Spoon River Anthology Questions and Answers
by Edgar Lee Masters

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What is the irony in the poem "Julia Miller" from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters?

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Spoon River Anthology is a suite of poems in the voices of the deceased residents of a small town, each speaker recounting the circumstances of their lives and deaths. The experience for the reader is akin to visiting each one’s grave marker and providing final witness as the townspeople make their posthumous confessions. As such, the individual poems are generally downbeat; a recurring theme involves the remorses, unfinished relationships, and responsibilities of lives interrupted.

Of the many poems anthologized, Julia Miller’s is bracketed by two other poems—Flossie Cabanis’s and Johnnie Sayre’s—of those who met with violent ends. Hers was an apparent suicide by drug overdose. When we unpack the poem, we see that Julia Miller was betrayed, shamed, and treated somewhere along the spectrum of "misunderstood"...

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camrynnesullivan | Student

The irony in the poem "Julia Miller" from the Spoon River Anthology, is that Julia Miller unknowingly died while reading a passage from the Bible about seeing Jesus in the afterlife.

Then I took the morphine and sat down to read.

Across the blackness that came over my eyes

I see flickering light of these words even now:

"And Jesus said unto him, Verily

I say unto thee, To-day thou shalt

Be with me in paradise."

Now a traditional use of irony in literature dates back to Greek tragedies. The full significance of the characters actions were known by the audience and unknown by the character. In the case of Julia Miller we, the audience, are aware that she overdosed on morphine, but at the time she did not realize and sat down to read. We can infer that she was suicidal by how unhappy she was in the first four lines of the poem.

We quarreled that morning;

For he was sixty-five, and I was thirty,

And I was nervous and heavy with the child

Whose birth I dreaded.

While she may have thought in the moment that the blackness coming over her eyes was sleep, we, the audience, understand that it was actually death creeping over her. We understand the full significance of her reading a passage about being with Jesus in an afterlife because she was in that moment dying. However she was not aware that in that moment those would be the last words she would ever read.

As the poems from Spoon River Anthology are the stories told from the ghosts of the townspeople of Spoon River. Julia Miller's account of her last day alive, is told from a perspective of what she knows now, not what she knew at the time of her death. Thus confirming the irony in her death.