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.

Grass
By Carl Sandburg
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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 passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

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Imagery

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. 
Waterloo: The final battle of the Napoleonic wars, fought near Waterloo, Belgium, on June 18, 1815, and resulting in more than 60,000 casualties. British forces under the Duke of Wellington, General Arthur Wellesley, and Prussian forces under Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher combined to defeat Napoleon. 
Gettysburg: Major battle of the U.S. Civil War in which Union forces of General George G. Meade defeated Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee near the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 1-3, 1863, resulting in 45,000 to 50,000 casualties. The battle turned the tide of the war in favor of the Union. 
Ypres (pronounced E pruh): Town in Belgium that was the site of three major World War I battles (October-November 1914, April-May 1915, and July-November 1917) that resulted in more than 850,000 German and allied casualties. 
Verdun: Indecisive World War I battle between the French and the Germans fought at Verdun, France, from February to December, 1916. Total casualties numbered more than 700,000.


Study Questions and Writing Topics

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.
2. Does the fact that many war memorials, statues, cannons, and plaques dot the landscape at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg contradict Sandburg's contention that people forget about war and its fallen heroes?
3. Evaluate the effect of Sandburg's repetition of key words and phrases in the poem.
4. Does absence of end rhyme strengthen or weaken the poem?
5. Compose a short poem—with or without rhyme—expressing your feelings about war.
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