‘Killers’ by Carl Sandburg is a six stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. All of the stanzas, except for the second, contain four lines. They can be referred to as quatrains. The second stanza has five lines, making it a quintain. Due to the fact that the stanzas and lines are of varying length, there is no consistent pattern of rhyme or rhythm.
Sandburg’s speaker does not specifically state which war the text of this poem refers to. But this does not create much of an impact on the overall impact of the text. That being said, one is able to assume, from contextual details that he is speaking about either the Spanish-American War, World War I, or World War II.
Towards the end of the poem, there is a reference to “trenches” this might make one think of the battlefields of WWI. On the other hand, Sandburg uses the number “sixteen million” this corresponds with the number of Americans who fought on all fronts of WWII. It is also possible he is referring to the Spanish-American War as Sandburg fought in this conflict. You can read the full poem Killers here.
Summary of Killers
The poem begins with the speaker asking that his listener pay attention to the “song” he is about to share. This simply refers to the text of the poem which is about to follow. The speaker states that his words are going to depict a world that is deeply depressing, angry, and restricting.He is going to be telling the story of men who were selected for their strength and sent to kill and die on the battlefield.
Their “young” blood flowed into the earth as they caused the deaths of others. It quickly becomes clear the speaker does not agree with war, or at least this particular conflict. That being said, he still realizes the men had homes and families. They once had dreams and “games.” In the final lines, he explains that the men remain in his memory because he too was there. He still remembers the trenches, the smells, and the sounds that meant men were about to die or had already.
Analysis of Killers
In the first stanza, the speaker begins by addressing his listener. The speaker tells them that he is “singing” to them. His following words, in the form of verse, are all directed at an unknown listener. It is through the next three lines that the speaker sets up the story he is going to tell.
He states that his voice, as well as the words themselves, are going to fall “Soft as a man with a dead child speaks” and,
Hard as a man in handcuffs
Held where he cannot move.
It is the speaker’s intention to imbue the following stanzas with these elements. He wants to bring across feelings of restriction, deep anger, and unbearable sorrow. Through only these few images Sandburg is able to relay to his audience the tone with which the poem will proceed.
In the second stanza, the facts of the story begin. First, the speaker sets the scene. The men he is going to be speaking about are “Under the sun.” This is a position that is universal; every person on earth could say it. It is important for Sandburg to establish that these men, who are going to be special in a number of different ways, are on the art just as everyone else is.
There are “sixteen million” of these men in total. They make up a specific group chosen for one purpose. All of these men have features that set them apart from the average person. First, they all have “shining teeth.” They are presumably healthy and well cared for. The teeth are a mark of their social status as well as bodily strength/health. Next, the speaker describes their,
Sharp eyes, hard legs,
These features once again speak to their strength. Without a somewhat increased stamina, the men would not have been chosen. Finally, he states that there is “young warm blood” running through “their wrists.” When one considers all the lines together it is clear that Sandburg is attempting to depict an idealized, but also ironic, version of what a solider is. The chosen men are all described as being superior to those not chosen. This is the image that any government would like to portray about their army. It would likely be more truthful to say that the men in the army were as variable as the men outside of it.
In the third stanza, the poem returns to the form of a quatrain. Here, the blood that was described as being so youthful and flowing pour out onto the “green grass.” This is what the men have been chosen for, to give their youth over to the cause of war.
The blood flows in such great quantity that it,
[…] soaks the dark soil.
It is penetrating the earth. The soil, which represents life and prosperity is becoming stained with death. The sixteen million men have not been selected for a higher purpose. They are deployed onto the field of battle and begin, “killing…and killing / and killing.” Sandburg chose to repeat this word three times in an effort to show how long and how widespread death truly was. Not only was it their blood being spilled but they were responsible for a great deal of death as well.
The fourth stanza of ‘Killers’ is also a quatrain. Here, the speaker returns to his first-person narration. He speaks on how he has been impacted by the men. As stated above Sandburg served in the Spanish-American War. He is using his own experience to enhance the realism of the scenes he is speaking about. The speaker’s memory of these men, the death they brought and the losses they suffered have never left his head. It “pound[s]” on his “heart” and he attempts to,
[…]cry back to them,
To their homes and women, dreams and games.
The speaker wants to reach out to whatever spirit is left of the sixteen million chosen men. While he might condemn the killing they participated in, he is able to separate the people they are from who they were forced to become. He knows they have or had “homes” that were left behind and “women” who were abandoned. Once, the men were boys. They had “dreams and games” they cared about more than the problems of humankind.
The fifth stanza begins with the speaker recalling his own moments of terror in war. He still “wake[s] in the night” and is able to “smell the trenches.” The speaker is describing a deeply visceral memory. It, along with the men themselves, has never left him. From where he sleeps in the trench, as well as in his room long after the war is over, he is able to,
[…] hear the low stir of sleepers in lines—
There are the men on duty, moving restlessly throughout his surroundings. He then speaks again about the are “Sixteen million.” Sandburg’s speaker refers to them as “sleepers,” some of whom will never wake again. Then, there are those who will not die today—but tomorrow. Their rest will be for “always.”
In the last lines, he describes the soldiers as being permanently “fixed” and trapped in the “world’s heartbreak.” There is nothing they can do to escape from the push and pull of life and death. They have been chosen to fight this battle and will do so to the death if necessary. Their lives are now consumed by base needs. “Eating, and drinking.” Then there is the “toiling…on a long job of / killing” the “Sixteen million” men who are fighting with and against them.