Friday, August 5, 2011

Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

Source of Book: I own this
Copyright information: Public Domain

Edgar Lee Masters is one of my more peculiar favorite poets. This might be due to the fact that he was a lawyer – he was Clarence Darrow’s partner from 1903 to 1908. In his spare time, he wrote poetry. Spoon River Anthology is his best known and most popular work.

I first discovered this collection in high school at a formative time in my life. I don’t come from a particularly poetic family, although my parents are both avid readers – particularly my mother. I initially discovered Emily Dickinson in grade school, also enjoying Stevenson and Christina Rossetti. It was in high school, however, that I first understood the beauty of meter and rhythm, and discovered Frost, Shakespeare, and Milton. (Among many others)

Spoon River spoke to me at a level I didn’t really understand at the time. I purchased a paperback copy, and have read bits and pieces from time to time. As part of my poetry project (see previous posts), I have been reading entire collections, so I decided to read this one cover to cover.

Masters began this work by writing individual poems published under a pseudonym in Reedy’s Mirror, a Midwestern literary magazine. Eventually, he collected these, with some additions, as the Spoon River Anthology.

What exactly is this Anthology? At its heart, it is the story of an imaginary Illinois town named Spoon River told by its inhabitants through their epitaphs. Masters populates his town with 212 individual characters, each having his or her own story and personality. These stories intersect, allowing the picture of the town and its history to be told from multiple, often conflicting, perspectives.

The form is free verse, but the cadence of the language clearly positions the work in the realm of poetry, not prose broken up in lines. I found that my experience was heightened when I read aloud.

Masters starts the story with a prelude, entitled “The Hill”, setting the stage.

Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
All, all are sleeping on the hill.
One passed in a fever,
One was burned in a mine,
One was killed in a brawl,
One died in a jail,
One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

The prelude continues with similar vignettes concluded with the repetition of “all” and “sleeping” throughout the prelude.

The main body of the work is the individual epitaphs. Masters allows his characters to speak without fear of retribution. They are, after all, dead. This allows a brutal honesty that would never have been an option during the lives of the characters. Overall, there is an undercurrent of pessimism. However, I never found this to be a negative. This is all about death, after all. We all will die, leaving unfulfilled dreams, lost opportunities, and in many cases regrets for what should have been in a perfect world. This is not despair – things are not hopeless, just disappointing. Again, I did not realize quite why this resonated at age 15, but at 35, it reflects my own realization that life passes quickly, and I will never accomplish everything I would like, despite my best efforts.

The other source of resonance in this work is Master’s excellent characterization. These are real, believable people. (If perhaps a bit more poetic than average) I recognize my friends, family, and clients far to well. I recognize myself more than I wish.

There are too many great sections to quote individually, but I will mention a few.

First, “Robert Fulton Tanner” describes the rat race in memorable fashion:

IF a man could bite the giant hand    
That catches and destroys him,          
As I was bitten by a rat          
While demonstrating my patent trap,
In my hardware store that day.          
But a man can never avenge himself 
On the monstrous ogre Life.  
You enter the room—that’s being born;        
And then you must live—work out your soul,          
Aha! the bait that you crave is in view:           
A woman with money you want to marry,    
Prestige, place, or power in the world.          
But there’s work to do and things to conquer—       
Oh, yes! the wires that screen the bait.          
At last you get in—but you hear a step:          
The ogre, Life, comes into the room, 
(He was waiting and heard the clang of the spring)  
To watch you nibble the wondrous cheese,   
And stare with his burning eyes at you,        
And scowl and laugh, and mock and curse you,       
Running up and down in the trap,     
Until your misery bores him.  
I also enjoyed the pair of epitaphs for attorney Benjamin Pantier and his wife. Benjamin describes being reduced by his shrewish wife to sleeping in his office with his dog – who is buried with him. Ms. Pantier, on the other hand, describes her delicate and refined taste, which was disgusted by the coarse and common Benjamin so that she loathed him and eventually drove him away.

In this, as in other “sets”, the same events are told from multiple perspectives.

Both attorneys and poets figure prominently in this work – naturally Masters writes of what he knows. I suppose it would be more likely that a poet or attorney would leave a longer or more memorable epitaph if given the choice. For example, “Fiddler Jones” ends:

I ended up with a broken fiddle-
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories.
And not a single regret.

For the attorneys, “Penniwit, the Artist” offers a bit of familiar humor:

I LOST my patronage in Spoon River           
From trying to put my mind in the camera    
To catch the soul of the person.         
The very best picture I ever took       
Was of Judge Somers, attorney at law.         
He sat upright and had me pause       
Till he got his cross-eye straight.        
Then when he was ready he said “all right.” 
And I yelled “overruled” and his eye turned up.      
And I caught him just as he used to look      
When saying “I except.”

I will also mention a great line from “Seth Compton”, who was apparently the much maligned librarian. The populace objected to his championing of Faust, among other “evil” works.

Choose your own good and call it good.       
For I could never make you see           
That no one knows what is good       
Who knows not what is evil; 
And no one knows what is true         
Who knows not what is false.

We could start a great philosophical and theological argument over these lines.

Not all of the poems are this pessimistic, however. “Perry Zoll”, an under appreciated scientist is able to graciously reflect on his lack of honor in his hometown until far after he achieved it elsewhere.

At the very end of the work, Masters includes “The Spooniad”, purporting to be a fragment written by one of the characters. It is written in parody of Paradise Lost, although it deals with a minor election and the related events.

I will end with what is probably the best known and most popular poem from the collection, “George Gray”. It sums up the tragedy most of us wish to avoid – that of never risking, never trying, never living.

I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me --
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one's life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire --
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

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