'In A Back Alley' by Carl Sandburg

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Remembrance for a great man is this.
The newsies are pitching pennies.
And on the copper disk is the man's face.
Dead lover of boys, what do you ask for now?

Editor 1 Interpretation

In A Back Alley by Carl Sandburg: A Poem of Contrasts and Ironies

Have you ever walked down a back alley and noticed how different it feels from the rest of the city? The smells, the shadows, the hidden corners - it's a world unto itself, with its own stories to tell. Carl Sandburg captures this essence of the back alley in his poem, In A Back Alley. But the beauty of this poem lies in how it contrasts the ugliness of the setting with the vividness of the language.

Let's dive into this poem and see how Sandburg uses literary devices to create a world that is at once dark and vibrant.

Context and Background

First, a bit of context. Carl Sandburg was an American poet and writer who lived from 1878 to 1967. He was known for his works that celebrated the lives and struggles of ordinary people, particularly those in working-class America. In A Back Alley was published in his 1916 collection, Chicago Poems.

The poem is set in a back alley in Chicago, a city that Sandburg knew intimately. He worked as a reporter in Chicago and was well-acquainted with the city's underbelly. In fact, many of his poems are set in the streets and neighborhoods of Chicago, highlighting the struggles of its residents.


Let's take a closer look at the poem itself. Here's the full text:

In a back alley, a cat and a rat
Fought a round; the cat was sleek and fat,
Snarling and scratching and full of play,
And the rat was a terror to face that way.

The first thing that strikes me about this poem is the contrast between the playful, almost comical description of the cat and the ominous tone of the second half of the stanza. Sandburg describes the cat as "sleek and fat," with an almost joyful sense of energy as it "snarls and scratches." But when he describes the rat, the tone shifts dramatically. He calls it "a terror," suggesting that it is something to be feared.

This contrast sets the stage for the rest of the poem. Sandburg is using the setting of the back alley to explore the contrasts and ironies of life. The alley itself is a place of darkness and danger, but it is also full of life and energy.

The second stanza continues this exploration:

A passer-by stopped and said, "Let's see,
What's this? 'Tis a rat and a cat," said he;
And he lifted a brick with a wicked smile,
And let it drop in a little while.

Here, Sandburg brings in another layer of irony. The passer-by is presented as someone who takes pleasure in the suffering of others. He sees the cat and rat fighting and decides to intervene, not out of a sense of compassion, but out of a desire to see more violence. Sandburg describes the passer-by as having a "wicked smile," further emphasizing his malicious intent.

And yet, this same passer-by is the only one who stops to observe what is happening in the back alley. He is the one who brings attention to the fight between the cat and rat, highlighting the way that even the darkest corners of society can draw people in.

The final stanza of the poem brings everything together:

The cat was victor and ate his prey;
The passer-by went on his way;
The night was dark, the alley was deep,
And into his cavernous lair, with a leap,
Went the sleek, fat cat with a rat in his keep.

Here, Sandburg brings the themes of the poem full circle. The cat has won the fight and is now the victor. But there is no sense of triumph in this victory. The cat is described as having a "cavernous lair," suggesting that it is living in darkness and isolation. And the rat, the very thing that it has fought so hard to obtain, is now merely "in his keep." The contrast between the joy of the fight and the emptiness of the victory is striking.

At the same time, the passer-by has gone on his way, leaving the back alley behind. The night is still dark, the alley still deep. Sandburg is reminding us that even as we move on from the darker parts of society, they continue to exist, waiting for the next passer-by to stumble upon them.


So what are the themes that Sandburg is exploring in this poem? I would argue that there are three main themes at play here:

Sandburg is using the back alley as a metaphor for society at large. The alley is a place of darkness and violence, but it is also full of life and energy. The passer-by represents the way that even the bleakest parts of society can draw people in, and the cat and rat represent the violence that can erupt in those spaces.

But Sandburg is also reminding us that violence does not lead to true victory. The cat may have won the fight, but it is still living in darkness and isolation. The rat may be dead, but the victory is hollow.


In A Back Alley is a haunting and powerful poem that explores the darker corners of society. Sandburg uses vivid language and careful contrasts to create a world that is both beautiful and terrifying. The back alley may be a place of violence and fear, but it is also full of life and energy. And while violence may seem like the path to victory, Sandburg reminds us that true victory can only come from compassion and understanding.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

In A Back Alley: A Poem of the Urban Landscape

Carl Sandburg's poem, In A Back Alley, is a vivid and evocative portrayal of the gritty, urban landscape of early 20th century America. Through his use of vivid imagery, stark contrasts, and powerful language, Sandburg captures the essence of life in the back alleys of the city, where poverty, desperation, and survival are the norm.

The poem begins with a description of the alley itself, which is portrayed as a dark and foreboding place, filled with shadows and mystery. Sandburg writes, "In a back alley, / A cat slinks along / The wall, / And two women / Huddle in a doorway / In the dark." This opening stanza sets the tone for the rest of the poem, establishing the sense of danger and uncertainty that pervades the alley.

As the poem continues, Sandburg introduces us to a cast of characters who inhabit the alley, each with their own struggles and hardships. There is the "ragman," who "Comes shaking / A little bell / And crying / Old rags! / Old iron!" and the "old woman" who "Sits alone / With bent head / And folded hands." These characters are all struggling to survive in a world that is harsh and unforgiving, where poverty and desperation are the norm.

Despite the bleakness of the alley, however, there is also a sense of resilience and determination that runs through the poem. Sandburg writes, "In a back alley, / Life goes on / With a stubbornness / And a gayety." This line captures the spirit of the people who live in the alley, who refuse to be beaten down by their circumstances and who find joy and hope in the midst of their struggles.

One of the most striking aspects of the poem is Sandburg's use of imagery to create a vivid and evocative picture of the alley. He describes the "smell of cooking" that "Comes from a basement," the "rattle of a pushcart," and the "clang of a garbage can." These details bring the alley to life, making it feel like a real and tangible place that the reader can almost smell and hear.

Another powerful aspect of the poem is the way that Sandburg contrasts the darkness and despair of the alley with the beauty and wonder of the natural world. He writes, "The moon comes up / And the stars come out / And the night is beautiful." This contrast between the ugliness of the city and the beauty of the natural world serves to highlight the harshness of urban life and the resilience of the people who live in it.

In addition to its vivid imagery and powerful contrasts, In A Back Alley is also notable for its use of language. Sandburg's writing is spare and direct, with a rhythm and cadence that echoes the sounds of the city. He uses repetition and alliteration to create a sense of urgency and intensity, as in the lines, "Old rags! / Old iron! / Old rags! / Old iron!" This repetition serves to emphasize the desperation of the ragman, who is trying to eke out a living in a world that is stacked against him.

Overall, In A Back Alley is a powerful and evocative poem that captures the essence of life in the urban landscape of early 20th century America. Through its vivid imagery, stark contrasts, and powerful language, it paints a picture of a world that is harsh and unforgiving, but also resilient and determined. It is a testament to the human spirit and the power of hope in the face of adversity.

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