‘Song for Lonely Roads’ by Sherwood Anderson is a 23 line poem that operates as a frame narrative and does not follow a particular rhyme scheme. There are a couple of lines, scattered throughout the poem, that does rhyme, such as lines four and five, and lines nineteen and twenty. These sporadic end rhymes work to tie the poem together at key points in the narrative.
The poem begins with the speaker informing his listener that he is hoping to help her understand why he is the way he is. To do this he must tell her a story of a time that he ran away back home. She will not understand why he would do such a thing unless he tells her what is special about the land he was returning to. This double frame story focuses on the value of a stretch of farmland and a deal struck between the gods and the farmers.
If the farmers plow the field and do the hard work, the gods will provide corn. This tradition has lasted for decades and is taken up by all who live there. He describes his disappointment in the fact that the youth of the land do not take this tradition, or the prospect of hard work, seriously. He then concludes by stating that no matter what one believes, the land will always be special and the gods will always be waiting in the corn.
Analysis of Song for Lonely Roads
Now let us understand each other, love,
Long time ago I crept off home,
To my own gods I went.
The tale is old,
It has been told
By many men in many lands.
‘Song for Lonely Roads’ begins with the poet making clear that his speaker is directly addressing his “love.” While it is not made clear in the text of the poem it is safe to assume that this, “love,” is the speaker’s romantic partner. It is through the narrative that the speaker is about to tell that he hopes to come to some understanding with his listener. He hopes that they will be able to be open and have all history laid bare. The speaker’s personal history is the interior story that is going to be told in the short lines that follow.
The story begins with the speaker saying that something happened a, “Long time ago.” It was in this distant past that he “crept” away from wherever he was staying to go “home.” All the reader knows that at this point is that the speaker has to be secretive about his departure, so much so, that he has to “creep” around to get away. He is leaving this undefined place because he wants to be with his “own gods.” He does not feel comfortable in the world that he was in, and is seeking a return to the familiar.
The story that the speaker is telling has an additional story within it, this story is less of a narrative, and more of a way of living that he hopes to explain. This will be elucidated further in the following lines.
First, he prefaces his explanation by saying that “The tale is old,” it has existed for a long time but that does not mean it has lost its worth. It has been told, “in many lands,” and will be told again now.
The lands belong to those who tell.
Now surely that is clear.
After the plow had westward swept,
The gods bestowed the corn to stand.
Long, long it stood,
Strong, strong it grew,
To make a forest for new song.
The lands in which the story, that the narrator will soon tell, is told belong to those, “who tell.” Only those that believe in, and tell the story, own the land. This is something that the speaker wants to make very clear to his listener. It is this land to which he is returning in the second line. It is sacred in some, as yet unclear, way.
In the next lines, the speaker describes the land as being farmland. It is covered in fields and after it has been “westward swept” with the plow, the gods bestow it with “corn to stand.” The farmers of this land have a bargain of one kind or another with the gods that watch over it, they will plow and the gods will provide. This is a reciprocal relationship of hard work.
In the last three lines of this section, the poet employs repetition at the beginning of the phrases in an effort to show the longevity of this tradition. It “stood” for a “Long, long,” time. It stood, “Strong, strong,” and it “grew.” It’s strength made sure that the generations to come were also strong, creating a background for the story that is now told. It has created a forest from which the speaker and all those from the land have sprung.
Deep in the corn the bargain hard
Youth with the gods drove home.
The gods remember,
Doubt not the soul of song that waits.
As ‘Song for Lonely Roads’ is coming to its conclusion the speaker reaches for his goal of showing his speaker the importance of this place and why he returned to it. He describes how as time has passed there are those that have forgotten this bargain. They are the youth of today. The youth of this world “forget” but the “gods remember.” The speaker asks the listener, and in turn, the youth of his home, to not “Doubt” the “soul” of this place. It is always there, always affected by the gods.
The singer dies,
The singer lives,
The gods wait in the corn,
The soul of song is in the land.
Lift up your lips to that.
In the last five lines of ‘Song for Lonely Roads’, the speaker describes, once more, the value of the land and the everlasting bargain that has been struck. The “singer,” or teller of this story, whether it’s the poet, the speaker, or anyone else from that area, may die, or the “singer” may live, but the story goes on.
The gods will always be waiting in the corn for the believers to return. The “soul” of this “song,” or story, or poem, “is in the land.” This is something the speaker says the listener can “Lift” her lips too. She can bet on this always being true no matter how much time passes.
About Sherwood Anderson
Sherwood Anderson was born in 1876 in Camden, Ohio, U.S. He was one of seven children and was only educated intermittently during his youth as he spent most of his time working various jobs. Anderson worked in advertising during the 1910s until he was earning enough money from his writing to quit and devote himself full-time to literary pursuits.
Anderson was close to other leaders of the Chicago literary movement, including Theodore Deirdre and Carl Sandburg. As his work continued to evolve he submitted verse and short fiction to a number of different publications including The Little Review and Poetry. His first “mature” book, Winesburg, Ohio was published in 1919 and secured his reputation as an author. He would go one to publish many novels that included Many Marriages, Dark Laughter, and Beyond Desire.
Anderson is best known for his short fiction which was collected in volumes published throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s.
Sherwood Anderson died in Colon, Panama, in March of 1941.