16 pages 32 minutes read

Carl Sandburg


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1916

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Summary and Study Guide


“Languages” is a free-verse lyrical poem by the acclaimed American poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967). The poem first appeared in the collection Chicago Poems, published by Henry Holt in 1916. Chicago Poems helped to cement Sandburg’s reputation as a rising star of American letters, leading to a long career in which he would eventually win three Pulitzer Prizes. While Sandburg is notable for frequently drawing upon American culture, history, and society as inspiration for his poetry and prose, “Languages” has a more universal theme: In this poem, Sandburg depicts language as both an inherent part of the human experience and as something bittersweet in its mutability and transience.

Poet Biography

Carl Sandburg was born in 1878, in Illinois, to an impoverished family of Swedish immigrants. Due to his family’s poverty, Sandburg’s formal education was disrupted while still a boy: He left school in his early teens to begin working, and he held a succession of odd jobs throughout his adolescence. After a brief stint in the United States Army during the Spanish-American War in 1898, Sandburg returned to formal education by enrolling at Lombard College. Sandburg studied at Lombard for several years but left in 1903 without formally receiving a degree. Encouraged by his mentors at Lombard, Sandburg published his first poetry collection in 1904.

Sandburg began his professional writing career as a journalist for the Chicago Daily News, but he soon branched out into various areas of writing, including more poetry and works of prose. Sandburg received the Pulitzer Prize three times: the first, for his poetry collection Cornhuskers in 1918, again for poetry in 1950 for his Complete Poems, and once for prose for the biography Abraham Lincoln: The War Years (1939), which still remains critically acclaimed in the field. Sandburg was a prolific writer and continued to publish various poetry collections throughout his long life. He also toured America, playing music, singing songs, and reciting poetry. These performances included his ballads and other verses, many of which appear in The American Songbag and The New American Songbag (1950), and they were accompanied by Sandburg playing banjo or guitar.

Sandburg married Lilian Steichen in 1908, and together they had three daughters. Sandburg died in 1967, at the age of 89, and he was cremated and interred in his home state of Illinois. Sandburg is still recognized as one of the major figures of 20th-century American letters. He was inducted in 2018 into the American Poets’ Corner in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, in New York City.

Poem Text

Sandburg, Carl. “Languages.” 1916. The Poetry Foundation.


The poem opens with the speaker declaring that a language can never be fully dominated or contained, and that it evades all of mankind’s attempts at rendering it permanent. The speaker compares language to a river, which can emerge and break new ground at various points in history. The speaker continues to use natural imagery in describing the ways in which language can connect different places and people by serving as a common link between them. The speaker then moves on to discussing the transient nature of language, emphasizing how living languages are inevitably reduced to—at best—a written form of the language that may or may not even be understood by future generations. The poem ends with the speaker warning the reader that even the songs humans sing today will be lost to time, just like the wind of many years past.