Edgar Lee Masters

September 18, 2006

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(1868-1950)

American poet, biographer, and dramatist
First published his early poems and essays under the pseudonym Dexter Wallace

Spoon River Anthology 1915

Collection of unusual, short, free-form poems that collectively describe the life of the fictional small town of Spoon River
Includes two hundred and twelve separate characters, all providing two-hundred forty-four soliloquies
Each poem is an epitaph of a dead citizen, delivered by the dead themselves
Insanely popular: more so with non-poetry specialists

Quotations

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 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.
Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith, / The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, / the happy one?- / All, all, are sleeping on the hill.
One died in shameful child-birth, / One of a thwarted love, / One at the hands of a brute in a brothel, / One of a broken pride, in the search for heart’s desire, / One after life in far-away London and Paris / Was brought to her little space by Ella and Kate and mag- / All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.
Where are Uncle Isaac and Aunt Emily, / And old Towny Kincaid and Sevigne Houghton, / And Major Walker who had talked / With venerable men of the revolution:- / All, all, are sleeping on the hill.
They brought them dead sons from the way, And daughters whom life had crushed, / And their children fatherless, crying- / All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.
Where is Old Fiddler Jones / Who played with life all his ninety years, / Braving the sleet with bared breast, / Drinking, roiting, thinking neither of wife nor kin, / Nor gold, nor love, nor heaven? / Lo! he babbles of the fish-frys of long ago, / Of the horse-races of long ago at Clary’s Grove, / Of what Abe Lincoln said / One time at Springfield.

-The Hill (in whole)

Henry got me with child, / Knowing that I could not bring forth life / Without losing my own. / In my youth therefore I entered the portals of dust. / Traveler, it is believed in the village where I lived / That Henry loved me with a husband’s love, / But I proclaim from the dust / That he slew me to gratify his hatred.

-Amanda Barker (in whole)

In life I was the town drunkard; / When I died the priest denied me burial / In holy ground. / The which redounded to my good fortune. / For the Protestants bought this lot, / And buried my body here, / Close to the grave of the banker Nicholas, / And of his wife Priscilla. / Take note, ye prudent and pious souls, / Of the cross-currents in life / Which bring honor to the dead, who lived in shame.

-Chase Henry (in whole)

My wife lost her health, / And dwindled until she weighed scarce ninety pounds. / Then that woman, whom the men / Styled Cleopatra, came along. / And we-we married ones / All broke our vows, myself among the rest. / Years passed and one by one / Death claimed them all in some hideous form, / And I was borne right along by dreams / Of God’s particular grace for me, / And I began to write, write, write, reams on reams / Of the second coming of Christ. / Then Christ came to me and said, / “Go into the church and stand before the congregation / And confess your sin.” / But just as I stood up and began to speak / I saw my little girl, who was sitting in the front seat- / My little girl who was born blind! / After that, all is blackness!

-Willard Fluke (in whole)

Over and over they used to ask me, / While buying the wine or the beer, / In Peoria first, and later in Chicago, / Denver, Frisco, New York, wherever I lived, / How I happened to lead the life, / And what was the start of it. / Well, I told them a silk dress, / And a promise of marriage from a rich man- / (It was Lucius Atherton). / But that was not really it at all. / Suppose a boy steals an apple / From the tray at the grocery store, / And they all begin to call him a thief, / The editor, minister, judge, and all the people- / “A thief,” “a thief,” “a thief,” wherever he goes. / And he can’t get work, and he can’t ge bread / Without stealing it, why the boy will steal. / It’s the way the people regard the theft of the apple / That makes the boy what he is.

-Aner Clute (in whole)

When my moustache curled, / And my hair was black, / And I wore tight trousers / And a diamond stud, / I was an excellent knave of hearts and took many a trick. / But when the gray hairs began to appear- / Lo! a new generation of girls / Laughed at me, not fearing me, / And I had no more exciting adventures / Wherein I was all but shot for a heartless devil, / But only drabby affairs, warmed-over affairs / Of other days and other men. / And time went on until I lived at Mayer’s restaurant, / Partaking of short-orders, a gray, untidy, / Toothless, discarded, rural Don Juan…. / There is a mighty shade here who sings / Of one named Beatrice; / And I see now that the force that made him great / Drove me to the dregs of live.

-Lucius Atherton (in whole)

Often Aner Clute at the gate / Refused me the parting kiss, / Saying we should be engaged before that; / And just with a distant clasp of the hand / She bade me good-night, as I brought her home / From the skating rink or the revival. / No sooner did my departing footsteps die away / Than Lusius Atherton, / (So I learned with Aner went to Peoria) / Stole in at her window, or took her riding / Behind his spanking team of bays / Into the country. / The shock of it made me settle down, / And I put all the money I got from my father’s estate / Into the canning factory, to get the job / Of head accountant, and lost it all. / And then I knew I was one of Life’s fools, / Whom only death would treat as the equal / Of other men, making me feel like a man.

-Homer Clapp (in whole)

The earth keeps some vibration going / There in your heart, and that is you. / And if the people find you can fiddle, / Why, fiddle you must, for all your life. / What do you see, a harvest of clover? / Or a meadow to walk through to the river? / The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands / For beeves heareafter ready for market; / Or else you hear the rustle of skirts / Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove. / To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust / Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth; / They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy / Stepping it off, to “Toor-a-Loor.” / How could I till my forty acres / Not to speak of getting more, / With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos / Stirred in my brain by crows and robins / And the creak of a wind-mill- only these? / And I nevered started to plow in my life / That some one did not stop in the road / And take me away to a dance or picnic. / I ended up with forty acres; / I ended up with a broken fiddle- / And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories. / And not a single regret.

-Fiddler Jones (in whole)

I was only eight years old; / And before I grew up and knew what it meant / I had no words for it, except / that I was frightened and told my Mother; / And that my Father got a pistol / And would have killed Charlie, who was a big boy, / Fifteen years old, except for his Mother. / Nevertheless the story clung to me. / But the man who married me, a widower of thirty-five, / Was a newcomer and never heard it. Till two years after we were married. / Then he considered himself cheated, / And the village agreed that I was not really a virgin. / Well, he deserted me, and I died / The following winter.

-Nellie Clark (in whole)

Herbert broke our engagement of eight years / When Annabelle returned to the village / From the Seminary, ah me! / If I had let my love for him alone / It might have grown into a beautiful sorrow- / Who knows? -filling my life with healing fragrance. / But I tortured it, I poisoned it, / I blinded its eyes, and it became hatred- / Deadly ivy instead of clematis. / And my soul fell from its support, / Its tendrils tangled in decay. / Do not let the will play gardener to your soul / Unless you are sure / It is wiser than your soul’s nature.

-Louise Smith (in whole)

The got me into the Sunday-school / In Spoon River / And tried to get me to drop Confucius for Jesus. / I could have been no worse off / If I had tried to get them to drop Jesus for Confucius. / For, without any warning, as if it were a prank, / And sneaking up behind me, Harry Wiley, / The minister’s son, caved my ribs into my lungs, / With a blow of his fist. / Now I shall never sleep with my ancestors in Pekin, / And no children shall worship at my grave.

-Yee Bow (in whole)

Not character, not fortitude, not patience / Were mine, the which the village thought I had / In bearing with my wife, while preachingon, / Doing the work God chose for me. / I loathed her as a termagant, as a wanton. / I knew of her adulteries, every one. / But even so, if I divorced the woman / I must forsake the ministry. / Therefore to do God’s work and have it crop, / I bore with her! / So lied I to myself! / So lied I to Spoon River! / Yet I tried lecturing, ran for the legislature, / Canvassed for books, with just the thought in mind: / If I make money thus, I will divorce her.

-Amos Sibley (in whole)

The secret of the stars, -gravitation. / The secret of the earth, -layers of rock. / The secret of the soil, -to receive seed. / The secret of the seed, -the germ. / The secret of man, -the sower. / The secret of woman, -the soil. / My secret: Under a mound that you shall never find.

-Mrs. Sibley (in whole)

To be able to see every side of every question ; / To be on every side, to be everything, to be nothing long; / To pervert truth, to ride it for a purpose, / To use great feelings and passions of the human family / For base designs, for cunning ends, / To wear a mask like the Greek actors- / Your eight-page paper – behind which you huddle, / Bawling through the megaphone of big type: / “This is I, the giant.” / Thereby also living the life of a sneak-thief, / Poisoned with the anonymous words / Of your clandestine soul. / To scratch dirt over scandals for money, / And exhume it to the winds for revenge, / Or to sell papers, / Crushing reputations, or bodies, if need be, / To win at any cost, save your own life. / To glory in demoniac power, ditching civilization, / As a paranoiac boy puts a log on the track / And derails the express train. / To be an editor, as I was. / Then to lie here close by the river over the place / Where the sewage flows from the village, / And the empty cans and garbage are dumped, / And abortions are hidden.

-Editor Whedon (in whole)

The white men played all sorts of jokes on me. / They took big fish off my hook / And put little ones on, while I was away / Getting a stringer, and made me believe / I hadn’t see aright the fish I had caught. / When Burr Robbins circus came to town / They got the ring master to let a tame leopard / Into the ring, and made me believe / I was whipping a wild beast like Samson / When I, for an offer of fifty dollars, / Dragged him out to his cage. / One time I entered my blacksmith shop / And shook as I saw some horse-shoes crawling / Across the floor, as if alive- / Walter Simmons had put a magnet / Under the barrel of water. / Yet everyone of you, you white men, / Was fooled about fish and about leopards too, / And you didn’t know any more than the horse-shoes did / What moved you about Spoon River.

-Shack Dye (in whole)

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