‘Passers-by’ by Carl Sandburg is a three-stanza poem which is separated into three stanzas. The stanzas are varied in both line length and number. The first and second lines contain eight lines and the third stanza contains six. In regards to the individual length, the longest lines have six words and the shortest, only one.
Additionally, a reader should take note of the fact that the first two stanzas begin with the title of the poem, “Passer-by.” The poet has also chosen to make great use of enjambment. Every line of the poem cuts off before the completion of a phrase. This forces a reader to jump forward line by line at a quick pace.
Summary of Passer-by
The poem begins with the speaker describing how now that he is off the street, perhaps in his home, or somewhere else safe and secluded, he is able to think over the sights he saw while walking through the street. They do not come to him as separate memories or individual accounts of people. Instead, he remembers the crowd as a whole and the feelings he experienced at the time. There are a few more specific details interspersed in the next two stanzas but generally, his thoughts are broad and wide-ranging.
He remembers how he heard their voices and how they intermingled sound made up the “city’s afternoon roar.” Everyone’s words contributed to one larger noise. In the second stanza, he continues on to say that there are those amongst the crowd who are lean, and desperate for hope. There are also those who are clearly serving for something or searching for love. These facts of life can be read via their lips and throats.
In the final stanza, the speaker reiterates that there is much to be learned from paying attention to another’s mouth and that through this analysis he is able to read other’s lives. Perhaps not in complete detail, but in enough to judge who they are and what kind of life they live.
Analysis of Passer-by
Out of your many faces
Flash memories to me
Now at the day end
Away from the sidewalks
Where your shoe soles traveled
And your voices rose and blent
To form the city’s afternoon roar
Hindering an old silence.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by describing how those who pass him are the street are only that, “Passers-by.” They come and go through his life without making any significant individual impact. The speaker remembers them as being a group rather than different people going about their lives.
The poem is told from the perspective of a speaker who has finished his day, returned home, and is reflecting on the walks he embarked on. He considers all the people walking through the street. He remembers that “Out” of their “many faces” there are a few flashes of memory. There are moments that stick out to him “Now at the day end.”
It is only at this moment “away from the sidewalks,” in which he can reflect clearly on what he saw. These are the places “Where your shoe soles traveled.” This is a reference, not to one specific person, but to all those who pass through the streets. The memory of the sounds comes clearly to the speaker, along with the sound of “your voices.” They rose and fell through the paths of the city.
Together, all the noises, sights, the fragmentary, and complete memories the speaker have, make a larger picture. They “form the city’s afternoon roar.” It is in these thoughts he can escape the “old silence” which might normally come to him in quiet moments.
I remember lean ones among you,
Throats in the clutch of a hope,
Lips written over with strivings,
Mouths that kiss only for love,
Records of great wishes slept with,
And prayed and toiled for:
In the second stanza, the speaker goes into more detail about what emotions and images come to his mind when he considers those he almost met on the street that day. He begins once more by speaking to the “Passers-by” along the road.
The following lines describe what it is he “remember[s].” There are those who are “lean” as well as those whose “throats” are in the “clutch of a hope.” Their emotions are so strong, and prevalent, that they have risen up in their throats. They are always on the verge of feeling and losing hope.
In the next section, he describes how he remembers seeing “Lips” which were covered with strivings and “Mouths that kiss only for love.” There are two different types of mouths he observed. Those who seek advancement and those who seek love and approval. They contrast one another.
This thought leads to an additional note. The people he saw made him recognize in their countenances, their “great wishes.” These are things the “Passers-by” have “slept with” for a long time. They have “prayed and toiled” for their hopes and dreams.
And your throats
I read them
When you passed by.
In the final stanza, which is two lines shorter than the preceding stanzas, the speaker does not begin with the title, “Passers-by.” Instead, he confirms his own assertions. He says, “Yes,” it is true what was said.
It seems that the “mouths” of those he has seen are prominent factors in determining what kind of people they are and what kind of lives they led. These are the elements that are read by the speaker as he passes people by. He sees their “mouths and [their] throats” and “read[s] them” like a record of one’s life.