Edgar Lee Masters Poetry: American Poets Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Edgar Lee Masters had written hundreds of undistinguished or mediocre poems before Spoon River Anthology; most of these were typical of the time, derivative and rigidly imitative of European models and metrical forms; not surprisingly, these early poems, even when published in book form (as his first four collections were), were generally ignored. Masters’s discovery of Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology and its great influence on his own subsequent work in Spoon River Anthology even led him to an ironic touch of self-criticism, as when his character Petit the Poet, speaking from the grave as do the other inhabitants of Spoon River’s cemetery, expresses the remorse at his placing so much emphasis on “little iambics” while remaining oblivious to all the important events in the world around him. Masters’s accomplishment in this collection was so profound in its originality and its willingness to venture into new patterns that he could scarcely help offering such a reflective comment on his earlier work.

Spoon River Anthology

What Masters accomplished in the book for which he is best known was little short of a revolution, although in retrospect a revolution of which he was merely one of the principals. Masters had befriended the young Carl Sandburg and helped him get his Chicago Poems published in 1916, and Masters, influenced by William Marion Reedy, gradually realized and expressed in various early critical statements that American poetry had to try to offer a distinctively American perspective, not merely to lie buried under layers of technically precise but moribund verse. Both Sandburg and Masters, along with their fellow midwesterner Vachel Lindsay, were part of this concerted move to free native verse from the constraints of more formal poetry, even though the preponderance of educated and critical opinion opposed and belittled their efforts.

Hence, Masters’s accomplishment in Spoon River Anthology, based as it was on “realism”—simplicity of language and form, taking ordinary persons for subjects, a commonsensical attitude toward experience, and much of Walt Whitman’s celebration of America—resulted in an original work that was immensely popular. Masters’s happy ability to combine realistic, plain subject matter with a mystical celebration of both the natural world and the small midwestern town was unique and, ironically, at the same time a poetic dead end. Masters once observed that World War I meant the end of the world he depicted in Spoon River Anthology, partly because the innocence and simplicity he described was no longer possible, and partly because even more revolutionary poetic influences, such as that of T. S. Eliot, were at work. Although people continued to purchase Spoon River Anthology and Masters’s later books, it was obvious that the world out of which that book came had virtually ceased to exist.

Spoon River Anthology is a collection of 244 dramatic monologues—mostly in free verse—by a host of people of all social and occupational levels speaking from their graves in the Spoon River cemetery. Masters faithfully describes their sense of frustration with the dreary, limited, and consistently unfulfilled lives they had lived. Though the book seemed, to some of its initial readers, unnecessarily defeatist and even obscene, especially as the “genteel tradition” attempted to fight what was already a lost cause for literary propriety, Masters was able to develop what he had attempted, an awakening of “the American vision [and] love of liberty.” The sheer honesty of his portrayals thus necessarily shocked some sensitive souls. The speakers, unhindered by the propriety forced on them in life, speak freely of their frustrations with small-town life, sentiments similar in quality to those subsequently expressed by Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and by Sinclair Lewis in Main Street (1920). Critics evaluating Spoon River Anthology, ironically, spent far more time disputing whether the first-person portraits were “poetry” than in considering the extent to which the criticisms were valid. Master’s indebtedness to Whitman (and to Ralph Waldo Emerson) was recognized, especially in his rejection of rigid verse forms, but there seemed to be little understanding of Masters’s intent or ironic perspective.

The New Spoon River

The 244 first-person portraits—and the 321 portraits in the less successful sequel, The New Spoon River—represent virtually all the professions and classes of people in a “typical” small American town, especially a midwestern small town. A mere catalog would indicate that these speakers were teachers, druggists, bankers, housewives, soldiers, laborers, dentists, carpenters, prostitutes, lawyers, and so on. Although some of these assorted personages aspired to ambitions and careers clearly out of reach for their time, talent, and place, almost all of them felt frustrated; very few seem to possess the innate “greatness” that would enable them to sense a larger vision in their lives that would someday take them far from and above their humble origins. For the most part, their limited abilities, petty perspectives, and stilted ambitions suggest that neither in life nor in death could they have completely escaped the village.

Human portraits

Masters did not depict these people as consistently evil, idle, imbecilic, corrupt, or depraved; rather, his objectivity and honesty did not allow him to take sides in presenting their stories; he impersonally depicts both good and evil, even in the same person. Without some passing of judgment, the collection was certain to offend the established genteel view of the day that required moral certitude to be praised and evil to be punished. In no sense are Masters’s “bad” characters dealt with more harshly than his “good” ones. Indeed, the sheer objectivity with which he views his characters enables them to offer their own comments on their lives, thus reflecting evil or virtue in their own words, not through authorial intrusion. Hence, as satire, the volume is excellent, although it is far from an incessantly pessimistic assemblage of worthless defectives. Even Amy Lowell, one of Masters’s first sympathetic readers, found the book depressing—a “long chronicle of rapes, seductions, liaisons, and perversions”—thus suggesting that the sophisticated reader too could miss Masters’s intention to “awaken the American vision” and “love of liberty.”

Fools and failures

In reality, Masters’s plan in Spoon River Anthology is deliberately and carefully structured; as Masters said, he put “the fools, the drunkards, and the...

(The entire section is 2789 words.)