Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

★★★★☆ (4/5)

Beautiful meditations by a myriad of deceased characters – all residents of Spoon River. They talk about love, life, death, fate and will; about human footprint on Earth in the shape of politics and wars, religion and courthouses that dole out just and unjust sentences. The dead are reconciled and separated, heartbroken and lovelorn, they are the victims and perpetrators of grievous crimes, they are passive observers and active participants of life above the soil in which they are buried. As they recall their kaleidoscopic life journeys in verses, the reader sways at the sights and sounds of the rhythm of their words. Vivid yet fantastical, Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology” is an oeuvre to life lived and life ceased. It deserves a much thorough reading perhaps through an academic lens.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • Ollie McGee

Have you seen walking through the village

A Man with downcast eyes and haggard face—

That is my husband who, by secret cruelty

Never to be told, robbed me of my youth and my beauty;

Till at last, wrinkled and with yellow teeth,

And with broken pride and shameful humility,

I sank into the grave.

But what think you gnaws at my husband’s heart—

The face of what I was, the face of what he made me!

These are driving him to the place where I lie.

In death, therefore, I am avenged.

 

  • Theodore the Poet

But later your vision watched for men and women

Hiding in burrows of fate amid great cities,

Looking for the souls of them to come out,

So that you could see

How they lived, and for what

 

  • Harold Arnett

Of what use is it To rid one’s self of the world,

When no soul may ever escape the eternal destiny of life—

 

  • George Gray

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.

 

  • D. Blood

Why do you let the milliner’s daughter Dora,

And the worthless son of Benjamin Pantier

Nightly make my grave their unholy pillow—

 

  • George Reece

“Act well your part, there all the honor lies.”

 

  • Mary McNeely

Sitting under the cedar tree,

A picture that sank into my heart at last

Bringing infinite repose.

 

  • Ernest Hyde

The mind sees the world as a thing apart,

And the soul makes the world at one with itself.

A mirror scratched reflects no image-

And this is the silence of wisdom.

 

  • Roger Heston

Oh many times did Ernest Hyde and I

Argue about the freedom of the will.

My favorite metaphor was Prickett’s cow

Roped out to grass, and free you know as far

As the length of the rope.

One day while arguing so, watching the cow

Pull at the rope to get beyond the circle

Which she had eaten bare,

Out came the stake, and tossing up her head,

She ran for us.

“What’s that, free-will or what—” said Ernest, running.

I fell just as she gored me to my death.

 

  • Amos Sibley

Not character, not fortitude, not patience

Were mine, the which the village thought I had

In bearing with my wife, while preaching on,

…..

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.

 

  • Percival Sharp

Observe the clasped hands!

Are they hands of farewell or greeting,

Hands that I helped or hands that helped me—

 

  • Hiram Scates

Young idealists, broken warriors,

Hobbling on one crutch of hope,

Souls that stake their all on the truth,

Losers of worlds at heaven’s bidding,

Flocked about me and followed my voice

As the savior of the County.

 

  • Seth Compton

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.

 

  • Felix Schmidt

It was only a little house of two rooms-

Almost like a child’s play-house-

With scarce five acres of ground around it;

And I had so many children to feed

And school and clothe, and a wife who was sick

From bearing children.

 

  • Magrady Graham

For when I saw him

And took his hand,

The child-like blueness of his eyes

Moved me to tears,

And there was an air of eternity about him,

Like the cold, clear light that rests at dawn

On the hills!

 

  • Archibald Higbie

I Loathed you, Spoon River.

I tried to rise above you,

I was ashamed of you.

I despised you

As the place of my nativity.

And there in Rome, among the artists,

Speaking Italian, speaking French,

I seemed to myself at times to be free

Of every trace of my origin.

 

  • Ami Green

And for years a soul that was stiff and bent,

In a world which saw me just as a jest,

To be hailed familiarly when it chose,

And loaded up as a man when it chose,

Being neither man nor boy.

In truth it was soul as well as body

Which never matured, and I say to you

That the much-sought prize of eternal youth

Is just arrested growth.

 

  • Calvin Campbell

Ye who are kicking against Fate,

Tell me how it is that on this hill-side

Running down to the river,

Which fronts the sun and the south-wind,

This plant draws from the air and soil

Poison and becomes poison ivy—

And this plant draws from the same air and soil

Sweet elixirs and colors and becomes arbutus—

And both flourish—

You may blame Spoon River for what it is,

But whom do you blame for the will in you

That feeds itself and makes you dock-weed,

Jimpson, dandelion or mullen

And which can never use any soil or air

So as to make you jessamine or wistaria?

 

  • Harlan Sewall

First with diminished thanks,

Afterward by gradually withdrawing my presence from you,

So that I might not be compelled to thank you,

And then with silence which followed upon

Our final Separation.

You had cured my diseased soul.

But to cure it

You saw my disease, you knew my secret,

And that is why I fled from you.

 

  • Lyman King

You may think, passer-by, that

Fate Is a pit-fall outside of yourself,

Around which you may walk by the use of foresight

And wisdom.

 

  • Hamlet Micure

In a lingering fever many visions come to you

 

  • Samuel Gardner

Who kept the greenhouse,

Lover of trees and flowers,

Oft in life saw this umbrageous elm,

Measuring its generous branches with my eye,

And listened to its rejoicing leaves Lovingly patting each other

With sweet aeolian whispers.

Now I, an under-tenant of the earth, can see

That the branches of a tree

Spread no wider than its roots.

And how shall the soul of a man

Be larger than the life he has lived?

 

  • James Garber

And of my path, who walked therein and knew

That neither man nor woman, neither toil,

Nor duty, gold nor power

Can ease the longing of the soul,

The loneliness of the soul!

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