Edgar Lee Masters

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Edgar Lee Masters Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2789

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 failures . . . first, the people of one-birth minds [in] second place, and the heroes and enlightened spirits . . . last, a sort of Divine Comedy.” Though many of the speakers do tell the truth about themselves without self-consciousness, some are completely hypocritical, and others are unaware of the implications of what they say about themselves. A. D. Blood, for example, is a town official noted for both his pomposity and his hypocrisy; Masters offers his own unspoken commentary on Blood’s puritanic life by telling of a “worthless” young couple’s lovemaking each night on Blood’s tombstone. Editor Whedon, who in life “pervert[ed] truth” for “cunning ends,” lies in death “where the sewage flows from the village,/ And the empty cans and garbage are dumped,/ And abortions are hidden.”

Some of the unfortunates were victims of well-meaning but unrealistic patriotism, as in the cases of Harry Wilmans and Knolwt Hoheimer; the latter asks of the words on his tombstone, “Pro Patria,” “What do they mean, anyway?” Margaret Fuller Slack is, as her first two names suggest, a frontier feminist who had to decide “Should it be celibacy, matrimony or unchastity?” and who, after rearing eight children, found too little time to write and to become as “great as George Eliot”: She died from lockjaw after washing her baby’s clothes and says, at the end of her speech, “Sex is the curse of life!”

Favorable portraits

The favorable portraits, although fewer in number, are generally effective and touching. Anne Rutledge, Lincoln’s first love, who died before they could marry, tells poignantly of how Lincoln was changed and marked by the loss. Lucinda Matlock, one of the most effective of the poems, tells how she was able to find fulfillment in the small town and in marriage; she asks,

What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?Degenerate sons and daughters,Life is too strong for you—It takes life to love life.

The kind of life that destroyed weaker souls was one in which she exulted and gloried.

Tennessee Chaflin Shope, who had been “the laughing-stock of the village,” especially ridiculed by the “people of good sense” such as a clergyman, reacted to the ridicule by asserting the “sovereignty of [his] soul”; before Mary Baker Eddy had even begun “what she called science,” he had “mastered the ’Bhagavad Gita,’/ And cured [his] soul.” Jonathan Swift Somers, Spoon River’s poet laureate, says in his monologue that after a person has done all that he can to control his life and destiny, his soul might catch fire, enabling him to see the evil of the world clearly; at such a time, that person should be thankful that “Life does not fiddle,” that is, meddle with or cheat him. What makes Somers’s epitaph especially noteworthy is the fact that Masters appended a portion of Somer’s unfinished epic, “The Spooniad,” in which the poet ostensibly offers a dramatic portrayal of the conflict between the liberals and the old guard in Spoon River; in “The Spooniad,” Masters perfectly imitates the rhythms and diction of a classical epic, but with the point of showing how the town’s early history culminated in A. D. Blood’s murder. Even though much of Spoon River Anthology can be said to reflect Masters’s cynicism, his favorable portraits, even more than the unfavorable ones, illustrate the extent to which a few select speakers can see above the mundane pettiness in small-town life and sense the extent to which their lives have great intrinsic value.

Naïve idealism

The excesses of naïve idealism, of course, can easily be seen in those monologues spoken by unsophisticated villagers; yet this is also the case with those who have some awareness of the larger world. Archibald Higbie, in the monologue bearing his name, admits that he “loathed” and “was ashamed” of Spoon River and that he had escaped its influence as he traveled through Europe, pursuing his gifts as an artist. Since Spoon River had “no culture,” its residual influence could only bring Higbie shame. Yet his work, ostensibly of Apollo, still contained the visage of Lincoln, and all he could do, “weighted down with western soil,” was to pray for “another/ Birth,” one “with all of Spoon River/ Rooted out of [his] soul.” A similar inordinate emphasis on the “ideal” that existed far from the village, especially in the form of European art from a “simpler” day, can be found in “Caroline Branson”: The speaker, after lamenting the loss of another’s love, says, not unlike Emily Dickinson, that “only heaven” knows the secret of the “nuptial chamber under the soil”; she too asks for “another trial” and concludes by beseeching, “Save me, Shelley!”

These miniature autobiographies or “autoepitaphs,” then, offer candid reflections by ordinary folk who tell frankly what kinds of persons they were and how they lived. Though the majority have lived “lives of quiet desperation,” bitter, thwarted existences in a drab little village, Masters does suggest by his careful linking of narrative to narrative and general movement from despair to hope that such an existence does not necessarily lead to self-pity and posthumous despondency, but can—in the words of “Fiddler Jones”—lead to “a thousand memories,/ And not a single regret.”

Domesday Book and The Fate of the Jury

None of Masters’s later volumes had either the popularity or the critical acclaim of Spoon River Anthology. Among the more memorable later volumes are Domesday Book and its sequel, The Fate of the Jury. Domesday Book has often been compared to Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1868-1869) in that both long poems present a variety of witnesses to a murder as a means of leading the reader to a recognition of the multiplicity of truth; it has also been compared with Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925). The story, a simple one, is of Barrett Bays, a rabbit hunter, who finds the corpse of a woman on the Illinois River shore near Starved Rock; he sees that the victim is Elenor Murray, his onetime lover. The subsequent coroner’s inquest clears Bays of any guilt in the matter, but the coroner, William Merival, is not satisfied. The reader gradually learns that the victim, a “free spirit” who had worked as a nurse in France during the war and whose relationships have led to the breakup of at least one marriage, was a far more complicated person than anyone in the town realized. Merival assembles a coroner’s jury and subpoenas various witnesses. Most of Domesday Book consists of statements by these witnesses, including the victim’s parents, a teacher, a priest, a piano teacher, a physician, and even the sheriff and the governor. Since each one has only a partial glimpse of the young woman, the resultant composite amounts to a skillful picture of a small town as well as of the deceased. Granted, Masters did extend the verse narrative to too great a length, and granted, too, he was repetitious—inevitable when such partial sources of information are cited. The free verse of Spoon River Anthology was replaced by blank verse that seemed to many readers and reviewers a monotonous, infelicitous choice. Domesday Book remains better in its parts than in the whole, and Masters’s attempt to go beyond anything he had attempted previously can be praised more for the effort and the vision than for the sheer poetic pleasure and drama he was able to create.

The Fate of the Jury, by contrast, is less than half as long as Domesday Book, and it picks up where the earlier book ended. In the later book, Masters allows the jurors and the coroner himself to speak about the case: One juror is a suicide; another (an editor) speaks while on his deathbed; a clergyman disappears after talking with the coroner; and the coroner himself, whose story is the frame for the book, eventually marries a young widow as relief from the pathos and pressure of the prolonged case; unfortunately, there is mental illness in the widow’s family, and shortly after the two are married, she goes insane and dies. Thus, the “fate” of the jury—as well as of the coroner and the original victim—is a pathetic, possibly even tragic, decline into even further despair.

Domesday Book and The Fate of the Jury suffer from prolixity, stylistic roughness, and pretentious, empty rhetoric. Still, Masters’s admitted gift for characterization and for a dramatic, realistic rendering of small-town life in all its squalor and inconsistency is well served by the two books, even though they suffer when compared to better examples of the genre such as Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body (1928) and Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Cavender’s House (1929). Masters wrote some half-dozen later dramatic poems, but none of them achieved even the limited fame and success of Domesday Book and its sequel. The use of a narrative framework composed of courtroom testimony was natural enough for Masters, who so effectively combined the law with poetry, but the richness of the characterization, as in Spoon River Anthology, remains his greatest accomplishment, as well as constituting the single most important parallel with Browning, whose name is so often invoked in relation to Masters. This skillful use of characterization, again in common with courtroom practice, was especially effective when contrasting testimony offered tangential perspective on the truth, with no single speaker or witness having more than a small part of the whole truth. Each speaker in Domesday Book and its sequel clearly felt that he or she had the “truth” about the events under investigation; but the primary truth that is revealed is less about the victim than about the speaker.

Though Masters the poet sometimes falters, Masters the psychologist remains a superlative student of character motivation; nevertheless, his achievement is just now beginning to be appreciated. As craftsmanlike and formally successful as many of his lyrics may be, it is likely that his ultimate reputation will rest primarily on his free-verse dramatic monologues and two longer blank-verse dramatic narratives. Although he tried virtually every poetic form and technique and wrote on a vast array of topics, all of which resulted in repetitiveness, unevenness, and superficiality, his best work transcends mere changes in literary taste and fashion; it is probable that his ultimate rank will be considerably higher than that which he enjoyed during the first half of the twentieth century.

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Edgar Lee Masters American Literature Analysis