from The People, Yes

Carl Sandburg

‘The People, Yes’ is a poem on Abraham Lincoln. Here, the poet talks about his leadership, and how he stood firm against the socio-political problems of his time.


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.

‘The People, Yes’ is a book-length poem written by the famous American poet Carl Sandburg. The book containing 300 pages has several references to the contemporary American culture, history, and socio-economic condition of the period. However, here, in this analysis, the discussion will revolve around a piece taken from this epic prose-poem. This poem titled, from ‘The People, Yes’ begins with a one-word question, “Lincoln?” In this poem, the poet talks about the 16th American President, Abraham Lincoln, and his dignity as a political leader.

from The People, Yes by Carl Sandburg


Summary of from The People, Yes

from ‘The People, Yes’ by Carl Sandburg is a poem on Abraham Lincoln, his leadership, and how he stood firm against the odds of his time.

In this piece, Carl Sandburg firstly gives a brief overview of Abraham Lincoln. The poet doesn’t go into the details of his personal or professional life. Rather, the poet shows readers how he was as a leader and a person with high ideals. He worked for the people, not made people work for him. Hence, he was a leader of the masses, not the classes. Moreover, the poet thinks apt to learn from this man how to remain hopeful and strong in tough situations. It was a time of paradoxes, nobody was sure of anything. “Death was in the air.” And “so was birth”.

You can read the full poem here.


Structure of from The People, Yes

From ‘The People, Yes’ consists of three sections. In the first long stanza, the poet presents a brief overview of Abraham Lincoln and his attitude while he was running the government. In the second stanza, it’s about Lincoln’s rhetoric, and the last stanza containing only two lines gives an impression of extreme hopelessness along with a dying kindle of hope. The overall poem is free verse. The poet only uses a few slant rhymes in the poem. Moreover, the poem is composed of both the iambic meter and the trochaic meter. But, there isn’t any regular metrical pattern in the text.


Literary Devices in from The People, Yes

The poem, from ‘The People, Yes’ begins with an interrogation or rhetorical question. Thereafter, using a metaphor, the poet compares Abraham Lincoln with a “mystery”. The poet uses metonymy in the reference to the “flags”. The neighboring lines beginning with “Yes” and “No” contain anaphora. There is a personification in the line, “No to personal malice nursed and fed”. The poet also personifies the “Constitution” in this poem. The line, “Yes to man as a struggler amid illusions”, contains a simile. In “present wilderness”, the poet uses a metaphor for the turmoil in the contemporary American economy. In the second stanza, the poet uses allusion to the famous letters written by Abraham Lincoln. However, in the last lines, Carl Sandburg presents a paradox.


Analysis of from The People, Yes

Lines 1–6


He was a mystery in smoke and flags


Of the people by the people for the people,

The text, ‘The People, Yes’ begins with an interrogation. As if someone has asked the poetic persona about Abraham Lincoln. For this reason, the speaker clarifies what he thinks about him. Whatsoever, the poet says Lincoln’s character was mysterious. He was like the age he belonged. It was a time filled with “smoke”. Here, the “smoke” means a lack of clarity of thoughts. Thereafter, “flags” refers to different nations. Lincoln accepted the age as it was and said, “yes to the flags”. It means he accepted the problems of his time and tried to solve them. He also kept a friendly atmosphere among the neighboring nations as well as within his country.

Lincoln said yes to the “paradoxes of democracy”. He knew democracy is not flawless. But, “democracy” as a means of running the government, is far better than autocracy or dictatorship. Moreover, he said yes to the hope of the government “Of the people by the people for the people”. Hence, Lincoln never went against the ideals of democracy. He was an upholder of the system that was meant for the collective happiness of the people.


Lines 7–15

No to debauchery of the public mind,


To bring me beyond the present wilderness?

In contrast, Lincoln firmly said to the debauchery of those who were working for the collective good of the people. He never let his “personal malice” manipulate his public decisions. So, the poet says, he said no personal malice that was nursed and fed upon one’s hatred towards another. Lincoln always was with the spirit of the Constitution when it was used for the public good. But, when self-motivated officials used it against the good of the people, he firmly said not to the Constitution. Moreover, he cherished the fighting spirit of man that remains unchanged amid the “illusions” of age.

However, in the last few lines of from The People, Yes,’ Sandburg says that each man has to answer for himself which of the “faiths” and “illusions” of humankind he is with. Likewise, the poet says he must choose one for himself. As the faith of a man or one’s illusion helps one to sustain the inner light. Lastly, the poet asks a question as if he is not sure which one to choose and which one to reject. However, there is a metaphor for political or economic turmoil in, “wilderness“, in the last line of the first stanza.


Lines 16–23

       Lincoln? Was he a poet?

       And did he write verses?


Death was in the air.

So was birth.

The second stanza of the poem, ‘from, The People, Yes’ written by Carl Sandburg begins with two questions. Here, it seems the speaker is referring to the people of his time who were either unaware of Lincoln or somehow forgot about his ideals. Whatsoever, the poet enquires if Lincoln was a poet and he wrote verses. Then, the poet quotes two famous lines written by Abraham Lincoln. The line, “I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom”, is quoted from Lincoln’s November 10, 1864 speech, “Response to a Serenade”.

The second quotation, “I shall do nothing through malice: what/ I deal with too vast for malice”, is taken from the letter written to Cuthbert Bullitt on July 28, 1862. It’s the last sentence of the letter written by Abraham Lincoln. Both of these quotations show Lincoln’s rhetorical skills and use of metaphors for referring to his idea in a forceful manner.

However, the last two lines present a paradoxical situation. Death, along with birth “was in the air.” Here “death” symbolizes pessimism and “birth” is a symbol of hope. As the poem was written during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the paradox aptly depicts the turmoil created during that time. On one hand, people were hopeless. While people like Carl Sandburg were hopeful about a shining future.


Historical Context

‘The People, Yes’ written by Carl Sandburg is an epic prose-poem that was published in 1936. At that time, the Great Depression was at its height. Through this collection of poems, Carl Sandburg lauds the perseverance of the American people in a plainly spoken language. Likewise, in this poem, from ‘The People, Yes’, Carl Sandburg refers to one of the great leaders in American history, Abraham Lincoln, and his attitude while the nation was going through a crisis. During the 1930s, America as well as the world faced a shaking economic depression. For this reason, he referred to the past as a source of inspiration for fighting the contemporary crisis. However, the collection was written over an eight-year period and it’s the last major book of poetry by Sandburg. 


Similar Poetry

The following poems also present similar themes that are present in Carl Sandburg’s from ‘The People, Yes’.

You can read about 10 of the Best Poems about Hope here.

Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.

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