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Sandburg and World War I

Sandburg's career as a journalist as background for his poetry. Four excerpts from Sandburg's writing for the International Socialist Review: "Looking 'Em Over," "Will Marshall Field III. Enlist?" "Haywood Longs for 'Other Boys' in Jail" (rpt. from the Chicago Daily News), and "Haywood of the I. W. W."

Phillip R. Yannella has argued that during the war Sandburg's developed a split personality as a socialist, sometimes writing like one of the majority of American socialists who opposed the war, sometimes like one of the substantial number who dissented from the majority position. While writing pro-war pieces for the government-backed American Alliance for Labor and Democracy, he was also writing under the pseudonym Jack Phillips for the antiwar International Socialist Review, supplying scathing critiques of the government's persecution of the Industrial Workers of the World and other wartime policies. In the war poems published under Sandburg's name during the war, the split in Sandburg's character mirrors more directly the general public attitudes toward the war.

"Buttons," initially published in the February 1915 Masses, is vitriolic in its attack on the war. The Witmanesque "Cool Tombs" and "Grass," published later and collected in Sandburg's Cornhuskers, remain bitter but are much more resigned to the catastrophe of war. For a sample of Sandburg's gung-ho pro-war poetry of the same period, one which curiously adapts socialist rhetoric of the class war to the world war in Europe, we reprint below Sandburg's long poem "The Four Brothers." Initially published October 29, 1917, in the Chicago Evening Post, where Sandburg was a staff writer, it soon reached thousands of readers via reprints in newspapers and magazines across the country.

"Planked Whitefish," containing perhaps the most gruesome war imagery and the most bitter denunciation of war in all of Sandburg's work, also presents something of a historical puzzle. First, if we take Sandburg's self-description, "the distinguished poet now out of jail," as accurately establishing the poem's historical frame, the poem must have been written (and is presumably set, also) in the period after the armistice, since the only time after 1914 that Sandburg was placed in legal detention was in 1919, after he returned from Stockholm with two suitcases full of Bolshevik publications and was questioned by U.S. Military Intelligence (Yannella 125-27). If the poem is indeed a postwar poem, then Sandburg would appear once again to reflect the country's mood on the war, suggesting the nation's turn against further international involvements that culminated in the Senate's rejection of U.S. membership in the League of Nations. Second, one of the poem's two central images, of the Canadian soldier crucified against a barn door, was no revelation of the poem's central character, Horace Wild, but a very common story in the pro-Allied folklore; it was in fact promulgated through the infamous Bryce Report, published by the British government in 1915 specifically to elicit American sympathy for the Allies, and one of the many German atrocities in the report later shown to be entirely fabricated. What is original to Sandburg's poem is, of course, its twist on the story, remaking it as an image demanding not fury against the barbaric "Huns" but revulsion against war generally. It is a remarkable rewriting of the Bryce Committee's report--and an unstable one, especially for readers aware of the report and the generally pro-Allied folklore of the Canadian soldier's crucifixion.


[To the Editor:--The inclosed poem, "The Four Brothers," will appear in Poetry for November. Believing that this poem voices the heart and mind of America at war, we release it to a special list of papers for publication in whole or in part on Oct. 29, due credit being given to Poetry. The author's check in payment for the poem will be given to the fund for American poets' ambulances in Italy. Poetry believes that publication of this poem is a service of loyalty to the democracies at war.--Poetry.]

Notes for War Songs

Make war songs out of these;

Make chants that repeat and weave.

Make rhythms up to the ragtime chatter of the machine guns;

Make slow-booming psalms up to the boom of the big guns.

Make a marching song of swinging arms and swinging legs.

Going along,

Going along,

On the roads from San Antonio to Athens, from Seattle to Bagdad--

The boys and men in winding lines of khaki, the circling squares of bayonet points.


Cowpunchers, cornhuskers, shopmen, ready in khaki;

Ballplayers, lumberjacks, ironworkers, ready in khaki;

A million, ten million, singing, "I am ready."

This the sun looks on between two seaboards,

In the land of Lincoln, in the Land of Grant and Lee.


I heard one say, "I am ready to be killed."

I heard another say, "I am ready to be killed."

O sunburned clear-eyed boys!

I stand on sidewalks and you go by with drums and guns and bugles,

You--and the flag!

And my heart tightens, a fist of something feels my throat

When you go by,

You on the kaiser hunt, you and your faces saying, "I am ready to be killed."


They are hunting for death,

Death for the one-armed mastoid kaiser.

They are after a Hohenzollern head:

There is no man-hunt of men remembered like this.


The four big brothers are out to kill.

France, Russia, Britain, America--

The four republics are sworn brothers to kill the kaiser.


Yes, this is the great man-hunt;

And the sun has never seen till now

Such a line of toothed and tusked man-killers,

In the blue of the upper sky,

In the green of the undersea,

In the red of the winter dawns.

Eating to kill,

Sleeping to kill,

Asked by their mothers to kill,

Wished by four-fifths of the world to kill--

To cut the kaiser's throat,

To hack the kaiser's head,

To hang the kaiser on a high-horizon gibbet.


And is it nothing else than this?

Three times ten million men thirsting for blood

Of a half-cracked one-armed child of the German kings?

Of a child born with his head wrong-shaped,

The blood of rotted kings in his veins?

If this were all, O God,

I would go to the far timbers

And look on the gray wolves

Tearing the throats of moose:

I would ask a wilder drunk of blood.


Look! It is four brothers in joined hands together.

The people of bleeding France,

The people of bleeding Russia,

The people of Britain, the people of America--

These are the four brothers, these are the four republics.


At first I said it in anger as one who clenches his fists in wrath to fling his knuckles into the face of some one taunting;

Now I say it calmly as one who has thought it over and over again at night, among the mountains, by the sea-combers in storm.

I say now, by God, only fighters today will save the world, nothing but fighters will keep alive the names of those who left red prints of bleeding feet at Valley Forge in Christmas snow.

On the cross of Jesus, the sword of Napoleon, the skull of Shakespeare, the pen of Tom Jefferson, the ashes of Abraham Lincoln, or any sign of the red and running life poured out by the mothers of the world,

By the God of morning glories climbing blue the doors of quiet homes, by the God of the tall hollyhocks laughing glad to children in peaceful valleys, by the God of new mothers wishing peace to sit at windows nursing babies,

I swear only reckless men, ready to throw away their lives by hunger, deprivation, desperate clinging to a single purpose imperturbable and undaunted, men with the primitive guts of rebellion,

Only fighters gaunt with the red band of labor’s sorrow on their brows and labor’s terrible pride in their blood, men with souls asking danger--only these will save and keep the four big brothers.

Good-night is the word, good-night to the kings, to the czars,

Good-night to the kaiser.

The breakdown and the fade-away begins.

The shadow of a great broom, ready to sweep out the trash, is here.


One finger is raised that counts the czar,

The ghost who beckoned men who come no more--

The czar gone to the winds on God’s great dustpan,

The czar a pitch of nothing,

The last of the gibbering Romanoffs.


Out and good-night--

The ghosts of summer palaces

And the ghosts of the winter palaces!

Out and out, good-night to the kings, the czars, the kaisers.


Another finger will speak,

And the kaiser, the ghost who gestures a hundred million sleeping walking ghosts,

The kaiser will go onto God’s great dustpan--

The last of the gibbering Hohenzollerns.

Look! God pities this trash, God waits with a broom and a dustpan,

God knows a finger will speak and count them out.


It is written in the stars;

It is spoken on the walls;

It clicks in the fire-white zigzag of the Atlantic wireless;

It mutters in the bastions of thousand-mile continents;

It sings in a whistle on the midnight winds from Walla Walla to Mesopotamia:

Out and good-night.


The millions slow in khaki,

The millions learning "Turkey in the Straw" and "John Brown’s Body,"

The millions remembering windrows of dead at Gettysburg, Chickamauga, and Spotsylvania Court House,

The millions dreaming of the morning star of Appomattox,

The millions easy and calm with guns and steel, planes and prows:

There is a hammering, drumming hell to come.

The killing gangs are on the way.


God takes one year for a job.

God takes ten years or a million.

God knows when a doom is written.

God knows this job will be done and the words spoken:

Out and good-night.

The red tubes will run,

And the great price be paid,

And the homes empty,

And the wives wishing,

And the mothers wishing.

There is only one way now, only the way of the red tubes and the great price.


Well . . .

Maybe the morning star is a five-cent yellow balloon,

And the evening stars the joke of a God gone crazy.

Maybe the mothers of the world,

And the life that pours from their torsal folds--

Maybe it’s all a lie sworn by liars,

And a God with a cackling laughter says:

"I, the Almighty God,

I have made all this,

I have made it for kaisers, czars, and kings."


Three times ten million men say: No.

Three times ten million men say:

God is a God of the People.

And the God who made the world

And fixed the morning sun,

And flung the evening stars,

And shaped the baby hands of life,

This is a God of the Four Brothers;

This is the God of bleeding France and bleeding Russia;

This is the God of the people of Britain and America.


The graves from the Irish Sea to the Caucasus peaks are ten times a million.

The stubs and stumps of arms and legs, the eyesockets empty, the cripples, ten times a million.

The crimson thumb-print of the anathema is on the door panels of a hundred million homes.

Cows gone, mothers on sick-beds, children crying a hunger and no milk comes in the noon-time or at night.

The death-yells of it all, the torn throats of men in ditches calling for water, the shadows and the hacking lungs in dugouts, the steel paws that clutch and squeeze a scarlet drain day by day--the storm of it is hell.

But look, child! The storm is blowing for a clean air.


Look! The four brothers march

And hurl their big shoulders

And swear the job shall be done.


Out of the wild finger-writing north and south, east and west, over the blood-crossed, blood-dusty ball of earth,

Out of it all a God who knows is sweeping clean,

Out of it all a God who sees and pierces through, is breaking and cleaning out an old thousand years, is making ready for a new thousand years.

The four brothers shall be five and more.


Under the chimneys of the winter-time the children of the world shall sing new songs.

Among the rocking restless cradles the mothers of the world shall sing new sleepy-time songs.

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