abstract illustration of many different faces and settings that reflect the diversity of speakers in the Spoon River Anthology

Spoon River Anthology

by Edgar Lee Masters

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What is an analysis of "Voltaire Johnson" from Spoon River Anthology?

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"Voltaire Johnson" begins with a series of questions which are really accusations. The speaker complains of being cruelly and stupidly treated by the inhabitants of Spoon River. After these questions, in which he refers bitterly to the "tyranny" of the townsfolk and the "the nails of cruelty" with which they hurt him, he thinks of what he might have been in happier circumstances. His soul could have been serene, like that of the Romantic poet Wordsworth, if he had not been forced to live in such a benighted place.

The speaker's first name is the pseudonym of the great iconoclastic French philosopher of the Enlightenment, much reviled during his lifetime. His surname may be a reference to Dr. Samuel Johnson, another Enlightenment figure condemned to poverty and relative obscurity. He makes it clear that the people of Spoon River were not merely unappreciative of his rebellious spirit, but actively antagonistic. He apostrophizes the town as a whole, calling it a coward, and concludes with a sarcastic description of its hurt reaction to the "ironical lightning" of his wit. The poem that began as a complaint of the town's cruelty to him ends with Johnson sneering at the town.

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