Doc Hill was a much loved and revered figure in society, but equally disliked at home. His wife hated him, while his son seems to be a careless and misguided youth. Denied love from wife and son, Hill would visit sick and unwell people “day and night,” looking after them. This shows how much he craved love and affection, and how he tried to garner it from outside his family through his generous service.
Seeing the crowds of his admirers gather at his funeral gives Hill's soul a great sense of satisfaction and joy. It shows he influenced many lives through his service and magnanimity.
However, the mention of Em Stanton adds another aspect to Doc Hill’s character. Nothing more is told about her except that she is deeply wounded by Hill’s death, and she wouldn’t lament him in public. She hides herself behind an oak tree and mourns his death.
Stanton might be the other woman in Hill’s life. It isn't exactly known whether she was behind Hill's unhappy marital life or if she appeared later in his life. But the way the speaker reacts to seeing her raises curiosity about her identity and their relationship.
But oh, dear God, my soul trembled, scarcely able
To hold to the railing of the new life
When I saw Em Stanton behind the oak tree
It's evident that, on a personal level, Hill was deeply attached to Stanton. He knows his death would be a great loss to her. So, he is profoundly saddened when he finds Stanton mourning him secretly behind an oak tree. It shows that Hill must have loved her a lot.
So, we see that though Doc Hill received great love and respect from people, he was deprived of the most fundamental human need—familial love. He was successful as a public figure, but in his personal life, he failed miserably to earn his wife and son’s affection.
The message of the poem is that it was the denial of love and affection from the people closest to him that led Hill to choose the path of serving mankind. The love and affection that he might have wished to shower on his wife and son he instead poured on people in need.
“Doc Hill” by Edgar Lee Masters is a poem in which the speaker, Doc Hill, delivers his message to the reader after his death. His marriage fails and his son chooses a questionable path in life, therefore he uses his medical skills to redeem his sad life and self-respect. He doctors the poor and less fortunate people of the town. The large crowd at his funeral is evidence that the people loved him. Em Stanton is not identified other than as a woman who cared deeply for Doc but was unable to show it in public. She hides “behind the oak tree” at his funeral. The message from Doc’s grave is that he positively influenced the lives of other people, in spite of failures in his own life. In turn, the people loved him. The poem also speaks to the desperation one feels when leaving an unrequited love.