John Ballard is one of the residents of the graveyard at Spoon River, the town whose departed citizens tell their stories as poetic epitaphs on their tombstones. This collection of confessional works, Spoon River Anthology, paints a picture of life in a small American town that includes the virtues and faults of its people.
John Ballard would not be considered a paradigm of virtue in middle America in the early 20th century when the collection was published. He believes that God exists. He just rejects the idea of having a relationship with him.
In the lust of my strength
I cursed God, but he paid no attention to me:
I might as well have cursed the stars.
The speaker begins his monologue by antagonizing God. He is in his prime, the “lust of [his] strength” and has no need of God’s help, so it seems. However, he sounds disappointed when he reports the fact that God does not strike him down. Instead of saying God did not punish him, he puts it in the context of God ignoring him. “He paid no attention to me” sounds like a small child misbehaving to get his parents’ attention. By comparing the non-event of cursing God to the ineffectiveness of cursing the stars, he gives an impression of God as being extremely distant. But he wants God to know he is there.
When Ballard reaches the end of his life and is suffering through a miserable illness, instead of turning to God for help as some people do, trying to make up for past transgressions and win salvation, he curses God again.
In my last sickness I was in agony, but I was resolute
And I cursed God for my suffering;
Still He paid no attention to me;
He left me alone, as He had always done.
I might as well have cursed the Presbyterian steeple.
After he lashes out at the God who controls his life and therefore gave him this suffering, he again laments that God pays him no attention, and blames God for ignoring him his entire life. He puts all the responsibility on God and takes none of it for himself. This time he compares the experience to cursing a Presbyterian steeple. This can also bee seen as an image of remoteness, as Presbyterian steeples are usually very high and very removed from the earth. This symbol portrays the practice of religion as keeping God far away. It is easy to see why Ballard would reject a practice that puts God on top of a pointy steeple if what he really wants is interaction with God.
As his death becomes imminent, Ballard reacts in a way we see as more typical of a non-religious person facing their own mortality. He becomes afraid.
Then, as I grew weaker, a terror came over me:
Perhaps I had alienated God by cursing him.
The thought finally occurs to him that his lack of a relationship with God may have something to do with his violent rejection of Him. Inspired by the bouquet, Ballard then decides to try to reach out to God, to “make friends” with his Maker, but this first foray into spirituality is not successful.
One day Lydia Humphrey brought me a bouquet
And it occurred to me to try to make friends with God,
So I tried to make friends with Him;
But I might as well have tried to make friends with the bouquet.
The piece of God’s natural creation is more inspirational than the cold church steeple. The act of kindness from a fellow Spoon River resident shows him that the way to go about building a relationship is to reach out with gentleness, not to seek attention by being irritable. He does not immediately feel a response from God, but it is a first step, and upon reflection, he starts to realize how to become close to God.
Now I was very close to the secret,
For I really could make friends with the bouquet
By holding close to me the love in me for the bouquet
And so I was creeping upon the secret, but –
Ballard realizes he could “make friends” with the bouquet by being the one to make the first move, and to make it out of love. He must first feel love in his heart for whatever or whoever he wants to build a relationship with. He realizes that he is learning how to connect, taking steps toward building a relationship with God. But then the final line is cut off before he actually discovers the secret. It appears his illness took him right before can grasp what has eluded him his whole life.