Memorial Day: I Am the Grass, I Cover All

Site of Pickett's Charge, Gettysburg

Site of Pickett’s Charge. The Battle of Gettysburg saw around 50,000 casualties.

Memorial Day

When I was a child, we had a record of Carl Sandburg singing a number of songs, including “The Hearse Song.” That’s the one with the line “the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.” It was apparently popular in World War I and I can understand why: its gallows humor would have appealed to soldiers confronted with the horrors of trench warfare. Laughing at death is a means of coping with it.

I thought about that song as I revisited the well-known Sandburg poem that I share today. In “Grass” Sandburg again talks about death in a matter-of-fact manner, and again the outer stoicism masks deep grief. Nature appears indifferent when soldiers die and their loved ones mourn. The grass grows and we forget.

Memorial Day is important because it interrupts the smooth passage of time, pushing against forgetfulness. Here’s the poem:

Grass

By Carl Sandburg

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. 
Shovel them under and let me work— 
                                          I am the grass; I cover all. 

And pile them high at Gettysburg 
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun. 
Shovel them under and let me work. 
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor: 
                                          What place is this? 
                                          Where are we now? 

                                          I am the grass. 
                                          Let me work.

Another well-known poem/song that picks up on this theme—only with flowers rather than grass—is Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” 

As grimly fatalistic as both poems are, however, the two populist poets are surely aware of how another people’s poet deals with death and grass. In Song of Myself Walt Whitman assures us that, although we may die in our individual selves, we become part of a collective self. Death, in other words, is not an end but simply a transmutation into the filter and fibre of America. Here are the concluding lines to Whitman’s poem:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Imagine that those whom we memorialize today have stopped somewhere and are waiting for us.

This entry was posted in Sandburg (Carl), Seeger (Pete), Whitman (Walt) and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • Carl

    A perfect synthesis. Thanks, Robin.

  • Robin

    Thanks, Carl.


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