Poetry Friday: Bronzes

Tonight, under 5-6 inches of new snow in Chicago (on top of what remains from last week), it seemed like a good night to post and ponder a poem about Chicago in winter.  Who better than the city’s most ardent lover, Carl Sandburg, to lead the way?  This is “Bronzes” in two parts, from his 1916 book, Chicago Poems:

I

The bronze General Grant riding a bronze horse in Lincoln Park
Shrivels in the sun by day when the motor cars whirr by in long processions going somewhere to keep appointment for dinner and matinees and buying and selling
Though in the dusk and nightfall when high waves are piling
On the slabs of the promenade along the lake shore near by
I have seen the general dare the combers come closer
And make to ride his bronze horse out into the hoofs and guns of the storm.

II

I cross Lincoln Park on a winter night when the snow is falling.
Lincoln in bronze stands among the white lines of snow, his bronze forehead meeting soft echoes of the newsies crying forty thousand men are dead along the Yser, his bronze ears listening to the mumbled roar of the city at his bronze feet.
A lithe Indian on a bronze pony, Shakespeare seated with long legs in bronze, Garibaldi in a bronze cape, they hold places in the cold, lonely snow to-night on their pedestals and so they will hold them past midnight and into the dawn.

A few thoughts arise.  The two halves are in an odd tension for me.  In the first, Grant is a sort of bully, his statue issuing schoolyard dares to passers-by.  In the daylight, in the bustle of a living city, he is a shrinking figure, but when the shadows lengthen he is empowered somehow.  Maybe Sandburg is drawing a sort of symbolic connection here—the shadowy parts of our own minds are where our more violent thoughts tend to remain.  But I think all in all the first half doesn’t reach me (am I misreading it?).

The second half, on the other hand, is so much more poignant.  I can imagine what it would be like for Lincoln to stand there, fixed in place as a world grows up to find itself so much more efficient at killing than he could have dreamed in 1862, even in his worst nightmares.  I feel like there’s a really rich subtext here—Sandburg gives me a lot to draw together.  Lincoln mute in the snow along with a Native American.  Garibaldi, Italy’s Lincoln (and no stranger to war), and the Bard of Stratford.  I wonder what it means that they all keep vigil through the long night.  What does that night signify, and what will they see in the dawn?  It feels very centered to me, as though the statues tie us to some of our noblest aspirations, and that in some way they will guard what is best and brightest about humanity.  It will survive this winter, the war and the darkness.  But why and how, I cannot say.

Recently I’ve been posting a lot of poems where I knew what I wanted to say, and where I wanted to take them.  Obviously tonight I’ve gone a different road, and I hope it will encourage at least one or two of you (if not more!) to offer your own thoughts.  Am I making too much out of a very simple (and maybe mediocre) poem, simply because I like some of Sandburg’s other stuff?  Or, conversely, am I too limited in my reading, especially of the Grant section—are there thoughts here I haven’t sorted yet?  And either way, why am I not seeing a more Chicago-specific read of a poem explicitly set here, and published in a book called “Chicago Poems”?  Even if you think I have it just right, I hope you’ll chime in.  Always good to know somebody out there still reads these, after all.  Peace to you tonight, wherever you are on a winter’s evening.

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5 comments on “Poetry Friday: Bronzes

  1. Bonnie says:

    The section that I connect with the most is the Grant one. I feel much more sympathy and understanding given for him than I do in the other part.

    During the day he is stuck in a sort of living death, watching the world go by, shriveling as the cars drive by with purpose, while he is stuck on his horse, in the past, unable to interact with the modern world.

    And then at night, as a storm brews, sending waves to lick at his feet, he wants to ride off into the battle of the storm and relive some of his former glory, but even then he is still just as frozen and impotent as he is during the daytime.

    If I had to give it some deeper meaning, I would say there are people who feel like that. Mere figureheads, where once they were essential.

    Depressing, but I’ve always liked poems personifying inanimate objects, so I enjoyed it.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Hmmm, I think I like your reading better than mine. I don’t know if I can jump in with the whole thing, but I think the images are less warlike and more a sort of longing for the good old days of glory (or something like that) now that I see how you take it. Thanks! 🙂

  2. Bonnie says:

    By the way, I interpreted combers as waves, not as passerbys, which led us to draw different conclusions.

  3. This poem struck a resonance in my (sadly shallow and underdeveloped) literary experience. It reminded me of Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”. He speaks of being gathered into “the artifice of eternity” in which he is fashioned into some sort of golden, mechanical bird that eternally chirps away “to keep a drowsy Emperor awake.”

    Now I find myself pondering the idea of eternity as artifice rather than doing the code review I’m supposed to have finished last week!

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Jeff, nice connection to Yeats’ poem, which I remember well but didn’t connect to this. I think the comparison is interesting, in part because I think the notion of existence-as-statue is very different for the two men. Yeats’s golden artifice is active: it sings, it tells of past and future. He becomes an oracle, or an angel. Whereas Sandburg’s bronze figures seem more inert to me—either, in the 2nd part, they keep a lonely and silent vigil, or, in the 1st part, they yearn for action (as Bonnie points out, it seems like a commentary on old age’s impotence? if I’m not overinterpreting her). If I want to really extend the trendlines as far as I can, I say that Yeats’s poem celebrates old age as the culmination of life and the opportunity to share the richness of that life with others, while Sandburg’s sees the dangers of old age (or being made an icon….I’m less sure his is old-age-oriented, though I’m increasingly convinced it is) as something that ultimately separates you from the world and makes you incapable of anything beyond a mute watchfulness. I like Sandburg, but Yeats gives me hope: thanks for reminding me of him. 🙂

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