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.

Forms and Devices

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

Spoon River Anthology had a heavy impact on the reading public of early twentieth century America; it provoked anger, wonder, disgust, puzzlement, and admiration. The work was translated into many other languages, performed as an opera, and enjoyed a long popularity; it has, moreover, been adapted for many theatrical presentations over the years. What compelled the early readers of this work, though, was the question of its genre—was it poetry, fiction, drama, essay? The pieces in Spoon River Anthology did not look or sound like poems. They were written in free verse, having no rhymes or metrical patterns. They did not even seem to use imagery or metaphor heavily. In fact, the language was considered by some to be simply flat, careless, ugly, and uninteresting—certainly unpoetic.

The strength and poetry of these pieces derive from another source; it is their psychological insight, their social awareness, their range in perspective, and their philosophical questioning that make them great. These short monologues, presented in the natural speech of small-town Americans, reveal human passions with such openness and honesty that they were like a splash of cold water in the face of American propriety. Each is quick and pointed, but each is deadly accurate in its rendering of human emotions, human tragedy, human conflict, and human yearnings.

The organization of Spoon River Anthology conveys a sense of modernity and fragmentation that one might find more characteristic of T. S. Eliot than of Edgar Lee Masters. Each epitaph is locked solidly into the point of view, the perspective, of the person who speaks it. Many of these individuals are clearly misguided, even criminal, often vicious. The fact that cross-references exist, that the same story is heard from several different perspectives, that many voices speak, gives a more complete picture of one American community. Although none of the citizens of Spoon River can speak for all of Spoon River, their voices taken as a choir offer a rich and fascinating picture of that imaginary town.

It is important to note the realism of the work since that realism was one aspect of Spoon River Anthology that many early readers found offensive. Masters is straightforward in dealing with many unsavory subjects—rape, abortion, murder, child abuse, suicide, thievery, and many less lurid events. In fact, there is almost something matter-of-fact about the way some of these people speak of the most horrible aspects of their lives. The unswerving determination Masters brings to bear on his subjects, his refusal to blush before an unpleasant issue, his grasp of the psychological realities of human emotions—these factors turn the brief narrative portraits into poetry. Their honesty and unswerving clarity of vision make them art.

Finally, in considering the morality or vision of Spoon River Anthology, it is necessary to note that each poem concludes, if not with a distinct moral lesson, at least with some moment of insight for the reader. In fact, Masters is quite concerned that his audience be involved in these brief encounters, for many of the pieces refer to or imply an audience—sometimes a traveler, sometimes the town itself, sometimes a passerby. This person or this group is invited by the speaker to consider the facts, to consider the consequences, to learn from what has happened. Some speakers even offer warnings to the audience. Moreover, the entire shape of the book encourages a more positive reading than might be apparent initially. While early portraits are those of misfits and outsiders, sinners and cynics, later portraits present more philosophical speakers, people who wonder about life, who consider larger issues, who themselves enjoy moments of insight along with eternities of pain.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Spoon River

Spoon River. Imaginary midwestern town that is probably loosely based on Lewiston, Illinois, where Masters studied law in his father’s office and practiced for a year before moving to Chicago. Masters’s book is a collection of 243 free verse epitaphs, in which the citizens buried in the Spoon River Cemetery talk about their lives, their failures, their loves, philosophies, triumphs, conflicts, secrets, and crimes. Many of the stories in the collection are related and intertwined, and to read the entire anthology is to experience a panoramic view of human existence and experience, a view filtered through the perspective of a small American town.

Because these people are no longer members of the living community, in which they would have had to preserve facades, please relatives, or impress employers, they have nothing to lose by being honest. Death frees them to show the reader the reality of their lives and their emotions. With this freedom, the audience is granted a visceral and moving portrait of how members of the human family can and do treat one another, how they really behave, what truly motivates them. The secrets Spoon River’s dead inhabitants reveal are sometimes shocking—stories of intrigue, corruption, frustration, adultery. On the other hand, the speakers tell their stories with a calmness and simplicity that induce a similar sense in the reader. Because of its very frankness, the anthology provoked protest from some readers who felt that it presented too sordid a picture of American small-town life.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Flanagan, John T. Edgar Lee Masters: The Spoon River Poet and His Critics. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974. Examines critical reaction over several decades and discusses attitudes toward Spoon River Anthology. Evaluates subject matter and poetic form. Includes descriptions of theatrical presentations.

Hallwas, John E., ed. Introduction and annotations to Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1992. An excellent starting point. Introduction evaluates style, rhythm, meter, and literary influences. Discusses social attitudes, focusing on the influence of American myths and democratic ideals on characterization. Notes and annotations include textual variations and provide real life counterparts and explanations of period names and information. Annotated bibliography.

Masters, Edgar Lee. Across Spoon River: An Autobiography. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1936. Autobiography of Edgar Lee Masters, beginning with his early years in Petersburg and Lewiston, Illinois. Reveals incidents that are recreated in Spoon River Anthology. Compares and contrasts legal and writing careers and discusses literary influences and Masters’ relationships with writers such as Carl Sandburg and Theodore Dreiser.

Primeau, Ronald. Beyond Spoon River: The Legacy of Edgar Lee Masters. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. Detailed exploration of literary influences, from classical literature to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Analyzes style, comparing Masters’ poems with those of earlier writers. Discusses unusual blend of regionalism and unsentimental realism.

Wrenn, John H., and Margaret M. Wrenn. Edgar Lee Masters. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A good critical source, providing biographical information and tracing literary influences. Discusses organization, style, and language. Explores relationships between characters, stressing realistic portrayals of social repression and sexuality.