Study Guide

Chicago Themes

  • Visions of Chicago

    "Chicago" is a poem about the great city of Chicago that embraces everything that the city has to offer, from hog butchers to railroads, from construction sites to prostitutes. (Okay, so Da Bears and Michael Jordan aren't here, but that was before Carl Sandburg's time.) The poem takes in all of the city (and not just the good parts) and presents it to us joyfully—perhaps even ecstatically. The poem paints a portrait of a vibrant, cunning, wicked, joyful, laughing place, and acknowledges all of the complexities of modern city life. This Chicago is not for the faint of heart, and Sandburg wouldn't have it any other way.

    Questions About Visions of Chicago

    1. Do you think that Sandburg is presenting Chicago accurately? Why or why not? 
    2. What can you tell about the speaker from his portrayal of Chicago? 
    3. Does this poem make you want to visit the windy city? Why or why not? 
    4. How much do you think that Chicago has changed from Sandburg's day to our own?

    Chew on This

    Chicago seems like a terrible, horrible, no good very bad place, filled with murderers, prostitutes, and starving people.

    Chicago is an awesome city! After all, what's a city without a murderer or two?

  • Strength and Skill

    If there's one thing you take away from reading this poem, it's that Chicago is a tough place for tough people. It's a rapidly industrializing city, and we actually see it being built, wrecked, and rebuilt. The poem is a little obsessed with the strength and power of the city, and, by extension, the strength and power of the Chicagoans themselves. And this was before Al Capone showed up on the scene! In fact, the poem's personification basically portrays the city itself as a strapping young laborer—a strapping young laborer who is building the city itself. "Chicago" is not just about the powerful position of the city, but about the brute strength of the people who built it.

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. Can you differentiate between Sandburg's description of the city and his description of the city's inhabitants?
    2. What is the relationship between Chicago and the other cities in America? Does the poem find the same kind of strength in every city? 
    3. What is the relationship between power and industrialization in the poem? 
    4. What is the relationship between strength and violence in the poem?

    Chew on This

    The city of Chicago isn't strong; its inhabitants are strong. (It must be all that tool making and wheat stacking they do.) The city of Chicago is powerful because its inhabitants are so violent. (It must be all that hog butchering they do.)

  • Love

    We usually think about love as being between human beings. You probably love your parents, your boyfriend, your great-grandma. But Sandburg, well, this dude loved Chicago. And not even just its people. He loved the whole big, messy, brutal city in all of its complexity, and he loved it as much for its faults as for its strengths. In some ways, "Chicago" is a really intense (though not exactly heartwarming) love poem for a brutish man that is the figure for the city itself. And we can't help but wonder: can Chicago ever love the speaker back?

    Questions About Love

    1. How is love for a city different than love for a human being? 
    2. Can you really ever love something that can't love you back?
    3. Is calling "Chicago" a love poem really going overboard? Is Sandburg just excited about the power of the city?

    Chew on This

    Cue the power ballads. "Chicago" is totally a love poem. The speaker puts Chicago on a pedestal, and is majorly obsessed with it.

    Woah! Pump the breaks, pal. Yes, the speaker is obsessed with Chicago, but calling the work a love poem is going way too far. You can't love a city the way you can love another human being.