Hope Is a Tattered Flag
Hope Is a Tattered Flag
Carl Sandburg 1936
Bearing only the numerical title, “16,” “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” first appeared in 1936 in Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes, a three-hundred-page celebration of the American spirit, with an emphasis on folksy tales, wit, and wisdom. Always a very socially minded writer, Sandburg penned The People, Yes to help rally a nation deflated by the Great Depression.
“Hope Is a Tattered Flag” is written in free verse; the rhythm of the language is more like that of speech than the much more regular patterns of traditional poetry. This more natural structure reflects the writer’s belief that poetry ought to be spontaneous and accessible. Sandburg’s strong preference for the image as a poetic device is also very apparent in this piece. A clear, precise image was thought to be able to convey a wealth of ideas and emotions.
In one sense, at least, “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” is a very simple poem: a string of images twenty lines long. But the images are all different, and the whole work can be viewed as a kind of collage, where the composite picture of hope that the poet presents is actually quite intricate. There is, however, a dominant theme, an idea that the poem returns to again and again, that the feeling one calls “hope” is very well founded, that life will improve is guaranteed by the laws of the universe. The poet also hints that an increase of hope in humanity could well hasten the coming of better days.
Sandburg was born on January 6, 1878, in Galesburg, Illinois, to Clare and August Sandburg, both Swedish immigrants. August was a railroad worker, who could read but not write, while Clare, a hotel chambermaid, was slightly more literate. Carl, by contrast, learned to read and write with his young schoolmates and soon demonstrated quite a strong interest in books. Unfortunately, he would only advance as far as the eighth grade, when he had to go to work to help his father support the family. After a variety of short-term jobs, Sandburg left home at eighteen to ride the freight trains west, mixing with hoboes and supporting himself with more temporary work along the way.
With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, he enlisted in the army and sailed off to fight in Cuba, but hostilities ended before his regiment saw any action. Back at home, he entered Lombard College, only to leave school again prematurely, having failed some graduation requirements. The experience had been a valuable one, however; it was at Lombard that he discovered the satisfaction of seeing his writing in print—in college publications—and where he met Philip Green Wright, a distinguished teacher who would help print Sandburg’s first three volumes of poetry in 1904 and 1905. After leaving Lombard, he worked as a journalist for some Chicago magazines, helped to organize Wisconsin workers for the Social Democratic party, and then married and settled in Milwaukee, where he became the private secretary for the city’s socialist mayor. Sandburg was still writing poetry during this period but earned no credit for that endeavor until Poetry published some of his pieces in 1914. The best known of these poems, “Chicago,” stirred up enough controversy to make him a leading figure within what was to become known as the Chicago renaissance: on one side of the controversy, critics celebrated the poem’s colloquial style and free verse for their freshness and originality; more traditionally minded reviewers were skeptical about these innovations.
After four volumes of poetry, a book of children’s stories, and a collection of his articles on the Chicago race riots, Sandburg began work on his landmark biography of Abraham Lincoln. Published in 1926, this extraordinarily successful book brought the writer financial security, allowing him to put aside all writing but that which most interested him. He would devote the rest of his career to American history (four more volumes on Lincoln; a book on the great president’s wife, Mary; and Remembrance Rock, a novel that traces the fortunes of one American family from the seventeenth century to World War II), and several volumes of poetry. His work on Lincoln earned him the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, and his poetry the same honor in 1950. Sandburg died in Flat Rock, North Carolina, on July 22, 1967, at the age of 89. Though the literary establishment never embraced the folksy poet and he was passed over for the Nobel Prize, his popularity with the American people far surpassed all other writers of his day.
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[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
The first few words, “Hope is a tattered flag,” provide an interpretive key for the entire poem: the true nature of hope can be best understood by contemplating its effects, just as one might learn more about the wind by studying the shape of a weather-beaten rock. The rest of the poem simply catalogs such phenomena. The images, of course, are all carefully chosen; it’s a very particular concept that Sandburg wants to convey. Virtually all of the items on the poet’s list fall into one of two categories, the natural or the social. “The tattered flag” of line 1 and the “heartspun word” of line 2 belong to the latter group, flags and other cultural icons, along with shared languages, being the stuff of group solidarity. Writing during a period of unprecedented conflict, Sandburg is searching for signs of a basic impulse in humans to unite. It is true that group identity was also partly responsible for the cataclysmic wars of the early twentieth century (hence the tattered flag), but later in the poem Sandburg reconciles this contradiction.
With the rainbow and the shadblow (a flowering bush; line 2), the poem turns from social causes for hope to natural ones. Together with the evening star and northern lights of lines 3 and 4, these images highlight the order, purity, and beauty that are intrinsic to the universe. Sandburg is not forgetting the chaos, decay, and terrifying strain in nature— the rainbow follows the squall, the shadblow bush blooms at winter’s end, the evening star (Mercury) ushers in darkness, and the northern lights flicker across a frozen landscape—but bad and good in all
- Carl Sandburg: Echoes and Silences, a docu-drama produced for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, is available on videotape. Contains actual footage of Sandburg.
- Sandburg’s appearance on the television show On the Go (March 2, 1960) is available on videotape.
- Sandburg reads selections from his autobiography, Always the Young Strangers, on cassette from Caedmon.
- Carl Sandburg Reads Grammy Nominee, Fog, The People Yes, and Other Poems is also on a Caedmon audiocassette.
- More Carl Sandburg Reads, from Caedmon, includes selections from his novel Remembrance Rock, and American Songbag, a compilation of folk lyrics.
- Carl Sandburg the Poet Reads Windy City, Wilderness and Wind Song is on audiocassette from the Listening Library.
of these images point to a fundamental balance in creation as a whole.
Sandburg juxtaposes natural and social images in lines 3, 5, and 6. The thrust of all of these lines is clearest in the phrase, “The birds who go on singing to their mates in peace, war, peace”: the unifying impulse alluded to above sometimes deserts humanity but in nature it is ever present, as persistent as the song of the birds, as dependable as the “inviolable” motion of the evening star. Why society swings back and forth between good and bad is hinted at in the images of “coal mines” and “the smoke of the steel works.” Industrial society by definition is cut off from nature and its magnificent equilibrium.
To dispel the gloom of lines 5 and 6, the poet conjures more cheerful images in lines 7 and 8—the crocus, the horseshoe, and the luckpiece in the pocket. In civilization, Sandburg points out, the good sometimes fades, but tokens of its subterranean existence remain evident, albeit faintly, as in the diminutive crocus blooming at the car lot or the humble lucky charm.
“The kiss and comforting laugh,” expressions of love and empathy, allude again to an elemental force that draws humans together—at the personal level as well as the collective (as around the tattered flag). At the very heart of the poem flashes what may be the most illuminating of Sandburg’s many analogies: hope is to the aforementioned unifying energy as an echo is to sound. Hope, in other words, may sometimes seem as ephemeral as an echo, but it too originates in something very real. The end of line 11—“hope ties itself yonder, yonder”—harkens back to line 1 and the idea that “hope is . . . a dream out of time.” Recall that Sandburg sees good and bad in balance in nature, civilization swinging back and forth between the two. These shifting conditions are what give rise to the idea of time, in the poet’s view. Time, in other words, only exists where the good comes and goes.
In lines 11 and 12, the poem turns once again to the characteristic balance in nature between good and bad, life and death, creation and destruction.
“The broadcast of strings from Japan, bells from Moscow” belong to a world made much smaller by radio and other technological advances of the twentieth century. Lines 14 and 15 hint that such developments might allow one to transcend the national and ethnic conflicts of the past and finally unite as a “world family.” In casting the Swedish prime minister as the prophet of global unity, Sandburg pays tribute to Per Albin Hansson, best known internationally for his advocacy of disarmament and neutrality.
The melodies of line 13 swell in 16 and 17, with a choir of innocents singing Christmas songs and the strains of Johann Sebastian Bach, all of it ushering in the peace foreseen in lines 14 and 15. The emphasis on Christian music here recalls the traditional representation of Christ as the Prince of Peace. The city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, has long been the site of a world-famous Bach festival.
Topics for Further Study
- Choose a feeling like fear or joy and write a poem composed of a series of evocative images like the one Sandburg uses to celebrate hope.
- Ask your reference librarian to help you find materials on the psychology of hope. Prepare a short presentation to share what you learn.
- Read one of the personal narratives in Hard Times, Stud Terkel’s well-known oral history of the Great Depression. Write a brief reaction to your excerpt, focusing on the psychological or emotional challenges of the period.
The years between World Wars I and II were the Age of the Skyscraper, climaxing in 1931 with the completion of the Empire State Building, the tallest structure in the world for more than twenty years. As the poem indicates, the Great Depression emptied many of these structures, but the federal government and its Works Progress Administration revived large-scale construction projects. Such efforts were unmistakable signs for Sandburg of social revival, of a nation of “strong men” regaining control. The Salvation Army, an “army” for charity, highlights the conversion of bad to good.
The monstrous social crises of the first half of the twentieth century (the world wars and the Great Depression) shook to its foundation the modern conviction that civilization was moving steadily toward a state of perfection—technological, artistic, ethical, and political. Indeed, since the turn of the century, there was a growing conviction that all of human advancements were merely allowing human destructive impulses to wreak havoc on a greater scale. When the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, it was hard not to conclude that civilization was in its last days. In “Hope Is a Tattered Flag,” Sandburg offers a very different interpretation of this very troubled period: difficult times, the poem suggests, are merely one phase of an historical cycle that will one day restore peace and prosperity to the world. So hope is less wishful thinking than the disposition of hearts that are in tune with this age-old rhythm.
Sandburg’s social optimism is rooted in his vision of the universe as a whole, a system in which order and chaos, life and death, good and bad are in perfect balance. If society appears to lack this equilibrium, it is because it has become increasingly cut off from nature, ruled more and more by unnatural imperatives (commercial, technological, etc.) that force it off course. Over time, however, even civilization conforms to the basic laws of the cosmos; a nation that swerves toward destruction will at some point revive itself and enjoy a period of peace and prosperity. The poet offers hope during troubled times by pointing to nature where signs of this regenerative cycle are everywhere. In his vision of nature as a unity of opposites (order and chaos, etc.) and as a source of fundamental truth for the human heart, Sandburg resembles transcendentalist writers like Emerson and Thoreau.
Though he celebrates nature and is ambivalent about civilization, Sandburg is not a primitivist. He is not suggesting humans would fare better if they returned to a more natural mode of existence. The problem is not civilization per se, but merely its excesses. Indeed, as lines 13–18 indicate, the poet sees much that is positive in the twentieth century, an outlook that is characteristic of modernist art more generally. Not just in birdsong does he detect a great unifying spirit at work but also in radio, as it draws the world together to form a great family of nations. And like the “spring grass showing itself where least expected,” the “tall skyscrapers” (another icon of the modern) are tokens of a creative energy that cannot be suppressed. As gloomy as the 1930s might have looked to some, Sandburg hints that civilization’s greatest days are just ahead.
“Hope Is a Tattered Flag” is written in free verse—the rhythm is closer to that of speech than the more regular metrical patterns of traditional poetry. Among American poets, Walt Whitman is the best-known pioneer of this style, a writer whose profound influence on Sandburg can be discerned at many levels of this poem. Strictly speaking, however, the term “free verse” applies to the work of later poets like T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Marianne Moore, all contemporaries of Sandburg. The reasons of these writers for preferring this style were, of course, very different. Sandburg’s own choice reflects his commitment to a poetry that was more spontaneous than deliberately crafted, more of feeling than of intellect, and directed more at the common person than at an erudite literary readership.
For all of its rhythmical freedom, “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” still has very strong formal regularity. Virtually every line of the poem follows the same syntactical pattern: the words, “hope is,” followed by a series of images like “a heartspun word, the rainbow, the shadblow in white.” This use of similarly structured, or parallel, clauses is called parataxis. So simple is the basic structure in this particular poem, and so closely does the poet adhere to it, that it has a litany-like tone. (A litany is a prayer composed of parallel invocations like “Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, have mercy on us,” etc., which are each echoed by the congregation.) The form reflects Sandburg’s conception of the poet as an agent for spiritual renewal.
Sandburg and contemporaries like Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Amy Lowell, taking their cues in part from Asian art and forms like the haiku, showed a special preference for the image as a poetic device, convinced that a well-wrought word “picture” could convey an unusual depth of meaning. “Hope Is a Tattered Flag,” little more than a series of images, focuses in large part on the natural world, in which it was thought the most essential truths about the world disclosed themselves, unobstructed as they are by the shambles of civilization. Like free verse, the image also appealed to Sandburg’s democratic instincts as a poet: relating as it does to sensory experience of the most basic kind, the image requires neither literary expertise nor extraordinary intellectual exertion. First and foremost, Sandburg thought of himself as a writer of the people.
The Great Depression
Hope is certainly a subject with timeless interest, but Sandburg’s poem, along with the whole of The People, Yes (the book in which this piece first
Compare & Contrast
- 1936: German troops occupy the Rhine land; Hitler and Mussolini proclaim the Rome-Berlin axis.
1999: Fifteen member states of the European Union establish a joint currency.
- 1935: Under the Social Security Act, the U.S. Congress establishes an old age pension system.
1998: The First White House Conference on Social Security is held. President Clinton warns that the Social Security Administration will begin to run short of funds in 2013.
- 1936: BBC London inaugurates television service.
1996: There are approximately 40 million users connected to the Internet world wide.
appeared), speaks to a very particular historical moment. The Great Depression (1929–1939) was the longest and most severe economic crisis that ever befell the industrialized nations. By 1933 almost half of U.S. banks had failed, and between twenty-five and thirty percent of the country’s workforce was unemployed. America was reduced, in the poet’s own words, to a nation of “skyscrapers . . . empty of tenants . . . of strong men groping for handholds.” Sandburg’s allusion to Per Albin Hansson, the Swedish prime minister who was to lead his own country through these dark days, makes it even clearer that the poem reflects upon contemporary social realities. First and foremost, “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” addresses itself to Americans of the Great Depression.
The New Deal
In view of the severity of this social crisis, the poem’s optimism might seem unwarranted, but as early as 1932, there were indeed at least some signs that the country was headed in the right direction. It was then that Americans tired of the do-nothing approach of the Hoover administration and rallied behind Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, a plan for federal government intervention on an unprecedented scale. The economic security of working men and women improved significantly: better workplace conditions were mandated, the beginnings of a social safety net were put in place, and millions of idle Americans were re-employed in massive public works projects. Sandburg himself, already a very popular figure in the United States, was a great admirer of Roosevelt and had used his access to the media to support the president enthusiastically. (This politicking is reputed to have lost him the friendship of Robert Frost.) In a letter to the president, the great Lincoln biographer insisted that Roosevelt was “the best light of democracy that has occupied the White House” since Honest Abe. As it became increasingly clear that the United States would enter World War II, the parallels between F. D. R. and America’s Civil War commander-in-chief became only more vivid.
Though Sandburg’s party affiliation had changed over time, the political sympathies behind “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” go back to his earliest years as a writer, when Sandburg helped to organize workers for the Wisconsin Social Democratic party. Though its opponents tried to paint it as such, the WSD was a far cry from the revolutionary socialist organizations that had sprung up elsewhere. It sought not the overthrow of the capitalist system, but a set of reforms that would protect workers from the worst abuses of big business. Sandburg left the party when it became a vehicle for German chauvinism on the eve of World War I, but he remained heartily committed to the workingman’s cause and gravitated quite naturally toward F. D. R., under whom many of the old Social Democratic aims were achieved.
“Hope Is a Tattered Flag” has not itself received much critical attention, but a sense of its impact on literary culture can be gleaned from reviews of the book in which it first appeared, The People, Yes, one of Sandburg’s major works. As is always the case with this particular writer, opinion on The People, Yes is mixed, with voices at both extremes. Willard Thorp, for example, calls it “one of the great American books,” while Mark Van Doren writes it off as “talk, nothing but talk.” Many confess admiration for the spirit of the work, a tribute to the common American who had weathered difficult times with quiet dignity. Moreover, it is widely acknowledged that Sandburg succeeds in presenting a very rich image of folk culture. “Not even Whitman,” Thorp insists, “knew America as he knew it.” But praise for the specifically poetic achievement of The People, Yes is more difficult to find, and where it does surface, it is usually qualified. Reviewing the book when it was published, Time magazine found great freshness in the language but, in the end, could not offer a more positive judgment than to say it “just narrowly missed a place with the best of U.S. poetry.” Much more widespread is the feeling expressed by Peter Jack, writing for the New York Times Book Review. Like most, Jack was willing to concede that Sandburg’s folkloric work possessed a certain sociological interest but added that “only one tenth is poetically interesting.” The poet seemed capable of a potent image here and a fluent line there, but his particularly slack brand of free verse did not have the energy to light up an entire poem. It was, in Jack’s words, “a book written by a poet, though no small part of it, taken separately could be called a poem.”
In the years since 1936, the weight of critical judgment has not shifted much. To be sure, as literary scholars have become more interested in historical questions, Sandburg has become a more interesting writer. But with those critics who still concern themselves with the complexities of abstract poetic form, he has not made much headway. More recently, for instance, Richard Crowder found in The People, Yes “clarity, color . . . suggestion . . . emotional energy . . . [and] melodic variety,” but little that would qualify as poetry. Some of these assessments seem too harsh for “Hope Is a Tattered Flag”; Crowder himself thought it one of the better passages in the book. But in the end most readers agree that despite its warm sentiment and homely images, the piece does not stack up formally with the intricate poetry of Sandburg’s best-known contemporaries.
Collins has written on nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American literature. In the following
“From the Chicago poems with which he first burst upon the literary scene to the Lincoln biography that secured him lasting fame, his writing celebrates a single hero— the common man, whose rugged shoulders, native stoicism, and common sense had seen him through decades of harsh living.”
essay, he explores the aims of Sandburg’s simple style in his poems.
Like many of Carl Sandburg’s poems, “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” is a simple text, little more than a series of images: “Hope is a tattered flag and a dream out of time. Hope is a heartspun word, the rainbow, the shadblow in white,” and on and on in this fashion for twenty lines. The critics have never much liked such writing. Bits and pieces please them (the sound of a phrase like “The blue hills beyond the smoke of the steel works” or a memorable picture like “The ten-cent crocus bulb blooming in a used-car salesroom”), but these things are not enough. Reviewing The People, Yes, in which “Hope” first appeared, Peter Jack spoke for most critics when he said “[it was] a book written by a poet . . . [but] no small part of it, taken separately could be called a poem.”
One does not have to be Sandburg’s biggest fan to wonder about pronouncements like Jack’s. To be capable of such a judgment, a reviewer must have fixed ideas about the essence of poetry, for centuries a hotly debated topic. Unfortunately, not much is said about this key issue. Perhaps because there is so much agreement among the critics, they do not feel obliged to explain themselves in any detail. To understand what is behind their low opinion of Sandburg, one needs to look at the historical background.
What Do I Read Next?
- Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (1926) is the book that first won Sandburg national attention, as well as the work for which he is most often remembered today. And like The People, Yes, in which “Hope” first appeared, it is also a tribute to the American spirit.
- The year “Hope” appeared (1936) also saw T. S. Eliot publish his Collected Poems. Though Sandburg was the more popular writer at the time, it was Eliot’s more intricate, esoteric poetry that would have lasting appeal for increasingly more sophisticated readers.
- Another contemporary of Sandburg was Robert Frost, whose carefully wrought verse was much more like Eliot’s than Sandburg’s. Frost’s A Further Range won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, and he and Sandburg were friends until a falling out over politics.
- John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy (1930, 1932, 1936) offers a sweeping fictional treatment of the early twentieth-century milieu in which Sandburg grew up, including vivid passages about the life of common folk in the Midwest and West.
By the time Sandburg began writing in the early twentieth century, literary criticism had become a professional specialty, and the training that was required to work in this field had a profound influence on critical taste. Having studied the literature of the ages (often in more than one language) and having developed sophisticated analytical skills, the professional reviewer quite naturally found most engaging that poetry which exhibited a deep kinship with the literary tradition (through the use of traditional forms, for example) and did so in ways that were complicated enough to allow him to exercise his advanced interpretive powers. Consider the poets whom the critical establishment rated most highly and whose names have since become synonymous with modernist poetry—Eliot, Pound, Frost, to name only the best known—all of them steeped in the cultural tradition and all practitioners of the most intricate art. Small wonder that the homespun rhythms and simple imagery of a poem like “Hope” seemed underdeveloped.
Sandburg’s detractors are certainly entitled to their opinion. Given their impressive cultural attainments, it’s more than understandable that they prefer Eliot and others, without question superb writers; but they create an impression that Sandburg fails as a poet in some absolute sense, and this is going a bit too far. No, he never penned anything as finely crafted as the verse of the great modernists, but neither was it his intention to do so; indeed, such qualities would have been totally out of place in poetry for Sandburg’s ideal reader—the average person during a time when a college education, along with the literary sophistication that it usually brings, was still something of a rarity. It’s certainly enlightening to compare him to other poets of his day, but a fair assessment of his writing should also ask whether the assessment was faithful to Sandburg’s own conception of art.
If the work of someone as prolific as Sandburg could be summed up in a phrase, it’s tempting to borrow one of America’s most hallowed: “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” From the Chicago poems with which he first burst upon the literary scene to the Lincoln biography that secured him lasting fame, his writing celebrates a single hero—the common man, whose rugged shoulders, native stoicism, and common sense had seen him through decades of harsh living. He was not the only American writer to champion the nation’s masses, but none wrote with more firsthand experience than he, this son of semi-literate immigrant laborers, a young man who rode the boxcars and lived among the hoboes. With the people and by the people: both in his subject matter and in his bones, he is a people’s writer. But what is even more important to keep in mind in assessing the achievement of a poem like “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” is that it is also for the people. Sandburg hoped that such writing would help the masses crystallize their identity and in doing so come one crucial step closer to controlling their own destiny.
Did Sandburg succeed in making poetry that harmonized with his populism? Does the style of a text like “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” seem an effective one for a people’s writer? One of the most distinctive qualities of the poem lies in its “free verse” style: the rhythm is closer to that of speech, more natural than traditional verse with its metronome-like iambs and trochees. Without question, free verse is better suited to Sandburg’s purposes. It’s not that the effect of metrical poetry would be entirely lost on the unsophisticated—rhythm always has purely sensuous dimension—but good metrical verse distinguishes itself by subtle departures from the root pattern, and such craftiness is really only evident to readers who have both an acquaintance with technical matters like the dactyl and spondee, as well as a habit of very close study of literary texts. Sandburg happily dispenses with these obligations, more or less superfluous in poetry for the common man, and in doing so enjoys the greater liberty of free verse.
The more natural rhythm of “Hope” is also much more in harmony with Sandburg’s conception of the poet—someone whose defining qualities set him apart from, but not above, his fellow men. What is unique about him is merely his focus: by choice or personal inclination, the poet is tuned to the universe of essential truths. He is the (spiritual) eyes and voice of the people, just as much a part of them as such faculties are part of the individual. What special powers he possesses flow from the development of capacities all humans have. What should the poetry of such a writer sound like? Should he speak in the tutored rhythms of metrical verse or in a more natural style of an ordinary person opened to the wonders of creation?
Another distinctive feature of “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” is its imagery. As has already been said, there is little else to the poem. Compared with the work of Eliot and Pound, richly textured as it was with an impressive array of poetic devices, Sandburg’s minimalism might seem simplistic. But here again, the poet has good reasons for writing the way he does. Like the metrical forms alluded to above, the tropes of the great modernists required a fairly high degree of cultural sophistication to be fully appreciated. Consider their use of classical allusion: In his famous “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” Eliot writes that “Sweeney guards the hornéd gate,” but unless the reader is well versed in Greek legend, she/he would not know that only untrue dreams come through that portal. Sandburg too sometimes employs allusion in “Hope” (for example, “. . . the voice of the prime minister of Sweden carried / Across the sea. . . .”), but such references, though obscure to early twenty-first-century readers, would be understood by anyone who read the newspaper in Sandburg’s day. In any case, these allusive images are not the poet’s mainstay; most of the poem consists of references to nature, familiar to anyone. But it’s not just a question of frame of reference. Sandburg also prefers the image because it aims more at feelings than intellect. Compare, for example, a natural image like the rainbow to a poetic device like the synecdoche. While the meaning of the first is accessible to anyone who has seen a rainbow and felt its magic, the second depends not only on one’s being aware that in poetry the part sometimes stands for the whole but also on thinking through the deeper significance of that abstract relation. It’s not that Sandburg believes his readers are incapable of thought, but that he knows that aesthetic experience remains largely affective and only becomes intellectual through a kind of training few of his readers have had.
In “Hope Is a Tattered Flag,” as in his work more generally, Sandburg gives his vision a form that would have made sense to the average reader of the day, not an uncultivated person, but someone whose frame of reference was more likely to be the oral tradition and the emerging mass culture (newspapers, movies, the radio, and later television) rather than high art as it was then being defined within elite institutions. Some critics have asked whether this strategy actually succeeded. He was very popular with the people, but were they actually reading his poetry or just embracing a celebrity? Surely those who were reading poetry were much more likely to have read Sandburg’s than that of any of his contemporaries, but it’s worth adding that even if his work were not widely read, it had valuable meaning for his audience in what it represented: in embracing a people’s poet, the people were asserting their worthiness of poetry, and this above all else was what the writer hoped to provoke.
Source: Brian Collins, Critical Essay on “Hope Is a Tattered Flag,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Mahony is an English instructor at Wayne County Community College in Detroit, Michigan. In the following essay, she discusses the role of Sandburg’s poem in the interconnected themes in his collection The People, Yes.
“Hope Is a Tattered Flag” is one of a series of poems in The People, Yes in which Sandburg reminds the American nation of its traditional ability to overcome obstacles. This book, written while much of the United States was still struggling under the devastating hardships of the depression, is a varied collection made up of poems, proverbs, prophecies, folk tales, anecdotes, clichés, conversations, and several other both literary and non-literary categories. Sandburg’s intention in this work was to provide a sweeping retrospective portrait of the American past and to reaffirm his positive vision of the American future. Thus, this collection
“The range of the comments and viewpoints throughout these 107 sections covers the range of hopes and despair, honor and corruption, in the society. In spite of all setbacks, however, Sandburg’s ultimate message is that ‘the people’ will triumph.”
of 107 widely different types of writing creates a patchwork quilt of Americana, complete with glories and failures, wisdom and foolishness. Both the rich and poor, the exploited and the exploiter are portrayed. For example, a poem about the suicide of “Mr. Eastman, the Kodak king of exactly how many millions he wasn’t sure” is followed by one about Mildred Klinghofer, wife of “an editor, a lawyer, a grocer, and a retired farmer.” Sandburg quotes a meat wholesaler and a restaurant cashier, “an elder Negro,” and “a Kansas city girl out of finishing school.” In the “Notes for a Preface,” which preceded Sandburg’s 1950 Collected Poems, he describes his desire to make The People, Yes an affirmation “of swarming and brawling Democracy.”
Sandburg intended The People, Yes to be viewed as a whole; therefore, the separate segments repeat, reinforce, and even at times contradict each other, ultimately forming a sum that is greater than any individual part. One indication of this is that no individual piece is given its own title. Each is simply identified by number. Thus, while section 16, “Hope Is a Tattered Flag,” may be viewed as an individual poem consisting of a catalogue of definitions, it is also important to see the poem’s role in the entire work. Sandburg employs several interconnected themes or ideas that run throughout the book, intensifying one another as they reappear and intertwine. Some of the most prominent are the importance of hopes and dreams, the existence of the family of man, the frequent exploitation of the masses, and the underlying wisdom of the people, which ultimately overcomes even man’s own greed or suffering.
The opening poem, which presents one of the main themes—the unity of all humankind—is set at the biblical Tower of Babel. God, described as a “whimsical fixer,” suddenly creates a multitude of languages, causing instant lack of communication. Sandburg, however, indicates that, in spite of the array of different tongues, common bonds in the “family of man” still exist. The poem notes that even though the languages are different, the questions asked are the same: “Who are you?” and “Where do we go from here?” Many of the subsequent sections in the book then present the different faces of America, hoping to provide an answer to the first question. Others deal with the second as they contemplate the past, the present, and the future.
“Hope Is a Tattered Flag” is one of a group of poems that deal with history and the future. The two poems that immediately precede it explain why hope is so necessary and, at times, so fragile. Section 14 restates the theme introduced in the first poem: We are all a part of the family of man: “Everybody is you and me and all the others.” However, that same section reminds the reader that humankind is still separated by language and nationality. One result of this is war, and ordinary individuals always pay the cost of war. Sandburg introduces the image of the flag in this section, emphasizing the contradictions that he believes are innate in warfare:
Two countries with two flags
are nevertheless one land, one blood, one people–
can this be so?
And the earth belongs to the family of man?
can this be so?
Section 15 continues the description of war, including a brief catalogue of definitions of hate, providing a counterpart to “Hope Is a Tattered Flag.” It also notes that inevitably war will wear itself out, since it creates “Hunger and filth and a stink too heavy to stand.” However, Sandburg’s images of the resulting peace are harsh, reminding the reader that peace does not bring instant happiness and comfort. While it is difficult to rebuild physical structures after the destruction caused by war, it may be even more difficult to erase the hatred which war engenders. Although the poem mentions the “bright new grass” of peacetime, the section concludes with these pictures:
And the bloated horse carcass points four feet to
And the tank and caterpillar tractors are buried
deep in shell holes
And rust flakes the big guns and time rots the gas
masks on skeleton faces.
These images may help to explain why hope’s flag is tattered.
“Hope Is a Tattered Flag” provides an emotional contrast to the bitter realities of the previous sections. It also contains a partial answer to the second question that was posed at the beginning of The People, Yes: “Where do we go from here?” Sandburg intended that his work provide hope and a vision of the future for a people still dealing with the grim consequences of both the depression and the war. Since hope is an abstract concept, the precise meaning of which changes according to the individual, many metaphors throughout the poem are deliberately ambiguous. Because of this, the lines can encompass many different dreams and desires: the celestial beauty of the northern lights may inspire one person, while another may feel more secure trusting the four-leaf clover tucked inside a pocket. Sandburg begins his catalogue with two images, the “tattered flag” and the “dream out of time,” both of which employ emotional appeal rather than specific, concrete details where the comparison in the metaphor is clearly delineated because of the use of commonly understood terms. However, referring to the previous sections illuminates the title image of the tattered flag since it recalls those flags of war, which figured so prominently in the last poems. The adjective “tattered” provides another indication of conflict: thus the opening image portrays hope as a survivor, emerging not unscathed from battle. From this beginning, Sandburg develops the poem using a series of primarily abstract images of hope. Note that these images fall into a variety of categories.
Several of the images present hope as a simple human quality, part of the fabric of daily life. Describing it as “a heartspun word” combines the idea of homespun, meaning simple or plain—part of the lives of ordinary working people—with the image of being woven from the heart’s desires. Other images in this category include the “ten-cent crocus bulb blooming in a used-car salesroom.” The specific adjectives here highlight the homespun quality, as well as the need for hope, since even when Sandburg wrote these words, buying or selling a used car required a leap of faith. Other lines in this vein contain the horseshoe and the kiss.
Another grouping contrasts a hopeful but distant image with the harsh reality of the present, demonstrating that dreams can flourish even in adversity. The coal mines and steel mills are places of brutal, backbreaking labor, yet even in such places the evening star remains untouched by human grief. The birds sing throughout both war and peace. These untouchable symbols of hope signal the permanence of beauty and speak to man’s spirit. However, because these symbols are so remote, they provide a reminder that hope is not a promise that will necessarily be kept. Far-off dreams may prove as unattainable as the northern lights. But in place of a guarantee, hope provides a vision, an answer to the question, Where are we going? Hope gives direction for the future by pointing to a distant ideal. This idea is conveyed most clearly in the category of lines in which hope conveys a promise of a better future as a dream and a vision of “yonder, yonder.” A separate category features the kind of hope that bubbles up as a surprise, appearing “where least expected.” The final classification, which combines the theme of hope with the theme of the family of man, dominates the poem’s final stanza. The lines are filled with visualizations of individuals from all over the world, celebrating the Christmas spirit with bells and Bach and chorales. They carry on with life, in spite of strife and hardship, living in the present, trusting in the future.
Section 19, which opens with the line, “The people, yes, the people,” expands this final message of hope. Here Sandburg again uses a catalogue to create a panorama of American life. Many widely different people and situations are presented: the homemaker, the job hunter, the traffic cop, the criminal. The eventual conclusion of this list, however, is that the heroes are ordinary people who “give all they’ve got and ask no questions and they take what comes and what more do you want?”
It is important to stress that the themes of unity and hope are only one strand in the interwoven themes of The People, Yes. Sandburg’s work is not blind to the sorrows and miseries of the world. He is extremely critical of those who exploit the ordinary individual. These exploiters range from national leaders who send the masses off to wars to the rich who build empires on the labor of the poor. The poem acknowledges that even hope is often misplaced since advertisers and politicians and gamblers frequently profit by betraying the dreams of the masses.
The range of the comments and viewpoints throughout these 107 sections covers the range of hopes and despair, honor and corruption, in the society. In spite of all setbacks, however, Sandburg’s ultimate message is that “the people” will triumph. This is made clear in two separate letters in which he discussed the book. The first, written to Henry Luce, founder of Time magazine warns that the powerful “can’t monkey with the public mind as they do without consequences.” In the second, to his friend Oliver Barrett, Sandburg summarizes the theme of The People, Yes:
One of my theses, in so far as I have any, in this piece, hovers around the point that the masses of people have gone wrong often in the past and will again in the future—but in the main their direction is right.
That thesis, with its complex, even clouded, message of hope provides the core of section 107, the book’s conclusion:
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people are so peculiar in renewal and
You can’t laugh off their ability to take it. . . .
In the darkness with a great bundle of grief the
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for
keeps, the people march:
“Where to? what next?”
Throughout his career, Sandburg was perceived as a poet of the people, a spokesman for the common man. He had experienced poverty in his childhood; during his adolescence he traveled the country, working at a variety of jobs as a simple laborer. This background gave him enormous insight into the daily lives of working-class Americans, insights that he turned into poetry celebrating their struggles and their dreams. Nowhere in Sandburg’s work is this as apparent as in The People, Yes with its vision of hope as “a tattered flag.”
Source: Mary Mahony, Critical Essay on “Hope Is a Tattered Flag,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Bussey holds a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor’s degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she demonstrates that Sandburg’s poem represents a successful union of Sandburg’s regionalism and imagism for the purpose of encouraging readers.
Carl Sandburg’s poetry is known for its imagery, regionalism, realism, and colloquial language. In many ways, “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” is typical of his work. The language is plain and accessible to everyone, and the poem has a patriotic appeal. It is written in free verse, is rich in imagery, and has a decidedly Midwestern sensibility. What makes “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” memorable is the way Sandburg applies regional images to the theme of hope.
The Midwestern regionalism that characterizes so much of Sandburg’s work grows out of the poet’s roots in Illinois, where he lived much of his life. As the son of a railroad blacksmith who was a Swedish immigrant, Sandburg was familiar with working-class people and environments. He is often called a poet of the people because he wrote for and about the common man and woman. He also believed in America as a land of opportunity and in Americans as people of strong character. Amid the hardships of the Great Depression, Sandburg sought to comfort and encourage his readers through his poetry. “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” was published in The People, Yes in 1936, a time of great struggle and uncertainty. In Illinois, people faced the twin terrors of unemployment and mob violence (especially in Chicago) during Prohibition (1919–1933). Sandburg seems to allude to the joblessness of the depression when he writes, “And tall skyscrapers practically empty of tenants / And the hands of strong men groping for handholds. . . .”
Sandburg is often associated with the imagist poets, and “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” provides an excellent example of this type of poetry. Imagist poets use everyday language and straightforward images to say exactly what they mean. While the language may seem casual and offhand, it is actually quite precise and carefully chosen. Imagist poets also avoid trite expressions; address a wide variety of subject matter, not just romantic or exalted subjects; and craft fresh, concrete images. Many of the images Sandburg uses in “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” do not seem especially poetic outside the context of the poem, but within the poem they are fitting and effective. The result of the straightforward language is that readers easily grasp the structure and main theme of the poem, rather than struggling, line by line, to make sense of it.
Among the best-known imagist poets is Ezra Pound, who explained that the power of an image lies in its ability to depict a complex emotion in a concise way. With “Hope Is a Tattered Flag,” Sandburg exemplifies Pound’s explanation by offering the reader a series of diverse, compact images unified by the theme of hope. Each image illumines a slightly different facet of the complex emotion of hope. These images include a tattered flag, which flies proudly despite its weathered appearance; a rainbow, which is nature’s beautiful ending to storms; ten-cent crocus bulbs, which lie hidden and seemingly lifeless beneath the ground until they emerge in the spring, full of life; a luckpiece, which is nothing more than a small object such as a penny or a rabbit’s foot that encourages its owner; and spring grass, whose lush greenery changes the landscape as it heralds the beginning of a fruitful new season. That these are not rare or unusual objects suggests that hope is as commonplace as it is precious. The range of objects represented demonstrates that hope takes many forms. While the symbols are humble, everyday things, readers should note that each has some degree of permanence or regularity; even those that are fleeting (such as rainbows and crocus blooms) can be counted on to return.
Other images of hope include the evening star, the blue hills, and the northern lights, all of which existed in the past and will exist in the future. Similarly, the birds “go on singing” and the spring grass appears “where least expected.” The rich beauty of the natural world persists, even through times of poverty and hardship. Sandburg writes, “Hope is an echo, hope ties itself yonder, yonder.” Here he ties hope to the past, perhaps alluding to memories of better times, and to the future, when, true to nature’s cycles, better times are sure to return.
The images Sandburg chooses for this poem exemplify the regionalism that runs throughout his work. Sandburg’s love for and connection to the Midwest is evident in his detailed portrayal. Such details include the “shadblow a flowering bush in white,” the “blue hills beyond the smoke of the steel works,” the “ten-cent crocus bulb blooming in a used-car salesroom,” and the “horseshoe over the door.” Many of the images are grounded in specific environments. Sandburg writes that hope is “the evening star,” which is a compelling vision on its own; but by adding “inviolable over the coal mines,” Sandburg sets the evening star in the Midwestern sky. The poem’s references to coal mines, “smoke of the steel works,” and a “used-car salesroom” create a setting for the poem. This poem is not just about hope; it is mostly about hope in a particular place and for certain people—people who labor in mines and factories, buy used cars, hang horseshoes over their doors, and hear music from distant lands on their radios. By giving many of the images a context (another example: “The shimmer of northern lights across a bitter winter night. . . .”), Sandburg accomplishes two things: he localizes the imagery, and he controls the pace of the poem so that it does not feel hurried or crowded.
This poem, like so many of Sandburg’s, swells with patriotism. It is reminiscent of the lyrics of
“The images Sandburg chooses for this poem exemplify the regionalism that runs throughout his work. Sandburg’s love for and connection to the Midwest is evident in his detailed portrayal.”
“America, the Beautiful,” which exalt “purple mountains’ majesty” and “amber waves of grain.” Both the song and Sandburg’s poem scan the landscape, glorifying every sight along the way. While the song honors America as a whole, “Hope Is a Tattered Flag” focuses on the region Sandburg loves. The beginning and ending of the poem, however, are broader in scope.
The poem opens with the symbol of a nation portrayed as a symbol of hope: “Hope is a tattered flag and a dream of time.” This flag has been beaten around, but not beaten down, and so it represents a nation that has been tried, but not defeated. Later in the poem, Sandburg takes readers abroad as he describes listening to “strings from Japan, bells from Moscow, / . . . the voice of the prime minister of Sweden” on the radio, then returns them to the United States with the mention of “Bach being broadcast from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.” At first, it may seem as if he is taking readers far away to the Middle East, but this Bethlehem is in Pennsylvania. Here Sandburg is referring to the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, a vocal ensemble founded in 1898. With mention of the Bach Choir, the poet brings readers home to the United States.
Lines 13–16 tell the reader that it is Christmas. The Bach Choir is well known for its Christmas performances, Salvation Army Santas are a holiday tradition, and line 16 mentions “children singing chorals for the Christ child.” The images borrowed from a Christian holiday that celebrates salvation and renewal end the poem with a crescendo of hope.
The Salvation Army is a fitting organization to mention in the last line because while it is an international organization, founded in London, it is also a fixture of working-class Midwestern communities like those described throughout the poem. The Salvation Army bridges distant lands and local landscapes; its familiar songs bring hope to people everywhere.
With its many and varied images of hope and its references to music, the poem might be interpreted as a chorus of voices, with each line spoken by a different speaker. Rather than a mere list of images that represent hope, the poem seems to offer a community of individuals, each telling what hope means to her or him. Sandburg shows that hope is everywhere and that it is for everyone. Sandburg himself is best able to perceive hope in his native landscape, among the people he knows best, which gives this poem vitality and realism. The images are especially powerful because Sandburg offers them as metaphors rather than similes. The statement that hope is the “birds who go on singing to their mates in peace, war, peace. . . .” (rather than the statement that hope is like birds who go on singing) makes hope tangible.
In “Hope Is a Tattered Flag,” Sandburg takes images from Midwestern geography and Midwestern lives to paint a picture of hope. The poem is a reminder to readers enduring dark times that their familiar surroundings brim with the promise of a better future. For anyone familiar with the sights described, the poem is a sure source of hope.
Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on “Hope Is a Tattered Flag,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Allen, Gay Wilson, “Carl Sandburg,” in American Writers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974, pp. 575–98.
Crowder, Richard, Carl Sandburg, Twayne, 1964.
Hart, James D., “Sandburg, Carl,” in The Oxford Companion to American Literature, Oxford University, 1995, p. 585.
Hendrick, George, and Willene Hendrick, eds., “Introduction,” in Carl Sandburg: Selected Poems, Harcourt Brace, 1996, pp. xi–xxix.
Jack, Peter M., “Carl Sandburg Writes in the True Accents of the People,” in New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1936, p. 3.
“Poets and People,” in Time, August 31, 1936, p. 47.
Sandburg, Carl, The Letters of Carl Sandburg, edited by Herbert Mitgong, Harcourt, Brace, World, 1968.
———, “Notes for a Preface,” in Collected Poems, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1950, pp. xxiii–xxxi.
———, The People, Yes, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936.
Thorp, Willard, “The New Poetry,” in Literary History of the United States, Macmillan, 1963, pp. 1181–84.
Crowder, Richard, Carl Sandburg, Twayne, 1964.
Crowder’s clear and concise overview of the writer’s life and work remains a valuable introductory text.
Niven, Penelope, Carl Sandburg: A Biography, University of Illinois, 1994.
Of the full-length studies of the poet’s life, Niven’s is the most meticulous, and includes several photographs of this very visible public figure.
Salwak, Dale, Carl Sandburg: A Reference Guide, G. K. Hall, 1988.
With over 1000 excerpts from the criticism on Sandburg, this volume allows readers to get a sense of the range of opinion without having to page through dozens of literary journals.
Terkel, Studs, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, Pantheon, 1986.
One of the most vivid accounts of the period when “Hope” was written is Terkel’s compilation of personal narratives, many from ordinary Americans.
Watkins, T. H., The Great Depression: America in the 1930s, Little, Brown and Co., 1995.
Watkin’s recent and very readable history of the 1930s is a good place to begin an inquiry into the social and cultural background of Sandburg’s work.