Edgar Lee Masters

September 18, 2006


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


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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