Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind

“The past is a bucket of ashes.”

1

THE WOMAN named To-morrow
sits with a hairpin in her teeth
and takes her time
and does her hair the way she wants it
and fastens at last the last braid and coil
and puts the hairpin where it belongs
and turns and drawls: Well, what of it?
My grandmother, Yesterday, is gone.
What of it? Let the dead be dead.

2

The doors were cedar
and the panels strips of gold
and the girls were golden girls
and the panels read and the girls chanted:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation:
nothing like us ever was.

The doors are twisted on broken hinges.
Sheets of rain swish through on the wind
where the golden girls ran and the panels read:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.

3

It has happened before.
Strong men put up a city and got
a nation together,
And paid singers to sing and women
to warble: We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation,
nothing like us ever was.

And while the singers sang
and the strong men listened
and paid the singers well
and felt good about it all,
there were rats and lizards who listened
… and the only listeners left now
… are … the rats … and the lizards.

And there are black crows
crying, “Caw, caw,”
bringing mud and sticks
building a nest
over the words carved
on the doors where the panels were cedar
and the strips on the panels were gold
and the golden girls came singing:
We are the greatest city,
the greatest nation:
nothing like us ever was.

The only singers now are crows crying, “Caw, caw,”
And the sheets of rain whine in the wind and doorways.
And the only listeners now are … the rats … and the lizards.

4

The feet of the rats
scribble on the door sills;
the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints
chatter the pedigrees of the rats
and babble of the blood
and gabble of the breed
of the grandfathers and the great-grandfathers
of the rats.

And the wind shifts
and the dust on a door sill shifts
and even the writing of the rat footprints
tells us nothing, nothing at all
about the greatest city, the greatest nation
where the strong men listened
and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.

Analysis, meaning and summary of the poem by

12 Comments

  1. Ron Grant says:

    I first read this poem in 1964 in English class. It so mesmerized me that I cut out the page from our text book and still have it. I even wrote to Sandburg to express my appreciation for it. As a history/government major, it saddens me to see the world today. As a lawyer, I consult with people who are sad and depressed, divorcing other sad and depressed people. Wake up America. Start educating children again – not just preparing them for a stupid and waste of time test. This poem seems to be our prospect for the future.

  2. William Johnson says:

    The poem seems to be addressing the truth of impermanence.

  3. George says:

    I first learned about this glorious poem in 1967, back in Bucharest, where I was born, and raised. I live for 27 years in the United States, and love the country and the people. As a Romanian I witnessed the destruction of the past, present and future, there, in those times, and I am saddened to have encountered that again, here, in the States, and why not elsewhere in the World. No matter how hard I tried to counteract the destructive nature of anti-humanism that’s breaking us, one and all, there seems not to be a solution to the ever turning of till under the plough. Like cattle to the slaughter house civilizations taken and with it all there is within.
    Indeed this poem is prophetic, visionary, and can be positive only looked upon from the point of view of a human, not inhuman being.

  4. Joanne Read says:

    I first heard this poem in 1953 when someone read it for a speech contest. I had hoped this would never come true but when I look around me at people who are more interested in entertainment, sports, money, and the politicians who rule them, I am filled with fear.

  5. Philip O'Daniel says:

    1966 in high school I first read this poem. I’ve always remembered the haunt of its meaning. Now today it looks more real and possiable. I never thought that in 1966 I would see the world as it is today. No means for a college education,no future jobs they are gone. We now have ghost towns in our midst. Who could have told me this in 1966 that I would beleive the drastic changes. 2 percent control what the 98 percent do. That I later learned in college.

  6. Phyllis Ann Bishop Taylor says:

    It seems that one could easily predict our current laments. We wail about economic ruin, moral decay, and a frightening future for our Country. In my view, we have spent far too much play time, forgetting that mischief has taken over only to end with grief and remorse. History should remind everyone that adults are supposed to live responsibly, helping children grow up to be productive, happy citizens, not players.

  7. Jim Moore says:

    I am 65 and first read this poem many years ago in a Junior High literature book. I was mesmerized and haunted by the imagery and it compelled me to become a writer. I looked for it for years before once more finding it. America, pay heed, for this may be your future.

  8. Joanne Henriot says:

    The refrain has stayed with me for fifty years. When I finally refound it today, I couldn’t help think of all the architecture in Chicago who meets the wrecking ball held by the WOMAN named To-morrow. Was this Sullivan’s Stock Exchange Room which rests now in the Art Institute of Chicago. And where are all the other grand works? “The dust on the sill tells us nothing.”

  9. Don Gerimonte says:

    I’ve never believed that the United States would be everlasting, but I also never believed that our position in the world should be thrown away as is being done. The anguish is excruciationg.

  10. Elaine says:

    If you liked “Four Preludes…..”, you will enjoy Percy Bisshe Shelly’s “Ozymandias.” The monument’s quote related to the poet stated, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” (The scene described would be dear to an archaeologist’s heart.)
    Perspective curtails pride, I think.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I agree with both Carl Sandburg and Mike P. Sandburg was very insightful on what was happening to our country almost 100 years ago. Look at our education and our politicians. “No child left behind” is undoing our education system, and politicians now are even more treacherous and subject to taking bribes (not all of them, but many). We DO forget that there have been other great nations: Rome, Greece, Spain, England. America’s time will not last forever. “We are the greatest city/ We are the greatest nation/ nothing like us ever was” is going to end.

  12. Mike P says:

    Even though this poem was penned in 1922, the message of this work rings so true, even today. We tend to forget that prior to our time, great civilizations have risen and fallen throughout generations. This poem acts as a warning that we must be vigilant, or we too will only be remembered by the fallen cedar doors, the dusty inscriptions in gold, or by the relics found in tombs. “So what of it? Let the dead be dead!”

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