Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

To understand fully what Masters hoped to achieve in Spoon River Anthology, it is important always to keep one fact in mind: The people speaking are dead. Masters did not offer a picture of a town full of living people, so the careful reader must ask: Why not? Why must these people speak to us from the grave? What does Masters hope to accomplish with this technique? The first answer must have something to do with the liberty the dead have in addressing the living. These people are no longer members of a community in which they must preserve a facade, please a parent, or impress an employer. They have nothing to lose by their honesty. Many upright people in Spoon River admit to having had affairs (Sarah Brown, Willard Fluke, and Doc Hill), to having participated in illegal and immoral acts (the town marshal), to having practiced deception and fraud (Dr. Siegrfied [sic] Iseman), and to engaging in secret and shameful corruption (Deacon Taylor is a prohibitionist who dies of alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver). 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 fact that all the speakers in Spoon River Anthology are dead leads one to consider Masters’ thematic preoccupation. There are several positive and strong declarations in this collection. Lucinda Matlock, for example, describes her life as full and lusty, claiming that “Life is too strong” for most people; “It takes life to love Life.” Even the village atheist is filled with spiritual energy: “Coughing myself to death/ I read the Upanishads and the poetry of Jesus./ And they lighted a torch of hope and intuition.” Despite these declarations, however, Masters seems to emphasize the vanity of human aspirations. No matter who people are, no matter how great they feel themselves to be, they find themselves at the end of their lives, “sleeping on the hill”—beggars, thieves, judges, harlots, teachers, philosophers, visionaries, and cynics—all are brothers and sisters in death, all are dust in the end.

Masters’ world view seems, then, heavily naturalistic—that is, characterized by a sense that one’s fate is determined more by biology, material circumstance, external forces, than by human will or desire. Even when the inhabitants of Spoon River have strong desires (such as Harry Wilmans’ naïve patriotic desire to go to Manila to fight for his country or Seth Compton’s desire to provide books and knowledge for the residents of this town), they are destroyed by these desires. It is almost as if—in Masters’ view—desire is destined to become disease or compulsion. Moreover, the citizens of Spoon River seem, frequently, to be slaves to their desires. Eugenia Todd compares human love and ambition to “an old tooth a pain in the side, or a malignant growth,” implying that the souls’ desires are nothing more than manifestations of some biology beyond conscious control; and Judge Selah Lively attributes his ambition to become a successful professional to the fact that he “stood just five feet two” and that people “jeered” at his size. The human spirit seems quite impoverished in Masters’ view, and traditional religion offers little comfort. Henry Phipps tells the reader that he lived his whole life “made white/ With the paint of the Christian creed” only to lose all, ironically, by an act of God.

Even human love and the family seem hopeless. Herbert Marshall tells the reader that the tragedy of human life is that people must love, people need to love, but the ones who people love usually do not return the affection: “This is life’s sorrow:/ That one can be happy only where two are;/ And that our hearts are drawn to stars/ Which want us not.” In fact, there is one hopeless love after another in Spoon River Anthology. Pauline Barrett and her husband seek unsuccessfully to recover their affection when she is left “the shell of a woman after the surgeon’s knife”; Julia Miller marries a man thirty-five years older than she to provide a father for her unborn baby but then kills herself and the child, longing for the baby’s real father; Mabel Osborne laments the love she missed because no one saw her need: “I, who had happiness to share/ And longed to share your happiness;/ I who loved you, Spoon River,/ And craved your love,/ Withered before your eyes, Spoon River—/ Thirsting, thirsting.” The family offers little comfort to these lonely, deserted people. Barry Holden attends the trial of Dr. Duval for the murder of Zora Clemens, and “It was clear he had got her in a family way/ And to let the child be born/ Would not do.” Shaken, Barry Holden goes home to his wife and eight children: “And just as I entered there was my wife,/ Standing before me, big with child./ She started the talk of the mortgaged farm,/ And I killed her.”

There is a deep and pervasive hopelessness in Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, one that fills the reader with an inexorable sadness for the human condition. Harold Arnett expresses this sadness when he thinks of his failures in Spoon River and asks, “Of what use is it/ To rid one’s self of the world,/ When no soul may ever escape the eternal destiny of life?” Perhaps it is simply this sadness which Masters evokes in the reader that will be salvation. Griffy the Cooper challenges readers by observing how little they know about the world and people around them: “The cooper should know about tubs./ But I learned about life as well./ And you who loiter around these graves/ Think you know life.” In one of the final epitaphs in the collection, “Jeremy Carlisle,” Masters puts Griffy’s words into perspective, showing that it is one’s duty to try to know the people of one’s community, to try to pierce the loneliness and lies and sadness that separate one person from another. Jeremy Carlisle addresses the reader directly, declaring, “Passer-by, sin beyond any sin/ Is the sin of blindness of souls to other souls./ And joy beyond any joy is the joy/ Of having the good in you seen, and seeing the good/ At the miraculous moment!” It is this blindness that Spoon River Anthology seeks to redress.