Panels Summary and Analysis by Carl Sandburg: 2022

Carl Sandburg- “Trying to write briefly about Carl Sandburg is like trying to picture the Grand Canyon in one black and white snapshot.” Truer words than these cannot be found when it’s about Carl Sandburg. He is a versatile man with his foot in poetry, history, biography, fiction and music. He won three Pulitzer prizes in his lifetime: two for his poetry and one for his autobiography on Abraham Lincoln. Born in 1878, Carl Sandburg had humble origins. He had worked as a milk route driver, a bricklayer, a farm labourer, a hotel servant and a coal heaver before starting out as a journalist for Chicago Daily News. The rest is, as they say, history.
Panels- ‘Panels’ is a short poem with war as its theme. Carl wrote many poems on war and peace notably ‘Killers’, ‘Among the Red Guns’ and ‘And They Obey’. ‘Panels’ is also one such poem.

Setting of Panels- 

The poet uses war and peace as the theme of the poem. When the Spanish-American war came about, Carl Sandburg volunteered to be a part of the military, but he was never sent to the front lines. Having experienced war first hand, though he never actually fought, Carl Sandburg was left with a deep impression. This is evident to those who read his poems with war and peace as their theme. The poem is set in a similar setting of the war. But here, the war has ended some time ago.

Poetic Devices in Panels-

There are a number of non-literal similarities throughout the poem.
“The West window is a panel of marching onions” – This West window refers to the west coast of North America which became a battlefield. It allowed the invaders to enter and hence the use of the word, windows. Onions make people shed tears. Marching onions here can be a reference to the soldiers who went around killing the ‘enemies’ and making them shed tears.
“Five new lilacs nod to the wind and fence boards” – Fence boards here refer to the boundaries and barricades erected around the war area.
“The rain dry fence boards, the stained knot holes, heliograph a peace.” – The knot holes refer to the bullet holes.
“(How long ago the knee drifts here and a blizzard howling at the knot holes, whistling winter war drums?)” – The blizzard here is the shouts of the soldiers and the whirr and bang of the war machinery.
“The rain dry…” – Oxymoron is the use of two contradictory words in succession. Here, the rain is supposed to wet. But the word that follows it is dry. This provides contradiction and emphasis to the context.


The poem is written in free verse without a rhyme or a regular meter.

Summary of Panels- 

The west of North America is a war zone. It is a window which allowed invaders in. It is now a ground for marching soldiers who go around killing others, making everyone and anyone related to the dead, teary eyed. They made many cry. To the boundaries, five new funerals are set up. These are but a minute fraction of the total dead. They now nod to the wind, devoid of purpose. They go with the flow. They are the victims of war and now, they have returned to their roots. The rain washes out the boundaries of everything. It washes out the blood stained holes. It washes out the reason for war. But it is not a ‘good’ rain. It is cruel. For what rain dries, instead of wetting, what it falls onto? And as the reason for war goes out, in comes in the message for peace. But the peace is but temporary. There will come other invaders, other drifters and they too will take up the cry for battle. The war will start again, the whirr and bang of machinery will be back at the boundaries, sounding the cries for another war.

Critical Analysis of Panels-

Carl Sandburg uses extensive metaphors throughout the poem to convey war. He never directly says it out loud but it is there throughout the short poem, silent but ominous. The poem tells of beginnings and ends, of cruelty, of death and of humanity. The five lilacs are the proof of the existing good in the humanity while the knot holes say the exact opposite of it. Sandburg paints a vivid but abstract picture of the war in this short poem of but four lines.

Central Idea of Panels- 

The poem has war at its centre. It showcases the cycle of war, the cycle of cruelty, which never ends but just takes a gap. By this poem, the poet is trying to point out the ultimate meaninglessness of war. It is but a non-continuous cycle.

Tone of Panels- 

The tone of the poem is ominous and macabre throughout with a hint of kindness in line 2. The poem starts with the killings. The tone here is one of cruelty. Then there are the lilacs which show human feelings, a salute to the fallen soldiers. Then the tone becomes calm. The reason wears out and the blood is washed away. But that calm is that of before the storm. For there is sure to be another war sooner or later. The poem signs off on an ominous note.
Conclusion- Carl Sandburg shows an apt overview of war through this poem. The war goes on a full cycle with killings, deaths, burials and funerals before finally settling on peace, a short lived one after which the cycle repeats. For one who experienced war from such proximity as Carl Sandburg, the impressions of it must have been deep. This is evident in this short but powerful poem on war and peace.

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