The tone of a poem represents the speaker or writer's attitude toward the subject of the piece and the audience. The speaker or writer’s attitude is usually not explicit, but nevertheless conveys his feelings about his subject or his audience. In Carl Sandburg's poem “Grass,” the speaker’s direct and unforgiving tone illustrates the industrial process of war and how little human life is worth in a time of war.
The writer conveys his attitude by choosing particular words and arranging them in a particular way. The style of his poem along with his word choice, also known as diction, conveys the poem's emotional meaning by evoking specific feelings in the reader of the poem or the audience that hears the poem. These feelings that the poem evokes in the reader established its atmosphere, also known as mood.
Personification of Grass
Carl Sandburg's poem “Grass” is an unusual war poem in that it personifies grass. In the personification, the grass directly addresses the reader, placing the human perspective to the side. For example, Sandburg writes, “Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo. / Shovel them under and let me work -- / I am the grass; I cover all.” Grass, like human beings, is abundant, and from the perspective of grass, human life seems unimportant, and is therefore dismissed. This personification acts as a metaphor for how humans are treated in war.
Tone of “Grass”
The tone of the poem is direct and unforgiving. Lines such as, “And pile them high at Gettysburg / And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun. / Shovel them under and let me work,” show an unsympathetic, inhuman and almost alien approach to the dead. The lines are short and direct and phrases like “pile them high” reveal an industrial kind of approach to death and war. This diction and style reveal the speaker's attitude toward the subject matter of the poem. The writer is trying to show the industrial process of war, and how little human beings matter to the process.
Effect of Tone
Grass is the speaker of the poem and instead of caring about the dead, it only cares about its work in covering up their bodies. This attitude becomes particularly clear in the end: “Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor: / What place is this? / Where are we now? / I am the grass. / Let me work.” The personification of grass and its direct and unforgiving attitude toward the dead that fall on it is shocking in its lack of sympathy and inhumanity. As a result, it reveals the true nature of war, and how little man who fight in wars really matter.