Carl Sandburg, Master of Allegory, and Poet of the People
Anna Pinder, Monroe College
Abstract: Allegories comprise a genre that is often underrated within the literature environment. Most individuals may feel as if the hidden meanings in allegories have to be difficult to find within the works. However, that is not always the case. Allegories can actually be quite simple and can be what the reader interprets them to be. A poet who made simple allegories popular during his time was Carl August Sandburg. He was often referred to as the “poet of the people” and he also wrote from his personal experiences. Throughout his works, one can see how he exemplified the genre of allegory. One of his works that illustrated this genre eloquently was the poem “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” from his epic prose-poem book The People, Yes. Through this poem, he utilized both allegorical variables; “vehicles”, which is the text of the poem, and “tenors”, which is the hidden meanings behind each phrase or line.
Carl August Sandburg was a man of many talents with skills in poetry, writing, reporting, biographies, singing, and more. He worked as a farmer, railroad worker, and many other labor-related jobs early on in life. These experiences heavily influenced his views on the people of the working class, which would later influence his poems, stories in prose, and even get him into being part of a political party. With his views, many say that Carl August Sandburg gave a voice to the common man, specifically working class folks and those who didn't have the voice to speak up. It was because of this that he was often deemed as the "poet of the people" (Bussey, 2001). Sandburg was even recognized by President Lyndon B. Johnson as "more than the voice of America...He was America" (Heitman, 2013).
Through the genre of allegory, Sandburg would use literary devices in order to carry his hidden meanings within his words. However, he wrote in a way which was understandable to his audience, so they knew that his works were for them. Sandburg not only pointed out the views of the people in his writings, but he also gave people a sense of positivity, and something to look forward to in the sense of "hope". One can definitely see this theme within one of his famous poems, "Hope Is a Tattered Flag" from the book of poems The People, Yes. It is in this poem, where he paints intricate pictures of hope, long term improvement in life, and overall positivity in the days to come. Carl Sandburg was indeed a master of allegory, a poet of the people; and he personified hope for the common man with his poem “Hope Is a Tattered Flag”.
Carl Sandburg’s early life was filled with financial instability. Carl August Sandburg was born as the second child of seven children on January 6, 1878 to Swedish immigrant parents, August and Clara Sandburg, in Galesburg, Illinois (Niven, 2020). At the age of 13, Sandburg decided to leave school after finishing the eighth grade to be able to assist his family with finances. After some job searching, he found himself a small job delivering milk and other side odd jobs along the way. At the age of 19, Sandburg left his hometown, got on a train, and began his journey as a hobo. Along his journey, Sandburg worked as a farmer, a railroad worker, and in other labor jobs (Niven, 2020). Through witnessing the hardships associated with the life of the working class, and experiencing it himself, Sandburg became interested in the Labor Laws, which ultimately inspired some of his works down the line.
For Sandburg, 1898 was an eventful year; a year that included various changes that paved the way for his writing career. In April of that year, he served in the Spanish American War as a private in Company C’s sixth infantry regiment. Sandburg participated in the battle at Guanica, Puerto Rico from July through August 12, when the war ended. Now a Veteran, Sandburg returned home and decided to continue his education by enrolling in Lombard College as a “special student”, a program developed to offer students that did not complete their high school education a chance at a college education. After a year at Lombard College, Sandburg attempted to enroll in West Point, but he was denied entry because he failed the entrance exams in both math and grammar. Seeing that he still had much to learn, Sandburg returned to Lombard College and became the college’s journal and yearbook editor, as well as the captain for the basketball team (Niven, 2020). Needless to say, everything was going better than he expected; encouraged by his professor, Sandburg started to take his writing more seriously and so his career started.
During the next five years, from 1902 to 1907, Sandburg would work without a degree from college at the Galesburg Evening Mail as a writer. He published his first poem in The Thistle, a literary magazine, and published his first collection of poems and prose, titled Reckless Ecstasy, as a short booklet by Professor Wright (Niven, 2020). Later, he actively got involved in the Democratic party in Wisconsin to fight against the mistreatment of workers and to advocate for the ratification of child labor laws. Following his career as a writer, Sandburg met his future wife, Lilian, who he married in 1908. Together they had 3 daughters, Margaret, Janet, and Helga. Lilian further inspired Sandburg in his writing, and he continued to write his poetry in the style he is well known for, free verse. It was not long after this, that in 1914, Sandburg received recognition as a poet when Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, published several of his poems in her magazine (Niven, 2020). Sandburg was awarded the Pulitzer Prize four times. He received the first award in 1919 for Cornhuskers, and the second in 1940 for his biography of Abraham Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. In 1951, he received two awards, one for Complete Poems, and the other for Collected Poems. About a decade later in 1962 Sandburg was awarded the title of “Poet Laureate of Illinois”. Two years later, in 1964, he would receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Lyndon B. Johnson (Griffith, 2014).
During his lifetime, Sandburg published many books in many genres including works for children. Sandburg was known for relating his poems and prose to his early life as he saw how people were treated in the working class, and ongoing problems. He would use his own personal experiences to further emphasize his points, as he, himself, had experienced similar hardships when he worked as a laborer (Bussey, 2001). By working as a reporter, writing biographies, as well as participating in politics, Sandburg had a busy life, but he did what he loved. Carl Autumn Sandburg died in 1967 at the age of 89, which was clearly devastating news for the community, as he gave those who needed one a “voice”.
The Genre of Allegory
An allegory is “a narrative with two levels of meaning, one stated and one unstated” (Harvard University, 2021). However, this definition is only touching the surface of what an allegory truly is. The Oxford English Dictionary defines allegory as “a story, picture, or other piece of art that uses symbols to convey a hidden or ulterior meaning, typically a moral or political one” (qtd. in Bude, 2020). Taken together, an allegory, in its most basic and straightforward definition is when a piece of visual or narrative media uses one thing to “stand in for” a different, hidden idea. Allegories are often analyzed in relation to their different parts: in allegory, as in mathematics, there are “variables.” With mathematics, there are the variables of “x and y”; in allegory, there are the “tenor” and the “vehicle”. A tenor is the “hidden” concept, object, idea, or suggested meaning; and the vehicle is the word, image, or narrative in the story that “carries” the tenor or hidden meaning (Bude, 2020).
Then comes the question, is an allegory really about what someone reads, watches, or looks at inherently? Or is it more about how someone interacts or chooses how to engage with a text, movie, work of art, etc.? It is questions like these that bring the charm of allegories to life! Allegories are seen as fascinating because in order for an allegory to work in the way the creator or writer intended, it requires the reader to approach the text as a kind of puzzle. In other words, an allegory is not just a narrative with two levels of meaning; it is a text that expects and helps readers to uncover the hidden meaning.
Many of Carl Sandburg’s most famous poems are allegorical, including “Crimson Rambler” and “Grass”. The poem “Crimson Rambler” was published in Sandburg’s second book, Cornhuskers, and was printed under part 4, “Haunts”. This poem describes a couple who live inside a “house”, and are eventually attacked by a “rambler” who infiltrates their home. However, the house is not only seen as the building, but is used as a symbol of marriage in this poem (Magdalena, 2018). Therefore, the “rambler” can be seen attacking not only their physical home but their marriage as well. Another example can be seen with the poem titled “Grass” which was written after the conclusion of World War I in 1918. In this poem, Sandburg uses several literary devices such as anaphora, repetition, personification, and allusion (Baldwin, 2021). With the use of these literary devices, this poem is a perfect representation of an allegory with incorporating the hidden message of not forgetting the past, even if it is difficult to embrace those memories or events.
Analyzing “Hope is a Tattered Flag”
Bearing only the numerical title “16” but typically referred to by its first line, “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” first appeared in 1936 in Carl Sandburg’s epic prose-poem The People, Yes, a three-hundred-page celebration of the American spirit (Poetry for Students, 2021). In the midst of the Great Depression, Sandburg used poetry to console and encourage his readers. He wrote The People, Yes for the common man and woman. When compared with poets such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, who wrote richly textured poems where some did not understand Sandburg’s minimalism allowed anyone, regardless of social class, to be able to gain an understanding (Collins, 2001). Sandburg preferred to aim more at feelings than intellect. This was not because he thought his readers were incapable of thinking; rather, he recognized that aesthetic experience is mostly affective and only becomes intellectual through a type of training that few of his readers possessed.
“Hope Is a Tattered Flag” is an allegory that uses colloquial language, combining simple straight-forward language with complex multi-layered meaning. The poem begins with two images, a “tattered flag” and a “dream out of time”. Both images develop an emotional appeal rather than concrete, specific details, using commonly understood terms to clearly delineate the metaphoric comparison (Mahony, 2001). By using the term “tattered,” Sandburg is beginning the poem with the image of a survivor, someone who has experienced struggles but endured. Line 2 mentions hope as a “heartspun word”, which depicts hope as a basic human need that is woven into everyday life. Another piece of imagery that is used in line 2 is a rainbow, which is commonly known to appear after a storm. This sets as a reminder that even when a society is facing difficult periods, better days are on the horizon.
Carl Sandburg uses lines 3 through 8 to exemplify the Midwestern regionalism and how he utilizes the allegorical variables in his works. A significant line to pay attention to is line 3 which reads “the evening star inviolable over the coal mines”. The image of the evening star on its own is a captivating vision, but what is interesting is where he places this star, which is over the coal mines, a place of hard labor. Therefore, one can treat this line of text as the “vehicle”, and the “tenor” is that hope and dreams is achievable for all, even people who work in the mines. Other examples of phrases include “the shadblow in white”, “the blue hills beyond the smoke of the steel works”, and “the horseshoe over the door”. Each of these images is given a context, which allows him to accomplish two things: he localizes the imagery, and along with the use of free verse, he controls the overall pace of the poem so that it does not appear rushed or crowded (Bussey, 2001).
In line 9, one can see the expressions of empathy and love, through which it reads “the kiss and the comforting laugh and resolve”. These types of expressions allude to an elemental force that binds individuals together, both personally and collectively. It is in line 10 where the most illuminating of Sandburg’s many analogies appear at the poem’s core. Line 10 begins with “hope is an echo…” As an echo is to sound, hope is to the energy that unifies individuals. In other words, like an echo, hope can seem to be short-lived, however, it derives from a source that is surely real. Through identifying a distant ultimate goal, hope provides as a sense of direction for the future. Line 10 bears out this idea with the continuation of the category of lines in which hope conveys a promise of a better future as a dream and vision of “yonder, yonder” (Mahony, 2001). Conversely, line 11 brings to life the type of hope that appears as a surprise without a plan, “…where least expected”. Line 12 describes “The rolling fluff of white clouds on a changeable sky”. When one thinks of the sky filled with clouds, they come in all different shapes and sizes, and a sky-gazer never sees the same cloud twice. That gazer might see a cloud similar to a cloud they’d seen before, but it is always a new cloud. In this case, the cloud image is a “vehicle” that leads readers to the “tenor” that the world is forever changing and that time doesn’t stop for anyone.
In lines 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17 the setting of Christmas time is being created. The idea of Christmas is first brought to light in lines 13, 14, and 15 which read “The broadcast of strings from Japan, bells from Moscow, of the voice of the prime minister of Sweden carried, across the sea in behalf of a world family of nations”. With these lines, Sandburg takes his readers abroad to see the Christmas traditions of other places around the world, including the previous homeland of his parents, Sweden. The idea of it being Christmas time is reinforced by line 16 which reads “And children singing chorals of the Christ child.” However, it is fascinating to see how in line 17 the reader is brought back to America with the mention of “Bach being broadcast from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania”. If he would not have signified that this Bethlehem was in the state of Pennsylvania, many would have taken the assumption that the reader was still in the Middle East, where Jesus was born.
In order to not be ignorant to the issues that were currently going on, Sandburg found it necessary to mention the problems of his current time. In Illinois, people faced both unemployment and mob violence during Prohibition (Bussey, 2001). He points out these issues using metaphors with lines 18 and 19 which read “And tall skyscrapers practically empty of tenants. And the hands of strong men groping for handholds (Sandburg 18 & 19). Although of these dire circumstances, Sandburg was determined to bring hope into his readers’ lives. And with this said, interesting enough, he decides to conclude the poem by referring to Christmas with line 20 which reads “And the Salvation Army singing God loves us”. But what is important to note is that everything Sandburg did in his writing had a purpose. All these lines about Christmas stand as “vehicles” in order to carry the true “tenor” which is that everyone around the world has the opportunity to receive the gift of salvation and can receive God’s love. This hidden message reinforces the primary message of hope by showing that even if someone suffers through this temporary life, through salvation, they can receive eternal bliss in the next.
Hence, while section 16, "Hope Is a Tattered Flag," can be viewed as an individual poem consisting of a catalogue of definitions, it is also important to identify the poem's role in the entire work (Mahony, 2001). For those who read the entire prose-poem The People, Yes, one can gain an even deeper understanding to what Sandburg was talking about in this poem. The numerical titles before “16” describe events that further explains why hope’s flag is tattered to begin with. For instance, the first numerical title “1” begins the book with a setting at the biblical “Tower of Babel”, where the human race was all once united but then divided because of disobedience to God. And with this division, arose discrimination, hate, and war which has unfortunately continued to occur. However, “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” provides an emotional contrast to the bitter realities of the past and the present of that time, describing how hope and dreams can still persevere through adversities.
Needless to say, Sandburg left a powerful legacy and will always be remembered as the “poet of the people”. He was a remarkable representative for the genre of allegory and presented it in a way that was seen as simple to some literary critics. However, it was this plainness that made Sandburg’s work exceptional, because his words did not exclude anyone from gaining a sense of understanding. His poem “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” is one of many of his works that demonstrated the beauty of his free verse style writing. With this poem, his goal was to paint a broad retrospective portrait of America’s past, while also reinforcing his optimistic outlook for the future of America. And with this intention, it is evident to see that he succeeded, with showing how much America has both changed and grown since his time.
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