Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders: (1-5)
The poem begins on an intense note. It's addressed to Chicago, which the speaker personifies. It's "stormy, husky, brawling," and it has "Big Shoulders." Oh, and it's also, we find out in the first line, a "Hog Butcher for the World." Whether or not you are a lover of bacon (mmm bacon), you've got to admit that this is a pretty violent start to a poem. It begins with blood! Consider yourself warned: Chicago is a tough place filled with tough people.
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys. And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again. And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger. (6-8)
Here the speaker acknowledges all of the bad things about Chicago. Yes, it has painted women, murderers, and starving women and children. He doesn't deny it. Chicago is not sounding so wonderful right about now, but the speaker embraces it just the same.
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning. Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities; Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness, (10-12)
Despite the starving people, murderers, and prostitutes, the speaker loves his city. He dares us to name a place filled with more verve, life, and intensity. What do you think: does the speaker look past all of Chicago's problems? Is he being naïve? Or does he love the seedy side of life as much as he loves the city's majesty?
Here, Chicago seems to be in a never-ending cycle of "building, breaking, rebuilding." This is how the city (indeed, any city) grows. There is as much destruction as there is construction. This is really important to the speaker: the life of a city is constantly moving, moving, moving forward. And remember, this poem is written in the early twentieth-century, when the entire nation was industrializing, not just Chicago. Everywhere is building, breaking, rebuilding.
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle, Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people, Laughing! Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation. (20-23)
Finally, Chicago is portrayed as a laughing, burly, brawling, strong young man. Chicago may be filled with wickedness, but the speaker locates it as a hub of America. It's right in the middle of the country, and it's more vibrant, bustling, and fierce than any other city. Take that, New York, Boston, and/or San Fran!