The Poem

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

Spoon River Anthology is a book-length collection of 243 free verse epitaphs, in which the citizens buried in the graveyard of a fictional Midwestern town (Spoon River) talk about their lives, their failures, their loves, their philosophies, their triumphs, their conflicts, their secrets, and their crimes. Edgar Lee Masters published many of these pieces in Reedy’s Mirror under the pseudonym Webster Ford (for whom Masters composed the epitaph that concludes Spoon River Anthology) during 1914; with encouragement, however, Masters collected his pieces, introduced them with the lyric “The Hill,” concluded them with “The Spooniad,” and published them as a book under his own name in 1915. The epitaphs, most of which are spoken in the first person by those buried in the Spoon River graveyard, range from five lines in length (“Alexander Throckmorton”) to forty-five lines (“Caroline Branson”). Many of the lives and stories in the collection are related and intertwined, and to read the entire Spoon River Anthology is to experience a panoramic view of human existence and experience, a view filtered through the perspective of a small American town.

Masters’ choice of title reveals much about his attitude toward his subject and about his stylistic approach to that subject. The word “anthology” is from the Greek, meaning a collection of epigrams. Masters knew Greek, and in selecting this title, he calls our attention to the epigrammatic form—a style of poetry that traditionally is pointed, brief, focused, sometimes a bit cynical, and always enlightening and wise. Even when the inhabitants of Spoon River do not display deep insight, these epigrams still cause the reader to think over what has been said, to reflect on it, and to come away enlightened.

The collection begins with a table of contents, which lists the poems in alphabetical order. Since most titles are simply the names of the persons under consideration, the table of contents has the effect of reducing the inhabitants of the Spoon River graveyard to a list of meaningless names. Reading the list—“Ballard, John; Barker, Amanda; Barrett, Pauline; Bartlett, Ezra; Bateson, Marie”—is like encountering a faceless crowd. The artistry of the Spoon River Anthology becomes clear when one begins reading the epigrams themselves, for each person emerges as a unique individual, a strong personality.

The first poem in the collection, “The Hill,” is not one of the epitaphs but rather represents an example of the ubi sunt theme in poetry, through which the lost things of the past are lamented. Ubi sunt is Latin for “where are,” and in this poem, Masters asks “Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,/ Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith?” His answer is that all “are sleeping on the hill” in the graveyard. “The Hill” sets the tone for the rest of the volume, for—despite some moments of satisfaction, pleasure, and triumph—most of the monologues in Spoon River Anthology are somber.

The first epigram in the collection is “Hod Putt,” and this short piece offers the voice of a man tried and hanged for murder. Hod Putt tells the reader that he lies “close to the grave/ Of Old Bill Piersol,/ Who grew rich trading with the Indians.” As Piersol grows rich through manipulation of the law, Hod Putt becomes angrier and angrier, finally resorting to armed robbery, killing his victim. There is a note of ironic triumph in the poem, however, for Hod Putt concludes, “Now we who took the bankrupt law in our respective ways/ Sleep peacefully side by side.” “Ollie McGee” and “Fletcher McGee” present two different sides of a troubled marriage. The relationship between the two sounds emotionally murderous, for Ollie McGee claims, “That is my husband who, by secret cruelty/ Never to be told, robbed me of my youth and my beauty,” while Fletcher McGee says, “she died and haunted me,/ And hunted me for life.” Typically, readers never discover what actually went on between these two, but it is clear that they destroyed each other.

“Robert Fulton Tanner” presents one of Masters’ most dreary depictions of the universe, for Tanner claims that “A man can never avenge himself/ On the monstrous ogre Life.” Man is rendered, in Tanner’s view, little more than a rat in a trap, and all life does is “stare with his burning eyes at you,/ And scowl and laugh, and mock and curse you,/ Until your misery bores him.” The situation for women is equally cheerless in Spoon River. Daisy Fraser, the town prostitute, asserts that while she may be scorned and reviled, at least she contributes “ten dollars and costs/ To the school fund of Spoon River” each time she is brought before Justice Arnett. She sets herself in sharp contrast to the town fathers (the editor, the judge, the minister), who—she claims—are immoral and corrupt. The plight of Minerva Jones, “the village poetess,” is hopeless in a more dramatic way. Jeered at by the “Yahoos” in the town, she is raped by “Butch” Weldy, who “Captured me after a brutal hunt.” From her grave she implores someone to gather her verses into a book. She laments, “I thirsted so for love!/ I hungered so for life!”

The love that might come of a comfortable marriage is described by Trainor, the druggist, who asks, “who can tell/ How men and women will interact/ On each other, or what children will result?” Observing the families of Spoon River, Trainor says, “I Trainor, the druggist, a mixer of chemicals,/ Killed while making an experiment,/ Lived unwedded.” Looking at “Amanda Barker,” one can see why marriage seems unsavory in Spoon River. Amanda says, in eight short lines, that her husband Henry “got me with child,/ Knowing that I could not bring forth life/ Without losing my own.” She asserts that Henry did not love her “with a husband’s love” but rather killed her to “gratify his hatred.”

Other noteworthy pieces from this collection include “Reuben Pantier” and “Emily Sparks.” Emily Sparks is the town schoolteacher, who has great hopes for “The boy I loved best of all in the school”; she is “the teacher, the old maid, the virgin heart,” but she does express some positive feeling about the young man of whom she dreams. Unfortunately, it is probably Reuben Pantier she thinks about, and he—as his poem reveals—has been driven from town for being involved with the milliner’s daughter. In France, he has taken up with other women and corrupted himself with alcohol: “I passed through every peril known/ Of wine and women and joy of life.” Sadly, but sweetly, he remembers Miss Emily Sparks and cries for her, saying, “I owe whatever I was in life/ To your hope that would not give me up,/ To your love that saw me still as good.”

The collection concludes with “The Spooniad,” a “fragment” of an epic planned by one of the residents of Spoon River, Jonathan Swift Somers. This rather long, blank-verse piece, which presents the events of Spoon River in a mock-heroic fashion, is meant to mimic the form of such great epics as Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.) and Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.). In effect, this section rounds out the entire work, since it presents the inhabitants of Spoon River as living human beings, interacting with one another rather than speaking somewhat somberly from the grave.