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In Edgar Lee's Masters' Spoon River Anthology, the author uses a variety of literary devices.
In "Hod Putt," the author lets Putt tell his story as it relates to Bill Piersol, the man buried next to him. Over the long years, Hod had been driven down by excessively hard work and poverty while watching Piersol become rich trading with the Indians, and then using the Bankruptcy Law to become richer still. Hod becomes so angry that he...
...Robbed a traveler one Night near Proctor's Grove,
Killing him unwittingly while doing so,
For which I was tried and hanged.
That was my way of going into bankruptcy.
"Bankruptcy" is a metaphor for death, providing a completely difference spin on the use of the word as it had originally pertained financially to Piersol's growing economic success. Masters also uses irony to describe how Bill Piersol and Hod both end up in the same place, as death is the great equalizer.
Now we who took the bankrupt law in our respective ways
Sleep peacefully side by side.
For all his money, in the end it didn't serve Piersol any better than the lack of it served Hod.
In "Fletcher McGee," Master uses similes as Fletcher describes the passage of time and the tormented life the man led at the hands of his wife:
The days went by like shadows,
The minutes wheeled like stars.
"Robert Fulton Tanner" uses personification to describe the grip Life has on man:
If a man could bite the giant hand
That catches and destroys him…
But a man can never avenge himself
On the monstrous ogre Life.
The use of ogre suggests that life is a monstrous, cruel and ugly thing; this personification gives characteristics of a living thing to something nonhuman ("Life").
As I was bitten by a rat
While demonstrating my patent trap...
These lines convey to the reader that man is like a rat in a trap. Though he has fight in him, he has no way to resist the onslaught of life. A rat bit Tanner while caught in his trap, but the animal—though able to bite—was trapped nonetheless, as Tanner also felt trapped by life.
The use of various figures of speech (similes seeming to be Masters' most favored) brings alive the people who lie buried on the hill at Spoon River, allowing the reader to more clearly see them as they were in life. They briefly tell their stories, delivering their own epitaphs. Here they correct things wrongly believed of them; some praise another; others complain about how they were treated or even the manner in which they were buried—but all the while, each sets things straight…just for the record.
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