'The Has-Been' by Carl Sandburg

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A stone face higher than six horses stood five thousand
years gazing at the world seeming to clutch a secret.
A boy passes and throws a niggerhead that chips off the
end of the nose from the stone face; he lets fly a
mud ball that spatters the right eye and cheek of the
old looker-on.
The boy laughs and goes whistling "ee-ee-ee ee-ee-ee."
The stone face stands silent, seeming to clutch a

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Has-Been by Carl Sandburg: A Masterpiece of Disillusionment

What happens to a person when their glory days are long gone? Do they fade away into obscurity, or do they cling to their past achievements like a lifeline? These are the questions that Carl Sandburg explores in his poem "The Has-Been," a sobering meditation on the fleeting nature of fame and the toll it takes on those who have lost it.

Sandburg is well known for his poetry that celebrates the grit and determination of the working class, but "The Has-Been" takes a different approach. Instead of exalting the virtues of hard work and perseverance, Sandburg presents us with a character who has fallen from grace and is struggling to come to terms with his new reality. The speaker of the poem is a former star athlete who is now past his prime and has been reduced to performing in second-rate vaudeville shows. As he sits alone in his dressing room, he reflects on his life and wonders if he has anything left to offer the world.

The opening lines of the poem set the tone for what is to come:

"Once when I was young and true, Someone left me sad- Broke my brittle heart in two; And that is very bad.

Love is for unlucky folk, Love is but a curse. Once there was a heart I broke; And that, I think, is worse."

At first glance, these lines seem to have little to do with the rest of the poem. However, they are crucial to understanding the speaker's state of mind. By beginning with a tale of lost love, Sandburg establishes that the speaker is a man who has experienced both success and heartbreak. He is not just a has-been, but someone who has known the heights of passion and the depths of despair. This makes his present situation all the more poignant.

As the poem continues, we get a sense of the speaker's bitterness and resentment. He sees himself as a victim of circumstance, someone who was once adored by the masses but is now forgotten. He complains about the lack of respect he receives from the audience:

"I am the man who was famous For the hordes of little mimic men That copied my steps and style Thirty years ago. But they're all gone now, Dead or scattered, And I am reduced to a has-been."

The use of the word "mimic" here is telling. It suggests that the speaker sees himself as an original, someone who was once a trendsetter but is now being copied by lesser talents. He resents the fact that his imitators have outlasted him and that his own star has faded. This is a common theme in Sandburg's work: the idea that the working class is constantly being exploited by those in power. In this case, the speaker sees himself as a victim of the entertainment industry, a man who was used and discarded once his usefulness had waned.

Despite his bitterness, the speaker also expresses a sense of resignation. He knows that his glory days are over and that there is little he can do to change that. He accepts his fate with a sense of rueful humor:

"I go on the stage tonight And give them all the old routine- The hoopla and the hollerin', The songs they used to love. And maybe they'll applaud a bit And maybe I'll forget That I'm a has-been."

The use of the word "maybe" here is key. It suggests that the speaker is not entirely convinced that he will be able to recapture his former glory, but he is willing to try nonetheless. He knows that he is past his prime, but he still clings to the hope that he can find some measure of success.

One of the most striking things about "The Has-Been" is the way that Sandburg uses language to evoke a sense of melancholy. The poem is full of images of decay and decline, from the "brittle heart" of the opening lines to the "broken-down old show" that the speaker performs in. Sandburg also makes effective use of repetition, particularly in the lines "I am a has-been" and "Thirty years ago." These phrases drive home the speaker's sense of loss and regret.

In the end, "The Has-Been" is a powerful meditation on the nature of fame and the toll it takes on those who have lost it. Sandburg's speaker is a man who has known both success and failure, and who is struggling to come to terms with his own mortality. It is a poem that speaks to all of us, regardless of our social status or profession. We all face the prospect of growing old and losing the things that once defined us. Sandburg's poem reminds us that this is a universal experience, and that we are all in this together.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Has-Been: A Poem of Reflection and Regret

Carl Sandburg's "The Has-Been" is a poignant and introspective poem that explores the themes of aging, regret, and the passage of time. Written in 1916, the poem is a timeless meditation on the human condition and the inevitability of change.

At its core, "The Has-Been" is a poem about a man who has lost his former glory and is now forced to confront the reality of his own mortality. The poem begins with the speaker describing the man as "a proud old name" who "used to fill the town with talk." However, as the poem progresses, it becomes clear that the man's glory days are long gone, and he is now a shadow of his former self.

The poem is structured around a series of contrasts between the man's past and present. In the first stanza, we see the man as he used to be: "He was king when the village was small, / When the woods were uncut." The imagery here is one of power and dominance. The man is a king, and the village is his kingdom. The woods are uncut, suggesting that the man's power extends even beyond the boundaries of the village.

However, in the second stanza, we see the man as he is now: "But ah, gentlefolk, they have pushed him aside, / They have knocked him off the throne." The contrast here is stark. The man who was once a king is now a has-been, pushed aside and forgotten by the very people who used to worship him.

The third stanza continues this theme of contrast, as the speaker describes the man's physical decline: "He is out of the game and he sits with the rest / Weak and doddering and white." The man who was once a powerful king is now weak and doddering, reduced to sitting on the sidelines with the other old men.

The final stanza of the poem is perhaps the most poignant, as the speaker reflects on the man's legacy: "He was something in his time. / The village still talks of his name." Here, the contrast is between the man's past and his present. He was once something, a king who filled the town with talk. But now, all that remains is his name, a memory of a time long gone.

What makes "The Has-Been" such a powerful poem is its universal appeal. While the poem is clearly about a specific man and a specific time and place, its themes are timeless and applicable to anyone who has ever experienced the passage of time and the inevitability of aging. We all have moments in our lives when we feel like we are kings, when we feel invincible and powerful. But eventually, we all become has-beens, pushed aside and forgotten by a world that moves on without us.

At its heart, "The Has-Been" is a poem about the human condition. It is a reminder that no matter how powerful we may feel in the moment, we are all subject to the whims of time and the inevitability of change. It is a call to reflect on our own lives and to consider the legacy we will leave behind when we are gone.

In terms of its poetic form, "The Has-Been" is a relatively simple poem. It consists of four quatrains, each with an ABAB rhyme scheme. The language is straightforward and accessible, with no complex metaphors or obscure references. This simplicity is part of what makes the poem so powerful. It speaks directly to the reader, without any pretense or artifice.

Overall, "The Has-Been" is a beautiful and moving poem that speaks to the universal human experience. It is a reminder that no matter how powerful we may feel in the moment, we are all subject to the passage of time and the inevitability of change. It is a call to reflect on our own lives and to consider the legacy we will leave behind when we are gone.

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