Carl Sandburg

‘Chicago’ written by Carl Sandburg is a poem of admiration and self-defense. It was published in his collection ‘Chicago Poems.’


Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg was a Swedish-American author who won three Pulitzer Prizes throughout his lifetime.

Sandburg is widely regarded as one of the most important figures in contemporary literature.

Chicago‘, which is no less treated, reveals his love for the city. He gives teeth for teeth to the people who share biased criticism about his city. The poem itself is a typical example of middle-class life that existed in Chicago. Most of the time, the city is seen darker because of things like prostitution, hunger, and murders in urban areas. However, despite the darkness, the poet says that Chicago is still a prosperous city.

Chicago by Carl Sanburg


Summary of Chicago

‘Chicago’ expresses the poet’s admiration and pride in Chicago. The poet narrates what he observed and heard in the city.

The speaker praises Chicago for its aesthetic nature and the flourishing industries. He portrays Chicago as a big, vibrant, and developing place. The poem begins with the poet addressing the city with different names which well suits its nature. The following lines are the arguments with ‘They’ those who criticize the negative aspects of the city. Though it looks like he agrees to whatever they say, in the later lines, he comes back at them with his observation of the city, highlighting all the positive sides of it. Despite Chicago being considered as a dangerous place to live in, the citizens are proud to be a part of this city because of its vibrancy, which reflects who they are.


Analysis of Chicago

Analysis of Chicago gives the reader an insight into how Sandburg celebrates America’s vivacity despite all the wars and Chicago as the center of its growth. It talks about boundless energy, about the love of life, about the zest and laughter that Sandburg found in the city. Like any other city, it also has its dark side, yet the city laughs in the face of terrible destiny.


Lines 1-5

Hog Butcher for the World,


   City of the Big Shoulders:

The first five lines of the poem is an address to the city. He calls it with names which describe various jobs and the industry it is popular for Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with railroads, Nation’s freight handler. Further, the poem also personifies the city to a young man who is nonchalant, husky, brawling with big shoulders.  The stanza gives the overall appeal of the city to be a burly and somewhat hard nature man.


Lines 6-9

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women


have seen the marks of wanton hunger.

Lines 6 to 9 describe what people say about Chicago, and he sounds to be in agreement with them. ‘They’ refers to people who criticized Chicago for its negative sides. Using ‘You’, ‘I’, and ‘they’ make this sound like a dramatic monologue. The people who the poet address as ‘they’ call the city ‘wicked’ for the painted women (prostitutes) lure the innocent boys to go with them, and the poet agrees, for he has seen it himself. Then they call it crooked, for in the city the roughs are allowed to go freely with guns and to kill people, and the poet agrees too. They also call the city as brutal, for it has made women and children starve for food, and the poet replies in agreement, for he has seen it in the face of women and children.


Lines 10-13

And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give

them back the sneer and say to them:


Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the


The lines 10-13, is a response given by the poet to the people who sneer at his city and talk only about the negative side. He admits that his city has flaws in the previous lines, in these lines, he responds to the haters that his city is more than what they know and no less than any other city. He asks those people to show him a city that keeps its head high, the one who is energetic, strong, and shrewd. The next line projects Chicago as a baseball player who consistently hits for power, especially home runs and doubles amongst the less vibrant and less active cities. Further, he compares Chicago to a ‘fierce dog’ whose tongue is ‘lapping for action’ always ready to attack and like a ‘cunning savage’ he’s willing to fight his way through the wilderness.


Lines 14-18



Building, breaking, rebuilding,

In lines 14-18, the poet personifies the city to a man who is bareheaded and involved in construction. It symbolizes that the city is thriving and growing every day. Shoveling, Wrecking Planning, Building, Breaking, and rebuilding refers to how Chicago was toiling to expand its horizons. ‘Bareheaded’ shows how the city had to work its way alone without any support.


Lines 19-22

Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,


Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,


The lines 19-22 further explain Chicago as a man in action. In spite of all the handworks, smoke, and dust, it has learned to laugh. It doesn’t think much about the burden but laughs like a young man who laughs without giving much importance to the burden the destiny has thrust upon him. The city laughs like an ignorant fighter who has never lost a battle, boosting his power. The phrases ‘under his wrist is the pulse’ and ‘under his ribs, the heart of the people’ give a more human approach to the city.


Line 23

Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

Altogether the line portrays Chicago as an optimistic young man who has learned to be happy in all situations. ‘Stormy, husky, brawling laughter’ presents the city as a person with coarse nature. The phrases’ Hog Butcher’, ‘Tool Maker’, ‘Stacker of Wheat’, ‘Player with Railroads’, and ‘Freight Handler’ have refrained, to sum up, that the embraces its identity – true appearance and nature of a working-class man.


Use of Figurative Language


The poem is defensive, confident, and patronizing in tone. The choices of words and the way the poem sequenced, despite following no proper rhyme scheme or meter, depicts presents it in the voice of a coarse working-class man.



Progress, social-realism, and admiration are the major themes found in the poem. The city is progressing in itself by building and rebuilding amidst all the criticism it received. It has its own positive as well as negative sides. It is piling jobs after jobs and expanding its horizons by building railroads. Altogether the poem creates an impression that the city is intense, aggressive, joyful, tough, cunning, and fierce. The poet admires the vibrancy of the city, and he accepts the city as it is.



Sandburg personifies the city to a working-class man, an identity of Chicago’s life at that time. Like a working-class man who does all kinds of job for a living, the city provides with opportunity after opportunity – from butchering to supervising the cargos. It is like a man who works bareheaded, not worrying about protecting his head, a young man who doesn’t bother to reflect on the role of destiny, and an ignorant fighter who boasts his success he unruly laughter.


Form & Meter

“Chicago” is written in free verse without following any regular poetry form. It neither has a rhyme scheme nor meter. The poem doesn’t follow any particular stanza form but divided into two parts.  It is conversational in style with Enjambed sentences, which used effectively to convey the poet’s emotions.


Use of Imagery

Sandburg generously used imagery to give a vivid portrayal of the city. “Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat”; “Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler” and “Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth” visualizes the city to be a middle class working man in all the aspects: Voice, Tone, Appearance, Nature.


Historical Background

The historical background of a poem is more important for a reader to understand the poem’s intricacies and the mood of the poem. Chicago of the 19th and early 20th century underwent a lot of hardship.  Unemployment, crime, and other social problems are recorded as the endemic of urban areas. According to the survey, it was the sixth-largest city in the world. Discontent living conditions, in turn, helped to fuel outbursts against the low wages, unemployment, monotonous work, and steep production quotas that came with the city’s rapid industrialization. Outbreaks of labor violence were a common thing. Yet the city underwent a remarkable change working its way through the difficulties. That struggle is what capture by the poet in this poetry. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica)



As the title suggests, the poem Chicago is the epitome of life that prevailed during the poet’s period. The city was thriving on its own despite all the hatred and criticism it received. One of the phrases’ City of the Big Shoulders’ used in the poet has stayed with the city as a nickname. Altogether the poem is the poet’s attempt to do justice to the city.


About Carl Sandburg

Born in 1878, Carl Sandburg has made a notable contribution to American Poetry until he died in 1967. His poetry has a prevalent view of middle-class life and society, for which could be considered as the bard (unfortunately, there is no such thing) of working-class people. The collection of Chicago Poems was published in 1916 after he moved to Chicago in 1912. He had served as a secretary to Emil Seidel, Milwaukee’s Socialist mayor from 1910 to 1912. Having received three Pulitzer Prize – Two for poetry, and One for his publication of Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939), he still remains one of the greatest poets.

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Miz Alb Poetry Expert
Miz Alb received her MA in English Literature. Her thirst for literature makes her explore through the nuances of it. She loves reading and writing poetry. She teaches English Language and Literature to the ESL students of tertiary level.

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