‘A Revolver’ – Recently Discovered Carl Sandburg Poem Addresses Gun Lovers

Carl Sandburg and A Revolver; photo by Ben Woloszyn @ News Bureau| Illinois

Carl Sandburg and A Revolver; photo by Ben Woloszyn @ News Bureau| Illinois


Poetry has long been scribed about love, longing, the mysteries of heartache, and the deep conundrums of space and time. It musically expresses human thought and emotion, outside the realm of the prosaic and mundane, with rhythm, meter and sometimes rhyme to make its points most visceral. The human condition and all its many wonders and worries has been well documented in poems, and so it should be no surprise to discover that one of our greatest poets waxed lyrical about that most romantic of possessions … guns.

Yes. Carl Sandburg poetized the almighty gun.

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Ernie Gullerud, 83, a former professor of social work at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, stumbled upon a previously unpublished poem by the great Carl Sandburg, a native of Chicago who received Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry in both 1919 and 1951 (as well as another for his biography of Abraham Lincoln in 1940). Gallerud was going through a file folders of poems to input into the school’s electronic system when he uncovered this astonishing find. From the Chicago Tribune:

He was working through poems by Sandburg this month when he came across “A Revolver” typed on scratch paper and recognized its relevance to current cultural debates across the country.

“When I wrote down that last line, I knew this was really big,” Gullerud said. [… ]

Gullerud took the poem to Valerie Hotchkiss, head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, who also noted its relevance.

U. of I. English professor emeritus George Hendrick, who has published multiple volumes of Sandburg’s poems, said “A Revolver” appears to be from the writer’s later work. Hendrick speculated that the poem could be related to Lincoln’s assassination.

A native of Illinois who spent part of his career writing for the Chicago Daily News, Sandburg had a particular penchant for memorializing his city in verse, calling Chicago the “city of broad shoulders” in one of his most memorable poems, “Chicago.” He was a prolific writer and deeply involved in his community, where various schools and buildings now honor his name.

The consideration that this newly found poem could be in reference to the shooting death of Abraham Lincoln is not a stretch. Most Illinois natives hold a strong attachment to “their President” and Sandburg delved deeply into the iconic figure while writing Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, and later, Abraham Lincoln, the War Years, for which he won a Pulitzer. Extrapolating that his poetic view of “a revolver” could be derived from the tragic death of Lincoln seems logical. There was a compelling interpretive point made about the meaning of the poem at The Daily Paul:

“I think it’s so interesting that Sandburg says poetically what we all know about guns: that they are the final word,” [Valerie] Hotchkiss said. “But he takes the idea one step forward to meditate on the effect of guns on freedom of speech – how the First Amendment is watered down by the Second Amendment. If somebody has a gun to your head, you can’t speak freely.”

From here we’ll leave further interpretation to you, our readers. Here is Carl Sandburg’s poem, exactly as it appears typewritten on his infamous “oilskin paper” (image below). Let us know what you think.


Here is a revolver.
It has an amazing language all its own.
It delivers unmistakable ultimatums.
It is the last word.
A simple, little human forefinger can tell a terrible story with it.
Hunger, fear, revenge, robbery, hide behind it.
It is the claw of the jungle made quick and powerful.
It is the club of the savage turned to magnificent precision.
It is more rapid than any judge or court of law.
It is less subtle and treacherous than any one lawyer or ten.
When it has spoken, the case can not be appealed to the supreme
court, nor any mandamus nor any injunction nor any stay of ex-
ecution come in and interfere with the original purpose.
And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the
old belief that God is always on the side of those who have the
most revolvers.

A Revolver by Carl Sandburg; photo by Ben Woloszyn @ News Bureau | Illinois

A Revolver by Carl Sandburg; photo by Ben Woloszyn @ News Bureau | Illinois



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