Carl Sandburg lived through both the First and Second World Wars, which likely influenced his opinion on war and can be interpreted through his language in ‘Old Timers.’
Historically, scholars have noted that Sandburg was exposed to the stories of “old timers” who fought for Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. His interest in Lincoln lasted throughout his life, beginning in his youth and expanding into examples within his literary oeuvre. In 1939, he published the four-volume biography Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, which won the Pulitzer Prize.
In an address after Sandburg’s death, President Lyndon B. Johnson described him as:
more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America.
Explore Old Timers
In the first part of the poem, Sandburg begins with his speaker describing himself as a reluctant conscript. He’s been brought into one ancient war after another and placed at the disposal of leaders like Xerxes I and Miltiades. He survives each and travels through history and time to the troops (columns) of Napoleon and then Abraham Lincoln. It’s not until the final period in time that the man gets injured.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this poem, the poet focuses on the themes of war and history. The poet takes readers through several different periods in history, dating all the way back to the reign of Xerxes I and up to the Civil War and the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Each reference includes the job a reluctant conscript is given in a specific battle or war. Some are more violent than others but throughout, the speaker suggests that no matter the period one is studying, the same pattern of conscription and orders can be found.
‘Old Timers’ speaks on the tradition of war-time stories throughout the ages and the nature of war itself. There is a pattern that readers should be able to see playing itself out. Reluctant conscripts from all periods in history are brought into conflicts that they don’t want to be a part of. In the final example, which focuses on the Civil War, the narrator loses an arm.
Structure and Form
‘Old Timers’ by Carl Sandburg is a fifteen-line poem that is divided into sets of three lines or single-line stanzas. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The end words do not rhyme with one another in a consistent pattern. For example, the first three lines end with “conscript,” “pans,” and “head.” There are a few examples of half-rhyme and even an example of exact rhyme in this poem though. The latter can be seen through the repetition of the refrain in the first and last lines.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Allusion: a reference to something outside the scope of the poem. Allusions require readers to lean on the knowledge they had before starting the poem. For example, Greek and American history in ‘Old Timers.’
- Imagery: the use of particularly interesting descriptions. These should trigger the readers’ senses and inspire them to envision a scene in great detail. For example, “The whirling whimsical Napoleonic columns.”
- Dialogue: the use of a phrase or more of speech within a poem. In this case, the poet includes two instances of dialogue on behalf of Caesar and Lincoln.
- Anaphora: the use of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “On the” begins with lines two and three. “I” begins many more.
- Refrain: the repetition of a phrase more than once in a poem. For example, the first and last lines of ‘Old Timers’ are the same.
I am an ancient reluctant conscript.
On the soup wagons of Xerxes I was a cleaner of pans.
On the march of Miltiades’ phalanx I had a haft and head;
I had a bristling gleaming spear-handle.
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker introduces himself. He refers to himself as an “ancient reluctant conscript.” To break this down, he’s stating that he’s been conscripted (or forced by governmental decree) into various conflicts. He is also “ancient.” This suggests that he is older and is reminiscing on the past. But, it could also refer to the repetition of this role over time. He may not be old himself but he could’ve played the role of “a reluctant conscript” many times. His reluctance is another important part of the speaker’s character. He doesn’t want to join these conflicts. Perhaps this is due to a fear for his own life or due to his disagreement with the war/battle in general.
The first role that the speaker plays dates back to Xerxes I, also known as Xerxes the Great, who ruled the Achaemenid Empire from 486 till 465 BC, when he was assassinated. He is remembered for his invasion of Greece in 480 BC.
The speaker describes himself as a “cleaner of pans” in Xerxes’ army. He didn’t have a job that required him to engage in violence. Instead, he worked to clean the pans that fed the soldiers from the soup wagon. The next role he plays takes him further through history to “Miltiades’ phalanx.” This is an allusion to the armies of Miltiades, also known as Miltiades the Younger. He was a Greek Athenian known for the Battle of Marathon. He died in 489 BC, nine years after Xerxes I.
The speaker transitions from one side to the other. He was part of Xerxes’ troops (a leader who is best remembered for invading Greece), and next, he was part of a Greek contingent led by a famous warrior and statesman. Here, he serves a more violent role. He has a “haft and head,” or a weapon of a handle and blade and a “spear-handle.” The unusual depiction of his weapons is conveyed in straightforward language. He’s stating his ownership of these items but not commenting on how he feels about them.
Red-headed Cæsar picked me for a teamster.
He said, “Go to work, you Tuscan bastard,
They saw me one of the horseshoers.
The speaker moves forward in time again, describing his role as part of Caesar’s army. He was a “teamster.” This would’ve been a very dangerous job. One that required the speaker to reload empty wagons when they were emptied out. He includes dialogue in this stanza as well, the words of Caesar himself. Caesar speaks to him disrespectfully as a “Tuscan bastard.” There is no choice in the job he’s been given. He has to do as his leader commands him. This is a common theme throughout the poem. Each job is taken reluctantly and forcibly. He doesn’t want any part in any of these historical conflicts.
The next stanza moves to Charles XII of Sweden who ruled from June 1682 to November 1718. He was a “horseshoer” within his forces. Napoleon, who is described next, led an invasion of Russia that occurred around 100 years after Charles attempted the same thing.
The description of Napoleon in these lines, and the eleventh, is far more romanticized than what appeared regarding Xerxes and Miltiades in the previous. His columns, or troop formations, are “whimsical” and “whirl.” This is perhaps a suggestion of how quickly time came and went and how the troops themselves moved.
His work as a horseshoer required he “trim…the feet of a white horse Bonaparte swept the night stars with.” This is a beautiful image but one that is still focused on conflict and death.
Lines 11- 15
I trimmed the feet of a white horse Bonaparte swept the night stars with.
I am an ancient reluctant conscript.
The final allusion in this poem is to Spottsylvania Court House, a series of battles that were fought in Virginia between May and June of 1864. It’s there that he had his “arm shot off.” This is the first time in the poem that the speaker mentions getting physically injured. The battle took a great many lives, 18,000 on the Union side and 12,000 on the Confederate side.
The speaker repeats his assertion about his reluctance to fight at the end of the poem. He reminds readers that all these battles were ones into which he was conscripted. Throughout time, battles have raged that have required peaceful men (as the speaker seems to consider himself to be) to put down the objects of their everyday life and take up weapons or assume other war-related roles (such as teamster, horseshoer, etc.). The same pattern is playing out throughout time and is something that Sandburg would’ve seen during the First and Second World Wars.
His use of language throughout this short poem seems to suggest that he is opposed to this kind of conscription and feels as though the pattern will continue into the future. Powerful leaders throughout time, from Xerxes to Lincoln, conscript their men into battle. Despite Sandburg’s interest in and respect for Lincoln, he includes him within this poem.
The meaning is that no matter what time period one travels to, history repeats itself. Everywhere and in every battle is an “ancient reluctant conscript” who is given jobs he doesn’t want in wars he doesn’t believe in. But, he does them bravely and commits himself to them fully. So much so that at the end of the poem he loses an arm in the service of Abraham Lincoln.
The speaker is a metaphorical soldier who has spent centuries serving in the armies of various leaders. He is used as a symbol for all soldiers throughout time who felt the same way he does (reluctant to join wars and serve all-powerful leaders).
The purpose is to share a message about war and the ways in which history repeats itself. Despite Sandburg’s respect for Abraham Lincoln, he compares him to other far more violent leaders, like Xerxes I, in the fact that he conscripted soldiers to fight.
Carl Sandburg was an American poet and Pulitzer Prize-winner. He was born in 1878 and passed away in 1967. He is beset-remembered for poems like ‘Chicago,’ his biographies of Abraham Lincoln, and the work included in his Complete Poems.
Sandburg volunteered to join the military and serve in the Spanish-American War. He was stationed in Puerto Rico in July 1898. He writes about the foolishness of war throughout his War Poems.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Carl Sandburg poems. For example:
- ‘Chicago’ – a poem of admiration and self-defense. It was published in his collection Chicago Poems.
- ‘Flash Crimson’ – is an emotionally charged, devotional poem where a speaker is eager to ask God for more hardships. It deals with devotion, morality, legacy, and the afterlife.
- ‘Dream Girl’ – is a romantic poem that expresses the author’s hope that he will one day find the woman of his dreams.