C Carl Sandburg

Skyscraper by Carl Sandburg

‘Skyscraper’ is about the monumental modern wonder that, according to poet Carl Sandburg, “has a soul.” It’s the people working there who keep the frame of steel and mortar alive.

Skyscraper by Carl Sandburg Visual Representation

‘Skyscraper’ is taken from Carl Sandburg’s series of poems published in 1916, Chicago Poems. In this poem, Sandburg talks about a tall building and how different people worked day and night, keeping it alive Through the poem, he thinks about the significance of each individual whose toil went into the making of the looming skyscraper. Carl August Sandburg (1878-1967) is one of the greatest 20th-century American poets. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry twice and one for his biography on American President Abraham Lincoln. He is considered to be an influential poet of his time, and he spoke on behalf of the public and, most importantly, of America.

Skyscraper by Carl Sandburg


Summary

‘Skyscraper’ by Carl Sandburg is a vivid poem that describes a day within the skyscraper, each of its twenty floors.

In this piece, the beauty of the Chicago city is described through the eyes of the skyscraper. Due to its magnificence, it attracts a number of people from distant places. Sandburg praises the role every section played in building this remarkable building. He includes every small worker who laid their hands and sweat in the construction of the skyscraper. Through this poem, Sandburg shows how vital the role of an individual is and how they can make a noticeable mark in the modern world. He also talks about the pain one underwent while making the building and how they are left unrecognized.

Sandburg personifies the building and begins by saying that the building “has a soul.” He glorifies a day within the walls of the skyscraper and praises those who worked day and night to keep the skyscraper standing straight and firm. He indirectly indicates to society and hints at the vital role played by an individual in building the nation. Just like the building is left without soul as the day ends, so is the nation without people. Thus, people are the soul of a nation. Overall, in this poem, he meditates on the mortality of humans and the enduring nature of man-made buildings.

You can read the full poem here.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

By day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and has a soul.

Prairie and valley, streets of the city, pour people into it and they mingle

(…)

(Dumped in the sea or fixed in a desert, who would care for the building or

speak its name or ask a policeman the way to it?)

Carl Sandburg’s ‘Skyscraper’ is about a sky-touching tall building, which is kept alive by people from different walks of life. As the poem begins, the speaker says that the building has a soul, and it comes to life as the day begins. This building attracts different people from distant places, and they all work together there. He points out the fact that it is the presence of these people from various sectors of society that give the building a soul. Besides, he raises a rhetorical question: if the building gets swallowed by the sea or gets destroyed by nature, who will ask or care about it? The building has value till it is erected, a hint at the futility of artificial wonders.

Stanza Two

Elevators slide on their cables and tubes catch letters and parcels and iron

pipes carry gas and water in and sewage out.

(…)

profits and loves–curses of men grappling plans of business and

questions of women in plots of love.

In the second stanza, the speaker assigns human traits and attributes to different parts of the skyscraper, such as elevators, cables, tubes, pipes, and wires. He describes the work assigned to different parts of the building. Wires that run all through the window can hear the different “plans of business” and “questions of women” in matters of love. This shows that the building is filled with chatter and lively conversation throughout the day that infuse life into its magnificent stature.

Stanza Three

Hour by hour the caissons reach down to the rock of the earth and hold the

building to a turning planet.

(…)

Hour by hour the sun and the rain, the air and the rust, and the press of time

running into centuries, play on the building inside and out and use it.

The speaker continues to explain the hardships every part of the skyscraper undergoes to keep it standing straight. Every passing hour the underlying structure tries hard to keep the building safe from the water force, and the iron bars that provide the framework for the building reach out and hold together the stone walls and floors.” This indicates that though nature exerts its pressure, the pieces of equipment firmly hold the building together.

The speaker also explains the mind and work of architects and masons, who worked hard to make this building magnificent. The hours of their hard work and determination are reflected through the building. Lastly, he goes on to explain the pressure it endured over these years under the forces of nature, and yet it stands tall with pride.

Stanza Four

Men who sunk the pilings and mixed the mortar are laid in graves where the

wind whistles a wild song without words

(…)

(One man fell from a girder and broke his neck at the end of a straight

plunge–he is here–his soul has gone into the stones of the building.)

In the fourth stanza, Sandburg explains how different workers toiled to mix the mortar, and staked pilings for the superstructure are now laid in graves. The people who were responsible for the great skyscraper’s construction are now dead, and their graves are unrecognized. So the other laborers who witnessed the growth of the skyscraper are dead and did not get any flowers or wreaths at their funeral.

Sandburg also describes the fatal incidents that took place during the construction of the skyscraper. People who lost their lives in the building their souls are still lingering there. This shows the kind of risk they took to build the skyscraper. Besides, the poet says, “his soul has gone into the stones of the building,” which means they have now become a part of the building’s history.

Stanza Five

On the office doors from tier to tier–hundreds of names and each name

standing for a face written across with a dead child, a passionate lover,

(…)

Smiles and tears of each office girl go into the soul of the building just the

same as the master-men who rule the building.

The speaker, in the fifth stanza, explains the events that take place within the walls of the skyscraper. The twenty-floored sky-touching building is the abode of many workers from a higher level to a lower. He says hundreds of name is written on the doors from one tier to another, and the hierarchy is written alongside the names of officeholders. They all work behind the doors. The walls, like human beings, listen to everything, yet they do not disclose anything. Stenographers, paid a mere ten dollars a week, export letters from the hands of corporators and engineers to the “ends of the earth.”

In the last lines, the speaker points out that both “Smiles and tears” are part of this marvelous structure. These various emotions are absorbed by the soul of the skyscraper, like the “master-men,” the board of directors, who rules the organization.

Stanza Six

Hands of clocks turn to noon hours and each floor empties its men and

women who go away and eat and come back to work.

(…)

By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the stars

and has a soul.

In the final stanza, Sandburg states the time of afternoon when the work almost reaches an end. When the clocks turn their hands to the noon times, the workers go out to have their lunch break and then return to their work. As the afternoon passes, the work gets slower, and “people feel day closing on them.” This phrase suggests that these workers who have arrived from various parts of the city spend their whole day and energy within the doors of the building. Besides, the elevators and floors start getting vacated, the “human dust and spit” is cleaned as everyone leaves the building. The neon sign that sparkles on the top of the building is lit until midnight.

As the speaker concludes the poem, he lowers the stress to indicate the building’s condition as it reaches the end of a day. As the workers leave the skyscraper, they talk about their day, and the “voices echo” in the hallway. Just after they leave the skyscraper, it’s time for the security guards to start their work. They begin their watch on every floor, and “Revolvers bulge from their hip pockets.” The skyscraper not only attracts workers but also cunning thieves from distant places. Sandburg ends the poem as it started: “By night the skyscraper looms in the smoke and the stars/ and has a soul.”

Structure

Sandburg is known for his use of free verse. He refrains from using a fixed rhyming pattern or meter. But he does use a lot of figurative devices and comparatively longer lines to emphasize his thoughts. His poem ‘Skyscraper’ contains a total of 25 lines divided into six stanzas of different lengths. The speaker is the poet himself. He writes the poem from a third-person point of view, using the pronoun “they”. Besides, there are very few rhyming words, and the poem does not follow any particular rhyme scheme. Some slant rhymes are there, as evident in words, “memories”, “valleys”, “floors”, “words”, and “across”. Alongside that, the rise and fall of rhythms are indefinite and provide no pattern to follow throughout.

Literary Devices

Sandburg uses a number of literary devices to make this piece interesting. By using various devices, he makes the skyscraper immortal and alive. Some of the important devices used in the poem are:

  • Personification: Sandburg begins the poem by giving human traits to the skyscraper. He says that as the day begins the building comes to life: “By day the Skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and has a soul.”
  • Alliteration: It is used in several places, such as “pour people,” “tell terrors,” “wild song without words,” “girl go,” etc.
  • Consonance: It occurs in “By day the Skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and has a soul,”  “where the wind whistles a wild song without words,” “cables and tubes catch,” “Hour by hour the caissons reach down to the rock,” etc.
  • Anaphora: The use of anaphora suggests the speaker tries to stress on a particular point; for instance it occurs in through the second stanza, all the line beginning with the phrase, “Hour by hour.”
  • Aside: Sandburg uses the device in between to add more insight to his thought. It occurs in “(One man fell from a girder and broke his neck at the end of a straight/ plunge–he is here–his soul has gone into the stones of the building.)”
  • Repetition: Sandburg uses this device to emphasize and to bring his words to attention. Readers can find repetition in the first and last lines of the poem, which read the same with a slight alteration.


Theme

In ‘Skyscraper,’ Sandburg narrates a day in the building. He describes the events that take place and how those who work there keep the structure alive. This piece taps on a number of themes that include immortality, the relationship of modern skyscrapers and humans, and the significance of each human being with respect to the big frame of the building. Sandburg immortalizes the building by saying that the souls of people who worked and died are there, incorporated in its soul. Besides, the soul of the building is nothing other than the workers themselves; as the speaker says, “his soul is here.”

The skyscraper stands straight, while the girders and the pilings are in a continuous fight with the forces of nature. In this way, the poet establishes a relationship between nature and the building. Alongside that, he establishes another relationship between the building and those who work there. According to him, it’s just a structure made of brick and mortar without the workers. Besides, the skyscraper is grounded firmly due to the various hands that worked and minds that engineered its magnificent design.

Historical Context

The poem ‘Skyscraper’ was written by Carl Sandburg in 1916 and was included in his best-known poetry collection, Chicago Poems. The poem is about a skyscraper, the occurrence of various events within its walls, the history of its making, and the souls who linger inside the wall. Sandburg wrote poems for the people and was known as the true voice of America. In this poem, he takes pity on those who labored the whole day and night for several years to make the building. Their hard work will never be formally recognized. But Sandburg pays his tribute to their dedication and hard work. This piece is a token for those who lost their lives in the making of the skyscraper. Besides, through this poem, he also establishes a connection between modernism in poetry and the emergence of architectural wonders in the 20th-century.

FAQs

What is the poem ‘Skyscraper’ about?

The main idea of ‘Skyscraper’ that Carl Sandburg conveys to readers is the importance of each individual, be it watchmen or the “master-men” sitting in skyscrapers, all play a significant role in society. Just like the skyscraper is nothing without the people, the same applies to the society or nation. The workers from different parts of the country collectively form the soul of the skyscraper.

What is the meaning of the poem ‘Skyscraper’?

According to Sandburg, like a skyscraper that has a history and lives because of the people who work there, a society works in the same way. He describes the pain people went through to keep the building erected and the toil of the laborers who died while working. Besides, the title aptly hints at the subject matter of the poem. The length of the poem indicates the length of the building. The use of free-verse without regular line lengths suggests the commotion that takes place inside the building.

What are the themes of ‘Skyscraper’?

The poem deals with a number of themes that include but are not limited to the role an individual plays in society, the relationship of humans and skyscrapers, the immortality of human creation, death, and the beauty of modern cities. This poem shows how modernism in poetry grew alongside the rise of towering skyscrapers.

What is the meaning of the line, “By day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and has a soul”?

The poet begins the poem by personifying the skyscraper. As the day begins, different people, uniformed casually dressed, enter the building and fill it with lively chatters. Their voices echo throughout the building, arousing its slumbered spirit. It is the presence of the people that make the speaker say that it has a soul.


Similar Poetry

The following list contains a few poems that similarly explore the themes present in Carl Sandburg’s ‘Skyscraper’. You can also explore other Carl Sandburg poems.

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Skyscraper by Carl Sandburg Visual Representation
Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
About
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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