Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Life is too strong for you - Spoon River Anthology

From saints to sinners.  My vacation reading was a book that survived fragmented attention, Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915), a collection of 211 poems told by the dead, often ironic epitaphs and post-death truth-telling, but thankfully not always.  Masters was sensible enough not to lock himself into the concept.

The concept is strong, though, so strong that there is little need to read the actual book to get what Masters is doing, to use it, for example, while writing your own play or book of connected short stories puncturing the hypocrisies of that small town you are so thankful you escaped.  Just connect the characters as elaborately as you can.

So “Minerva Jones,” “the village poetess” tells of her rape by “Butch” Weldy and the botched abortion that killed her.  “I hungered so for life!”  “Doctor Meyers” defends himself – “I tried to help her out – she died” and “Mrs. Meyers” defends her husband, backhandedly:

Mrs. Meyers

He protested all his life long
The newspapers lied about him villainously;
That he was not at fault for Minerva’s fall,
But only tried to help her.
Poor soul so sunk in sin he could not see
That even trying to help her, as he called it,
He had broken the law human and divine.
Passers by, an ancient admonition to you:
If your ways would be ways of pleasantness,
And all your pathways peace,
Love God and keep his commandments.

Amidst these poems, “’Butch’ Weldy” tells about how he was severely burned in a fire, a rape hardly being the most memorable part of his short, pointless life.

Rough stuff for 1915, for the United States, at least, and the shocking sexual content of the book was part of its great success.  Honestly, it felt old-fashioned to me, not just in its shocking of the bourgeoisie but in its simplified Whitmanian verse, which was an avant garde move at the time.

Mrs. Sibley

The secret of the stars,ꟷgravitation.
The secret of the earth,ꟷlayers of rock.
The secret of the soil,ꟷto receive seed.
The secret of the seed,ꟷthe germ.
The secret of man,ꟷthe sower.
The secret of woman,ꟷthe soil.
My secret: Under a mound that you shall never find.

There’s a baby buried there, isn’t there?  That device has had the pathos so thoroughly wrung from it by later stories – by television – that it has lost its capacity to surprise.  But the poem itself gains meaning when paired with its predecessor, “Amos Sibley,” where the reverend complains of his wife, a “termagant,” a “wanton,” who he could not divorce because he never made enough money.  Reverend Sibley’s pettiness and spite gives Mrs. Sibley another secret, a depth he does not have.

Some of the connections Masters creates are quite funny, as is a horrifying mock epic, “The Spooniad.”  A section of poems about soldiers is moving.  Despite the high numbers of murders, violent accidents, and illnesses, not all of the characters have miserable ends.  Masters gives his grandmother a lovely poem:

from Lucinda Matlock

At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you –
It takes life to love Life.


  1. "I would have been as great as George Eliot..."

    (Although that's from another poem....)

    I'm thrilled that you featured Lucinda Matlock in your blog; it's probably the best poem in the collection and a classic piece of American work, out-Wildering Thornton Wilder (who was much later anyway).

    Spoon River is the kind of work that is approachable enough for high school students (where I first encountered it as a "play" consisting of student actors performing the poems as monologues--with original music to boot) but I also have never forgotten the glorious Lucinda Matlock, who made me cry at age 16 and still has the power to move me 45 years later, so the work is good enough to revisit as life's milestones make different Masters poems rise to new layers of meaning.

  2. Yes, "Lucinda Matlock" is a beauty.

    The ongoing series of theatrical adaptations of Spoon River is a testament to the strength of the concept.

  3. "Spoon River" also inspired one of the great paridies: J.C. Squire's "If Gray Had Had to Write His Elegy in the Cemetery of Spoon River Instead of in That of Stoke Poges".

  4. What a great parody! A two-for-one deal, which is even more clever. Here it is in a contemporary publication.

    Thanks, Roger; that was a treat.