‘Wilderness‘ by Carl Sandburg is a five stanza, narrative poem, that is distinguished by its long lines and extended style. The stanzas of this piece are irregular in their line numbers, syllables, and patterns of the meter. The poem’s form is, as the title suggests, wild.
That does not mean that the poem is without a sense of unity. Each section of this poem is started in the same way, with a statement describing the presence of an animal spirit within the speaker. As the poem progresses the speaker moves from creature to creature, repeating the refrain of, “There is a…” and following it up with a specific animal. This animal is then described in poetic detail. Its strengths and oddities are highlighted and the speaker finds a way to relate his humanity to each one.
Additionally, the poet has added a second refrain to the end of each section. The poet emphasizes the fact that the “Wilderness gave” him this skill or strength, and he is unwilling to “let it go.” It is a permanent part of him that he will work to maintain.
Summary of Wilderness
The poem begins with the speaker describing how he is made up of a number of different animals. They are so integral to his being it is like they are inside him. He begins by speaking about the “blood-red” wolf who gives him undeniable strength. He then moves onto the “silver-grey fox” who is both cunning and vicious.
The next stanzas speak of his ability to keep a “hog” and an extremely unattractive baboon inside of him. These creatures are not obvious in their benefits but the speaker makes clear why they matter to him. The final animals are the most interesting. He contains the first fish-like creature to ever walk on the planet, a sign of his spiritually important pedigree. Lastly, he has a dichotomy of birds.
The final section speaks on the narrator’s dedication to maintaining his interior zoo as well as all that which makes him a lover, mother and father. He is a part of the world and will take care of all that which he contributes to it.
Analysis of Wilderness
The poem begins with the speaker’s first description of the state of his interior spiritual being. Throughout the poem, as he depicts the creatures of which he is made, then strives to create for himself a pedigree of “Wilderness.” He wants to define and layout for his readers the source of his senses and strength.
The first creature through which the narrator speaks is “a wolf.” He begins this stanza, as he begins all the others, by stating that, “There is a wolf in me.” This is an interesting choice of words as he is not describing himself as being “like” a wolf, but as containing a wolf. There is something of this animal present inside him. It is almost literally physical.
The wolf has a number of features that the narrator wants to adapt to his own life. It is clear that he is envious of this creature and is striving to gain some part of it. He speaks of the “fangs pointed for tearing gashes.” The wolf’s teeth are made for this purpose. The wolf is strong and sure in its actions. This is supported by the next phrase which describes the wolf’s tongue as being for eating “raw meat” and the “lapping of blood.”
The wolf’s body is made to kill and feast. There is no kindness in its actions, only power. The section ends with the second point of repetition in the poem, a concluding refrain. The speaker states that “the Wilderness” gave him the wolf and there is no force on earth that could take it from him. He is unwilling to “let it go.”
The second stanza of “Wilderness” is made up of two different sections that speak on distinct animals with which the speaker feels a bond. The first is a “silver-gray fox.” The stanza begins with the characteristic, “There is a…” followed up by the description of the fox. The speaker makes sure to depict only the most powerful elements of these animals, he does not show weakness.
Through his embodiment of the fox, he is able to “sniff and guess.” He can use his enhanced senses to “pick things out / of the wind and air.” The fox is described as being somewhat sly and conniving. It is able to “double-cross” and sneak through the dark to find its prey, or “sleepers.” Smaller creatures are caught by surprise and quickly consumed by the fox.
The second animal depicted in this section is a “hog.” While not as graceful as a fox or wolf, the hog has equal eating power. It is a “machine for eating and / grunting.” It is shown as being as single-minded as the wolf and as conniving as the fox. Once more the section ends with the powerful statement, “the wilderness will not let it go.” From here on out the ending refrain will be slightly altered.
The third stanza acts as the second did, with a combination of two different animals and their respective traits. The first creature mentioned is a fish, but not just a fish. This aquatic animal is the first of all creatures on the Earth. It came before “Noah,” and before, “the first chapter of Genesis.” It is the beginning of life.
The poet chose to include this more emotionally spiritual creature in an effort to give a different depth to the speaker’s soul. He is made of all these strengths as well as an inner purpose.
The second part of this stanza describes a baboon. The baboon is not described completely flatteringly. In fact, it is spoken of as being “dog-faced” and as having “hair under the armpits.” This animal has been added to the array of those that the speaker has access to in an effort to depict variety. Not every part of this man is perfect and strong. He is a combination of undeniable power and disguised power. He is both wolf and baboon.
In the second to last stanza, the poet describes the two final animals that make up the speaker. They are both birds, an eagle, and a mockingbird. These two birds could not be more different. The eagle has the ability to fly “among the/ Rocky Mountains” and touch the speaker’s “dreams.” It can see the crags of the “Sierra[s]” without even trying.
In contrast, there is the mockingbird. This smaller, less powerful bird, “warbles in the early forenoon before the dew is gone.” It has a simple beauty about it that also touches the mind of the speaker. It can tap into his “wishes.” Of all the animals in this piece, these final two are the most different from one another, but also the clearest in their representation of this man.
In the final stanza, the speaker diverges from the pattern that he has maintained throughout the last four stanzas. He is now addressing the entire “menagerie” that he has “inside [his] ribs, under [his] bony head” as well as in his heart. The animals take up a lot of room within him, but there is room for other forces too. He has the heart of a man and a woman, he is a father, a mother, and a lover. Everything that this person is “came from God-Knows-Where” and is headed to an equally mysterious destination.
No matter where this speaker is going, he takes comfort in the forces within him. He knows that he is the “keeper” of the zoo and must remain dedicated to the power of the “wilderness” from which he came.