Spoon River Anthology: a Study Guide
By Edgar Lee Masters (1869-1950)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2011
Type of Work and Publication Information
.......Spoon River Anthology is a series of poems in free verse. In most of the poems, a deceased native of the fictional town of Spoon River delivers a monologue about his or her life or a specific incident in his or her life. These monologues are, in effect,
.......Dead men tell no tales. So says an ancient proverb. But in Spoon River Anthology dead menand womendo tell tales. Speaking from the grave, more than two hundred forty deceased residents of a fictional Midwestern town, Spoon River, each present short monologues about their lives. They reveal their
heartaches, disappointments, failures, and unfulfilled dreams. Sometimes they tell of the moral trespasses of themselves or of others. Occasionally, they tell of an incident that reveals the good or bad qualities of another person.
.......The setting for most of the poems is a cemetery in the fictional town of Spoon River. The community is a composite of the real-life towns of Petersburg and Lewistown, Illinois, where Edgar Lee Masters grew up. He based the speakers of his poems on the people living in these small towns. Petersburg is in Menard
County in west-central Illinois. Lewistown is in Fulton County, also in west-central Illinois.
.......In the first poemcalled "The Hill"Masters introduces several characters who later deliver monologues. The hill is the location of the town cemetery.
Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom, and Charley,
One passed in a fever,
Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie, and Edith,...............................................
One died in shameful child-birth,.........................................................................10
Where are Uncle Isaac and Aunt Emily,...............................................
They brought them dead sons from the war,
Where is old Fiddler Jones
.......Before embarking for Washington on February 11, 1861, for his inauguration as president, Lincoln delivered a farewell address from his train to residents of Springfield, Illinois. Here is a version of the speech, as written down by Lincoln's secretary, John Nicolay:My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.
.......Besides introducing characters in Spoon River Anthology, "The Hill" introduces the format, free verse. Free verse is poetry that ignores standard rules of meter in favor of the rhythms of ordinary conversation. In effect, free verse liberates poetry from conformity to rigid metrical rules that dictate stress patterns and the number of syllables per line. French poets originated free verse (or vers libre) in the 1880s, although earlier poems of American Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and other writers exhibited characteristics of free verse.
.......Except for a poem entitled "The Spooniad," the language in Spoon River Anthology is simple, conversational, and realistic, with plenty of local color and regional referenceslike the reference in "The Hill" to "the horse races long ago at Clary's Hill" (line 32). Many of the poems contain a figure of speech
called anaphora. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or group of words at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses or sentences. Note, for example, the repetition in "The Hill" of one at the beginning of lines in the first and third stanzas, the repetition of and in the fifth and sixth stanzas, and the repetition of nor (lines 29-30) and of (lines 32-33) in the
.......The theme of Spoon River Anthology is that residents of America's small towns have provocative secrets to tell about themselves or otherssecrets which, for the most part, the residents wish to keep hidden during their lifetimes. The residents of Spoon River decide to reveal their secrets from the grave. Many of the secrets center on unseemly, shocking, disappointing, hypocritical, or tragic developments; others focus on little incidents that reveal a good or bad quality of themselves or someone else. Still others present an overview of the corruption in the town, as in the following monologue by the town prostitute.Daisy Fraser
Did you ever hear of Editor Whedon
.......The individual poems each have their own themes, such as frustrated ambition, loneliness, and racial prejudice.
Selected Poems and Comments
My lifes blossom might have bloomed on all sides
.......The speaker uses a metaphor, comparing herself to a flower, to present a complaint against the townspeople. Because they were ignorant of "the ways of the wind" (line 7) and of "the unseen forces" (line 8) in life, they saw only her ill-favored sidewith its "stunted petals" (line 2)not her beautiful side. Serepta may be making excuses for not having the wherewithal to promote her good side, or she may be lodging a legitimate complaint against the "fools" of Spoon River. Whatever the case, she is a bitter woman.
The White men played all sorts of jokes on me.
.......Shack Dye, a black man, says his Spoon River neighbors played many practical jokes on him. But he was aware of what motivated their shenanigans: racial prejudice. Mr. Dye well knew their inmost feelings even though they would not own up to them or perhaps were not fully aware of them. Consequently, in his eyes, they were the fools. The last line seems to say that it was Shack Dye's blacksmith business that kept Spoon River's horsesand commercemoving. He was the backbone of the town.
Your red blossoms amid green leaves
.......Mabel Osborne compares herself to a geranium thirsting for water. But no one gives it the water necessary to nourish it. Osborne, of course, sought love and attention while living in Spoon River. She received neither and thus lived a lonely life. Now she is eternally lonely, lying in a grave beneath the geranium that everyone ignores. Lines 2 and 3, as well as lines 9 and 10, contain anaphora. Lines 16 and 17 contain a simile: "You who knew and saw me perish before you, like this geranium . . . ."
Take note, passers-by, of the sharp erosions
.......The circuit judge admits that he was dishonest, making unjust decisions that wronged many people. He now realizes that even Hod Putt, a murderer that he sentenced to hang, was a better man than he was. Now his guilt and remorse are eating away at him, like the wind and rain that erode his gravestone and slowly erase the memory of him.
Circuit Judge: Judge who travels from county to county in a particular area to hear cases beyond the jurisdiction of local judges.
I had no objection at all
.......The Rev. Mr. Peet assumes that the townsfolk value his memory, as lines 4 and 5 suggest. Apparently, in his will, he directed that his "household effects" (line 2) be sold at auction. But Burchard the barkeeper thinks little of his sermons. To prevent others from preserving copies of them, he buys a trunk containing the copies, then burns them. Perhaps the good reverend had too high an opinion of himself. Or perhaps he did not know when to shut up. In another monologue, the deceased Spoon River resident Eugene Carman says Mr. Peet's sermons lasted for more than an hour.
When Reuben Pantier ran away and threw me
.......The speaker has a miserable life with the wealthy "lush" (line 2) in Springfield, Illinois. So one day she murders him and inherits his fortune. She relocates to Chicago, but has no luck with the villainous Tyler Rountree. Next, she moves to New York. There, an older manalso wealthyfalls for her and marries her.
She murders him, too, and thus enlarges her fortune.
Champs Élysées: Famous boulevard in Paris. (Champs Élysées: French for Elysian Fields)
Andy the Night-Watch
In my Spanish cloak,
.......The speaker was a night watchman who, with his dog and lantern, made the rounds in Spoon River to make sure everything was all right. Now, however, as he lies at eternal rest under the ground, another watchman has taken his place, just as he took the place of watchmen who came before him. No one needs to watch over himor Doc Hill, who lies with him in the Spoon River cemeterybecause no one wishes to confront death. The speaker represents continuity and the passage of time, as well as the fearsome mystery of death. Note the use of anaphora in the phrases and clauses beginning with and.
I loathed you, Spoon River. I tried to rise above you,
.......Archibald Higbie blames Spoon River for his shortcomings as an artist. The community lacked culture and therefore held him back, he says. But many great American artists (painters, sculptors, writers, etc.) grew up in small towns or cities that similarly lacked the vibrant culture of a big city. Among them were John James Audubon (1785-1851), a naturalist painter who grew up in small towns in Haiti and France before migrating to the United States when he was eighteen; Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), a regionalist painter who grew up in Neosho, Missouri; and Frederic Remington (1912-1956), an abstract artist who grew up in Canton, New York.
I wrote him a letter asking him for old times sake
.......Mrs. Hannah Armstrong (real name) was a friend of Abraham Lincoln in Illinois before politics made him famous. At her request, Lincoln did in fact excuse her son, William "Duff" Armstrong, from military service. This poem demonstrates Mrs. Armstrong's dedication to the welfare of her son and Lincoln's closeness
to, and regard for, the common people.
Margaret Fuller Slack
I would have been as great as George Eliot
.......Margaret blames her marriage and the task of rearing eight children for failing to become a famous writer of great literary works. However, other women with large families still managed to succeed as writers. For example, Kate Chopin (1851-1904) began writing as a widow with six children. Shirley Jackson had four children but managed to gain fame for her mastery of Gothic horror in such novels as "The Haunting of Hill House" and such short stories as "The Lottery."
George Eliot: Pen name of Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880), the English author of such major novels as Middlemarch, Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, and Adam Bede.
I belonged to the church,
.......Deacon Taylor is a hypocrite. As a prohibitionist, he gave the public the impression that he was a teetotaler. But he sneaked whiskey at the local pharmacy every day.
party of prohibition: Political party seeking to outlaw the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Hon. Henry Bennet
It never came into my mind
.......Bennet apparently thought that Jenny was as much enthralled with him as he was with her. Perhaps he thought his "wisdom and grace of mind" (line 7) attracted her. But this same wisdomif he really had anyshould have told him that Jenny married him only for his money. Her main concern was to send him to his grave. One wonders whether he tried to perform a feat of strength, like Willard Shafer, and dropped dead.
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in Spoon River Anthology. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
Alliterationmy memory ("Archibald Higbie," line 5)
For worse than the anger of the wronged "The Circuit Judge," line 10)
I was whipping a wild beast ("Shack Dye," line 9)
And I, who had happiness to share ("Mabel Osborne," line 9)
party of prohibition ("Deacon Taylor," line 2)
prescription partition (Taylor) (Note that -ti has the sound of sh)ApostropheYour red blossoms amid green leaves
Are drooping, beautiful geranium! ("Mabel Osborne," lines 1-2)
Osborne address the geranium.
O wind and rain, leave my head-stone alone! "The Circuit Judge," line 9)
One was burned in a mine,
One was killed in a brawl,
One died in jail,
One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife("The Hill," lines 4-8)
Ye living ones, ye are fools indeed ("Serepta Mason," line 6)
And old slouch hat,
Until I was ready to die
That Jenny had loved me to death, with malice of heart. ("Hon. Henry Bennet," lines 1-3)MetaphorMy lifes blossom might have bloomed on all sides
Save for a bitter wind which stunted my petals ("Serepta Mason," lines 1-2)
The speaker compares herself to a flower.SimileYou who knew and saw me perish before you,
Like this geranium which someone has planted over me ("Mabel Osborne," lines 16-17)
Comparison of the speaker's perishing to that of the geraniumStudy Questions and Writing Topics
1...Write your own poem about a person in your town. Focus on an admirable or despicable characteristic of the person. The tone and verse format are up to you.
The Hill. . . .Daisy Fraser. . . .Serepta Mason. . . .Shack Dye. . . .Mabel Osborne. . . .The Circuit Judge. . . .Dora Williams
Andy the Night-Watch. . . .Archibald Higbie. . . .Hannah Armstrong. . . .Margaret Fuller Slack. . . .Deacon Taylor. . . .Hon. Henry Bennet
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