“Jefferson Howard” tells of the life of its eponym, spoken by him from his grave in Spoon River. Howard laments dying alone, after supporting a family, a burden that was “heavy to carry --/Yet fruits of my very zest of life.” As he draws his last breath his children have “wound their lives in stranger gardens,” and he fears that his life, and all his labors, will be forgotten. For he has labored, as a man must, and Howard bore the added onus of holding unconventional beliefs. He is hated by “Republicans, Calvinists, merchants, bankers,” all of whom make up the dominant groups in the town. Howard is not a church-going man, and instead prefers the community in the village tavern. He has lived his life against the grain, and dies in fear “that no one would know of the fight I made.”
There is a plethora of literary devices evident in the poem, and I will only mention a few here. Perhaps the most striking device here is parallelism. The poem opens with the words “My valiant fight!” and in line 21, we have the exclamation, “My valiant life!” The speaker is thus underscoring the idea that his entire life was a struggle, and a noble one at that. In lines 13 and 14, there is another parallelism –more specifically an antithesis, presenting two opposing ideas: “Foe of the church…/Friend of the human touch.” This emphasizes Howard’s dislike for the conventions of the town and his affinity for more secular habits, using parallel structure and the commonly opposed “friend” and “foe.” And in line 22, Jefferson Howard is “facing the silence – facing the prospect” of being forgotten in death; this parallelism equates the prospect with the silence by simply renaming one as the other, that is, replacing the one with the other in a similar phrase. In addition, in line 20 Howard states, “I stood alone, as I started alone!” This parallel structure emphasizes the equality of the two phases of his life.
There is also in the first several lines a good example of consonance, with the frequent repetition of labiodental fricatives – the /f/ and /v/ sounds:
My valiant fight! For I call it valiant,
With my father’s beliefs from Old Virginia:
Hating slavery, but no less war.
In addition to this, there is an example of alliteration in lines 14-15: the /t/ sound, in “human touch of the tavern/Tangled with fates….”
In this poem there is a motif of nonconformity, and of life as a constant struggle through daily inconveniences – the difficulties in raising a family and holding tight to ones convictions – here, pro-abolition, anti-religion – when those convictions are often frowned upon. Howard comments on these injustices, noting that during his life he was always “Stealing odd pleasures that cost me prestige/And reaping evils I had not sown.”