“A Revolver” by Carl Sandburg

More polemic than poem, the newly discovered bit of verse by Carl Sandburg couldn’t be more timely. Called “A Revolver,” it lays out in phlegmatic fashion the “amazing language” of guns, conjures the “terrible” stories they tell, and demonstrates how their fatal potential can ultimately transcend any legal wrangling. “When it [the revolver] has spoken,” wrote Sandburg in the poem’s long, penultimate line, “ the case can not be appealed to the supreme court [sic], nor any mandamus nor any injunction nor any stay of execution come in and interfere with the original purpose.”

Ernie Gullerud, 83, discovered “Revolver” just last week. A retired professor at the University of Illinois, he came across the poem as he helped catalog the vast Sandburg collection at the downstate school. George Hendrick, another retired U. of I. prof, told the university’s news bureau that Sandburg “had thought about this problem [of gun violence] for years,” and suggested that the poem may have been inspired by Lincoln’s assassination. “Sandburg was very concerned about that murder, and the use of the gun that killed Lincoln,” Hendrick said.

Forty-six years after Sandburg’s death, his enduring achievement remains his mytho-historic biography of the prairie president. He devoted the final 140 pages of that six-volume study to Lincoln’s death and burial, so it’s not unreasonable to suspect, as Hendrick does, that “Revolver” rested in part on Sandburg’s long meditation on those fateful moments at Ford’s Theatre.

But there’s another echo of Lincoln in the poem’s final line. Six weeks before he rode off to see Our American Cousin, Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address, his most profound and perhaps greatest speech. In it, he pondered the role of God in the bloody Civil War, then hurtling toward its conclusion. How was it, he wondered, that both North and South could maintain the Almighty was on their side? “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God,” he explained, “and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”


Photograph: Ben Woloszyn