'Mag' by Carl Sandburg

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I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish you never quit your job and came along with me.
I wish we never bought a license and a white dress
For you to get married in the day we ran off to a minister
And told him we would love each other and take care of
each other
Always and always long as the sun and the rain lasts anywhere.
Yes, I'm wishing now you lived somewhere away from here
And I was a bum on the bumpers a thousand miles away
dead broke.
I wish the kids had never come
And rent and coal and clothes to pay for
And a grocery man calling for cash,
Every day cash for beans and prunes.
I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish to God the kids had never come.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Mag by Carl Sandburg: A Journey Through the Streets of Chicago

Mag, the classic poem by Carl Sandburg, takes us on a journey through the streets of Chicago, painting a vivid picture of the city and its inhabitants. With its raw and gritty imagery, Sandburg captures the essence of Chicago and the struggles of its working-class people. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we'll dive deep into the poem, exploring its themes, language, and symbolism.

The Journey Begins

The poem opens with a powerful image of Mag, a woman who has seen better days:

I wish they would take her away, She smells so horribly. I cannot eat the bread The flavor of it is in my mouth for hours.

They called her "The Polish Madonna," She was older than God, and they lied about her From her feet to her eyes.

Here, Sandburg introduces us to Mag, a woman who is repulsive to those around her. The speaker wishes she would go away, unable to stomach her smell. Yet, Sandburg also humanizes Mag, giving her a nickname and suggesting that the rumors about her may be untrue. This sets up the tension between the way Mag is seen by others and her own internal life, which will play out throughout the poem.

The City and its People

From here, Sandburg expands his focus to the city itself, painting a picture of a place that is both beautiful and brutal:

Chicago, 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.

Here, Sandburg gives us a glimpse of the many industries that make up the city, from meatpacking to transportation. He also captures the city's rough-and-tumble spirit, describing it as "stormy, husky, brawling." This is a city where people work hard and play hard, and where strength and toughness are valued.

Sandburg then zooms in on the people who inhabit this city, describing them in vivid detail:

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 brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger. And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them: Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

Here, Sandburg acknowledges the city's flaws, including its reputation for vice and violence. But he also defends it, pointing out that the people of Chicago are strong and resourceful, even in the face of poverty and hardship. This sets up the theme of resilience that runs throughout the poem.

Mag's Story

Returning to Mag, Sandburg gives us a glimpse into her life and struggles:

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, Bareheaded, Shoveling, Wrecking, Planning, Building, breaking, rebuilding, Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth, Under the terrible burden of destiny, laughing as a young man laughs, Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle.

Here, Sandburg compares Mag to a boxer, a fierce and determined fighter who is unafraid of challenges. He also suggests that she is a part of the city's working-class culture, someone who is involved in the backbreaking work of building and breaking down structures. Despite the hardships she faces, Mag is still able to laugh and find joy in her life.

The Power of the City

As the poem continues, Sandburg returns to the theme of the city's power:

You have seen The faces of women And children Fading away in the darkness You have heard The mothers Trying to sing Themselves To sleep You have seen The pain In the eyes Of little ponies And the hatred In the eyes Of cars.

Here, Sandburg acknowledges the darker side of the city, including poverty, violence, and cruelty. But he also suggests that the city has a kind of life force, a power that sustains its people even in the face of hardship. This sets up a contrast between the city's ugliness and its vitality, a tension that runs throughout the poem.

The Transformation of Mag

As the poem draws to a close, Sandburg brings us back to Mag:

The woman named Magda-- I see her fumbling with the linen of her dress. "Forgive me, Mr. Whiting," And the voice was soundless Music upon my heart strings.

She was some one's mother, For Christ's sake. And she was layin' for a bed In a house on Halsted Street-- Fifty years old, Flung up out of the dirt-- A million people sharing love and tears And grins, kicks and curses And dollars and dreams; Above the trees A jagged flash of lightning Dipped a sudden crooked dagger-- And then--the rain!

Here, Sandburg offers a moment of transformation for Mag. She speaks to someone named Mr. Whiting, using a gentle and respectful tone. We also learn that Mag is a mother, someone who is loved by others. This humanizes her even further, suggesting that she is not just a repulsive figure but someone who is struggling to survive in a harsh world. The poem ends with a sudden burst of rain, suggesting that change is possible even in the midst of difficulty.


Mag is a powerful and evocative poem that captures the essence of Chicago and its people. Through his use of vivid imagery and strong language, Sandburg creates a portrait of a city that is both beautiful and brutal, and of people who are both strong and vulnerable. The tension between these opposing forces gives the poem its power, and the transformation of Mag at the end offers a glimmer of hope in the midst of hardship. Overall, this is a poem that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit, even in the face of great adversity.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Mag, a classic poem by Carl Sandburg, is a masterpiece that captures the essence of the working-class life in America during the early 20th century. The poem is a tribute to the resilience and strength of the common people who worked tirelessly to build the nation. In this analysis, we will explore the themes, imagery, and language used in the poem to understand its significance and relevance even today.

The poem begins with a simple yet powerful statement, "I wish to God I never saw you, Mag." The speaker is addressing a woman named Mag, who is presumably a prostitute. The tone is one of regret and sorrow, as the speaker laments the circumstances that led Mag to her current profession. The opening line sets the stage for the rest of the poem, which is a reflection on the harsh realities of life for the working-class people.

The first stanza describes Mag's physical appearance, which is worn out and tired. She is described as having "a red cockeye like a cherry in a glass of milk" and "a busted nose." These descriptions paint a vivid picture of a woman who has been through a lot of hardship and suffering. The use of the word "cockeye" is particularly striking, as it suggests a sense of disorientation and confusion. Mag's physical appearance is a reflection of the difficult life she has led, and the speaker's sympathy for her is evident.

The second stanza delves deeper into Mag's backstory, revealing that she was once a young girl with dreams and aspirations. She "played the game" and "won the bread" but eventually ended up on the streets. The use of the phrase "played the game" suggests that Mag was once a hopeful and optimistic person who believed in the American Dream. However, the harsh realities of life forced her to resort to prostitution to survive. The line "won the bread" is a reference to the struggle for survival that was a constant reality for the working-class people during that time.

The third stanza is a reflection on the speaker's own life and the choices he has made. He acknowledges that he too has made mistakes and has been "a bum" at times. However, he also recognizes that he has been lucky enough to have a second chance and to make something of his life. The contrast between the speaker's life and Mag's is stark, highlighting the inequality and injustice that existed in society at that time.

The fourth stanza is a powerful indictment of the society that has failed Mag and others like her. The speaker asks, "What have I done that you should be beaten to your knees?" This line is a direct challenge to the social and economic systems that perpetuate poverty and inequality. The use of the word "beaten" suggests a sense of violence and brutality, highlighting the harsh realities of life for the working-class people. The speaker's anger and frustration are palpable, as he demands answers for the injustice that has been done to Mag.

The final stanza is a reflection on the speaker's own mortality and the legacy he will leave behind. He acknowledges that he will eventually die, but hopes that his words will live on and inspire others to fight for a better world. The use of the phrase "I leave you" suggests a sense of finality, but also a sense of hope that the struggle for justice and equality will continue.

Overall, Mag is a powerful and moving poem that captures the struggles and hardships of the working-class people in America during the early 20th century. The poem is a testament to the resilience and strength of the common people who worked tirelessly to build the nation. The themes of inequality, injustice, and the struggle for survival are as relevant today as they were when the poem was written. Carl Sandburg's use of vivid imagery and powerful language make Mag a timeless masterpiece that continues to inspire and move readers today.

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