Horses and Men in the Rain

Carl Sandburg


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.

In ‘Horses and Men in the Rain’ Sandburg explores themes of nostalgia and storytelling. The speaker is deeply engaged with the images he presents and hopes that the reader will be so as well. Sandburg speaks clearly about times long past and the romantic notions that are commonly associated with them. This poem acts as an escape from the present, an opportunity to look into the lives of those who are living at this moment and in moments long passed.

Horses and Men in the Rain by Carl Sandburg


Summary of Horses and Men in the Rain 

‘Horses and Men in the Rain’ by Carl Sandburg is a powerful, image-rich poem that encourages storytelling and the discovery of meaning in the past. 

The poem takes the reader through a series of images that depict the normal lives of those who appear to be less fortunate than the speaker and the listener. They are hardworking men and boys who cannot sit by the fire and wear dry clothes. He also takes there reader to the past where men walk in the rain on the ancient Silk Road. The speaker wants to go deeper and write on the lives of those long since passed away. 

You can read the full poem here.


Structure of Horses and Men in the Rain 

‘Horses and Men in the Rain’ by Carl Sandburg is a three-stanza poem that is separated into one set of three lines and two sets of four. These are known as tercets and quatrains. The lines, as is common in Sandburg’s poetry, do not rhyme nor do they conform to a metrical pattern. They are also quite different in length. The shortest is four words long and the longest is seventeen. 


Poetic Techniques in Horses and Men in the Rain 

Despite the lack of a metrical pattern or rhyme scheme, Sandburg does use several poetic techniques in ‘Horses and Men in the Rain’. These include but are not limited to anaphora, imagery, and enjambment. The fist of these, anaphora, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, line one of the first stanza lines two and three of the second, and lines three of the third stanza, these all begin with the phrase “Let us”. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as that between three and four of the second. It is due in part to enjambment and to the length of the lines that the stanzas read more like paragraphs. The lines are like long poetic sentences. 

The most important technique at work in ‘Horse and Men in the Rain’ is imagery. Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but the imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. In this case, imagery drives the poem. Without it, the images the speaker asks us to think about would fall flat. Sandburg’s manipulation of language allows us to imagine, clearly, the “winter’s day” and the “roustabout hunched on a coal wagon”. 


Analysis of Horses and Men in the Rain

Stanza One

In the first stanza of ‘Horses and Men in the Rain,’ the speaker begins by asking that we take the time to consider a series of images. He asks “us” to come and “sit by a hissing steam radiator” on “a winter’s day”. There, he wants to “talk”. The images that come to mind stray from one place and person to the next. 

The first he mentions is “milk wagon drivers and grocery delivery boys”. These folks lead a simple life. They do manual labor, working for a living. They start off a depiction of Sandburg’s contemporary world, the recent past, and the distant past. These images morph together in the stanzas of the poem. 


Stanza Two

The second stanza asks that we “keep our feet in wool slippers and mix hot punches”. The warmth of these lines is juxtaposed against the cold “wind” and the ice and water mentioned in the third stanza. The speaker’s intended listener is in a warm and cozy place, hearing about a very different experience. He wants to consider those less fortunate. Those who are outside “slipping along the icy sidewalk”. 

Next, he jumps to the more distant past, to the “olden golden days” when there were men out looking for the Holy Gail. They were “knights”. This word is up into quotes as if it is foreign to him and to the person listening. This was done in order to create even more distance from that way of life. He romanticizes their existence and the actions they took for God and the “ladies they loved”. Sandburg uses alliteration in this line to add rhythm and poetic unity to the text. 


Stanza Three 

The final stanza is also four lines. The first of these mentions a “roustabout” who is hunched over a coal wagon. He’s freezing, with ice dripping from his hat. There is ice everywhere, in fact. Even on the coal. 

The speaker also brings in a “caravanserai,” or a roadside inn, mostly located along the ancient Silk Road. It is clear that the speaker is seeking out a romanticized image of the past as in the last lines he asks that we write “poems of Lancelot” and “Roland”. He is alluding to a different time, one in which men and women cared for different things and took very different paths in their lives. These lines, and the thoughts they encourage, are an escape. 

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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