Published in 1915, Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters presents the life histories of the residents of a small town through a series of free verse poems representing epitaphs on their tombstones. These epitaphs reveal the secret thoughts, hopes, dreams, and fears of the town residents and the relationships they formed and broke.
The epitaph-poem "Many Soldiers" represents a collective experience and thoughts of the male residents of Spoon River who served in the military. The poem presents a man versus nature conflict, with nature victorious over the aspirations and struggles of human civilization. Consisting of twenty-three lines, the poem can be read as having two parts.
In the first part of the poem, the soldiers refer to the ideals of patriotism and service that inspired them to join the military:
The idea danced before us as a flag:
The sound of martial music;
The thrill of carrying a gun;
Advancement in the world on coming home...
Through the patriotic symbol of the American flag, a related style of music, and the promised excitement of war, the soldiers believed they were fulfilling their duty. They also hoped that military service would benefit their civilian careers. The narration uses words such as “glory,” “wrath,” “foes,” and “dream” to convey the emotional depths of the soldiers’ beliefs.
However, the soldiers learned they were responding to external symbols and promises that were “shining before us / They were not the power behind us.” Instead, the true power “was the Almighty hand of Life,” the power of fire and water. Nature, not man, is the true mover of the world.
The poem then makes a significant change in tone and word choice with the twelfth line: “Do you remember the iron band...?” The narration shifts from patriotism and ideals to a reminiscence about how the blacksmith placed the iron band around an oak tree so Janet Bennet could sit in a hammock and read. These section provides a peaceful image of the safe, small-town life.
However, nature proves itself stronger than human ideals. The soldiers ask the residents (and each other) if they also remember
And that growing tree at last
Sundered the iron band?
Unlike humans, the growing tree is not self-aware but merely enacts the power of life:
But not a cell in all the tree
Knew aught save that it thrilled with life,
Nor cared because the hammock fell
In the dust with Milton’s Poems.
With these closing lines, the soldiers arrive at their personal realization of the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” phrasing from the Burial Service. War is the work of man, but life is the work of nature.
In the end, nature is stronger than human civilization and will survive after a society falls and its created works crumble into dust.