Spoon River Anthology Analysis
by Edgar Lee Masters

Spoon River Anthology book cover
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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...

(The entire section is 2,344 words.)