Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915) is a collection of poems, each written from the perspective of a dead inhabitant of the fictitious town Spoon River (based on Lewistown, IL). The inhabitants reflect on their lives, the bitter twists of fate and fortune, the ironies, the regrets, even the nature of the tombstones and burial plots beneath which they now rest.
Part of the appeal is that the dead, who took their darkest secrets to the grave, now speak with complete candor, treating the reader as a post-mortem confidant. By turns, they confess to crimes gone unpunished, reminisce over unrequited loves, and caution the reader against the wrong turns they took in life.
Although no speaker is reliable, many of them share the gems of wisdom they wish they’d known in life, and they often ring true:
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.
Depending on the character of the inhabitant, Masters’ style shifts between the poetic and the plainspoken. Artists and thinkers, for instance, tend to reflect on their lives in metaphor and heightened language, whereas the laymen may only give straightforward accounts of the fatal mistakes that snuffed out their lives.
One of my favorite things about this collection is the way it functions as a collection. Many of the poems are interwoven, giving a complex portrait of the social fabric of Spoon River as a whole. A wife and husband give conflicting accounts of their failed marriage. Murderer, victim and judge all view the same incident in a different light. Unresolved accusations and misunderstandings between the inhabitants hover over their graves, and it is the reader who is left with the puzzle pieces.
Here, two suicides fail to see that their downfalls were brought about by the same reason: they compared themselves too closely to their own children.
Jonas Keene thought his lot a hard one
Because his children were all failures.
But I know of a fate more trying than that:
It is to be a failure while your children are successes.
For I raised a brood of eagles
Who flew away at last, leaving me
A crow on the abandoned bough.
Then, with the ambition to prefix Honorable to my name,
And thus to win my children’s admiration,
I ran for County Superintendent of Schools,
Spending my accumulations to win—and lost.
That fall my daughter received first prize in Paris
For her picture, entitled, “The Old Mill”—
(It was of the water mill before Henry Wilkin put in steam.)
The feeling that I was not worthy of her finished me.
Why did Albert Schirding kill himself
Trying to be County Superintendent of Schools,
Blest as he was with the means of life
And wonderful children, bringing him honor
Ere he was sixty?
If even one of my boys could have run a news-stand,
Or one of my girls could have married a decent man,
I should have not walked in the rain
And jumped into bed with clothes all wet,
Refusing medical aid.
I think Masters’ poetry is well-crafted and worthy of study by the practicing poet, but the real reason I enjoy this book is simply because it’s entertaining and a pleasure to read. And isn’t that what poetry ought to be?