“Buttons” by Carl Sandburg: Poem Analysis

People in the military have come to expect what would happen on the battlefield, as they go through their day and figure out where they go next. Maps and indicators show where they are assigned to be, them and their troops moving to where they have to go. The poem “Buttons” by Carl Sandburg talks about this, with the speaker talking about these little indicators, which he calls buttons, and how they’re moved on a map. Sandburg uses symbolism, paradoxes, connotation, and other poetic elements to express the meaning of the poem, along with adding context to what is going on at the time.

The denotation of the title “Buttons” does not interpret the meaning in the context of the poem, the connotation is explained through the story that the poem tells. The first sentence of the first stanza gives a bit of insight on the time and place it was written in. Carl Sandburg writes “I have been watching the war map slammed up for advertising in front of the / newspaper office” (lines 1-2). The poem was written in 1905, when the Russo-Japanese War occurred. The Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan fought over control over Manchuria, which was in now northeastern China (History.com Editors). The man mentioned in the second stanza could be interpreted as either Chinese or Russian, as it wasn’t mentioned outright in the poem. War maps, as the name states, indicates the military’s positions, along with their interpretations of the enemy’s positions. The second line describes what was used for these indicators: “red and yellow buttons – blue and black buttons” (line 3). They were described in pairs of colors, with red and yellow being one, while black and blue being the other. Each pair represents the different sides of the war, with two different sections of each military. The symbolism of the four colors connect to different elements in the context of the poem. According to the book Color: A Practical Guide to Color and Its Uses in Art, the color red is associated with many things, including danger, war, and anger, while yellow, the color the red buttons are paired with, is represented with joy and happiness. The book also explains that blue represents sadness, coldness, and despair, while black represents fear, death, and negativity (Mollica, Patti et al.). Elements in the poem connect to the meanings of the colors, all represented in the poem. Red connects to the time period, whereas stated before, is taking place during the Russo-Japanese war.

The second stanza brings in a character, only described as “A laughing young man, sunny with freckles” (line 5). While freckles are mainly small spots on fair skin, the connation of someone being described as sunny and with freckles would end up being the person described as bright, cheerful, and naive. This is also backed up in the poem, where he “yells a joke to someone in the crowd” (line 6). He represents the color yellow from before, as he is trying to bring joy and make jokes with the group of people around him. The man is then described as moving both pins “One inch west” (lines 7,8) meaning that while still being a cheerful man, he makes the decisions on how the battle is fought, moving two pieces to a potential battle ground. The connotation of the buttons also dehumanizes all of people in this group and the rest of the military, as they are seen as buttons on a map instead of actual people. Repetition is also used to emphasize how small the buttons are, moving them in a certain direction quickly, showing how insignificant they are when looking at them on the map.

The final stanza starts off darker than the previous two, describing a shocking instance on the battlefield. It’s written that “Ten thousand men and boys twist on their bodies in a red soak along a river / edge, / Gasping of wounds, calling for water, some rattling death in their throats” (lines 9-11). This represents the impact of the buttons being moved, with many injured and dying men trying to make themselves clean of the blood of their injuries. These lines connect to the color blue, the men’s sadness and despair as they walked along the river. They also create a paradox, as the line sounds similar to how newscasters report tragic news. Newscasters have to sound “up” all the time, even when reporting serious issues as a war. The paradox makes one believe that reporting like this has been around for a long time, even before how news is reported in modern times. The “red soak along a river / edge” (line 9-10) is the men washing themselves off, as they had gotten their clothes stained from their wounds. The poem then ends on a rhetorical question: “Who would guess what it cost to move two buttons one inch on a war map / here in front of the newspaper office where the freckle-faced young man / is laughing to us?” (lines 12-14). The meaning of the buttons becomes more significant with this question being brought up, as a little movement could mean life or death, which also connects the last half of the stanza to the color black. It also implies that the young man with freckles is trying to bring the mood up, but the others don’t seem too excited to have the buttons moved. The ambiguity of this line gives it another possible interpretation, with the freckle-faced man not knowing what he was doing when he initially made the assignments on the war map, leading to serious consequences for the troops. The freckle faced man then tries to fix his mistake on the map, playing it off as a joke to the rest of the group and making him seem insensitive.

“Buttons” is a poem about how every little action affects the bigger picture. It also shows that if someone naïve is put into a place of authority, they have the potential to make a larger mess for the rest of the group and may not know the severity of the situation. Reality is harsh in times of war, and when it comes to the lives of one’s military, it shouldn’t be seen as a joke. The severity of the consequences of the freckle-faced man’s actions is heavier than he seems to think, while the rest of the group understands the impact of moving buttons only an inch on the map.

Student’s Name: Illya Nestor

Professor Roden

Share this Post