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Spoon River Anthology
By Edgar Lee Masters (1869-1950)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Background
Setting
Introductory Poem
Format: Free Verse
Conversational Language
Themes
Attitude of the Speakers
Figures of Speech
Questions, Writing Topics
Biography of Masters
Complete Text

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2011
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Selected Poems and Comments

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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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, epitaphs.
.......Reedy's Mirror, a St. Louis literary journal, published some of the poems in 1914. The first edition of Spoon River Anthology in book form appeared in 1915.

Background

.......Dead men tell no tales. So says an ancient proverb. But in Spoon River Anthology dead men—and women—do 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.
.......Edgar Lee Masters drew inspiration for his work from The Greek Anthology, a collection of poems, epitaphs, inscriptions, and epitaphs from ancient Greece.

Setting

.......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. 
.......The cemetery, called "the hill" in the first poem of Spoon River Anthology, is said to be the fictional counterpart of Oak Hill Cemetery in Lewistown. However, not all the deceased residents of Spoon River speak from the local cemetery. One of the Spoon River natives, Dora Williams, speaks from a grave near Genoa, Italy.

The Introductory Poem

.......In the first poem—called "The Hill"—Masters introduces several characters who later deliver monologues. The hill is the location of the town cemetery.

The Hill

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 a fever,
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—...............................................5
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,.........................................................................10
One of a thwarted love,
One at the hands of a brute in a brothel,
One of a broken pride, in a search for a heart's desire,
One after life in faraway London and Paris
Was brought to her little space by Ella and Kate and Mag—...................................15
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?—.................................................................20
All, all, are sleeping on the hill.

They brought them dead sons from the war,
And daughters whom life had crushed,
And their children fatherless, crying—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill...................................................25

Where is old Fiddler Jones
Who played with life all his ninety years,...............................................
Braving the sleet with bared breast,
Drinking, rioting, thinking neither of wife nor kin,
Nor gold, nor love, nor heaven?..............................................................................30
Lo! he babbles of the fish-frys of long ago,
Of the horse-races long ago at Clary's Grove,
Of what Abe Lincoln said
One time at Springfield. 

What Lincoln Said (Line 33)

.......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.

Format: Free Verse

.......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. 

Conversational Language

.......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 references—like 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 last stanza....
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Main Theme

.......The theme of Spoon River Anthology is that residents of America's small towns have provocative secrets to tell about themselves or others—secrets 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
Giving to the public treasury any of the money he received
For supporting candidates for office?
Or for writing up the canning factory
To get people to invest?......................................................5
Or for suppressing the facts about the bank,
When it was rotten and ready to break?
Did you ever hear of the Circuit Judge
Helping anyone except the “Q” railroad,
Or the bankers? Or did Rev. Peet or Rev. Sibley....................10
Give any part of their salary, earned by keeping still,
Or speaking out as the leaders wished them to do,
To the building of the water works?
But I—Daisy Fraser who always passed
Along the streets through rows of nods and smiles,................15
And coughs and words such as “there she goes,”
Never was taken before Justice Arnett
Without contributing ten dollars and costs.

.......For the most part, the secrets revealed by the deceased Spoon River natives demonstrate that the image of small towns as idyllic utopias is a myth. 

Other Themes

.......The individual poems each have their own themes, such as frustrated ambition, loneliness, and racial prejudice. 

Attitude of the Speakers

.......With a few exceptions, the attitude of most of the speakers in the poems is somber, bitter, complaining, or regretful. 

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Selected Poems and Comments

Serepta Mason

My life’s blossom might have bloomed on all sides
Save for a bitter wind which stunted my petals
On the side of me which you in the village could see.
From the dust I lift a voice of protest:
My flowering side you never saw!.............................................5
Ye living ones, ye are fools indeed
Who do not know the ways of the wind
And the unseen forces
That govern the processes of life.

Comment

.......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 side—with 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.

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Shack Dye

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 seen aright the fish I had caught...........................................5
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,.....................................................10
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...................................................15
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...................................................20

Comment

.......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 horses—and commerce—moving. He was the backbone of the town. 

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Mabel Osborne

Your red blossoms amid green leaves
Are drooping, beautiful geranium!
But you do not ask for water.
You cannot speak! You do not need to speak—
Everyone knows that you are dying of thirst,.........................................5
Yet they do not bring water!
They pass on, saying:
“The geranium wants water.”
And I, who had happiness to share
And longed to share your happiness;....................................................10
I who loved you, Spoon River,
And craved your love,
Withered before your eyes, Spoon River—
Thirsting, thirsting,
Voiceless from chasteness of soul to ask you for love,............................15
You who knew and saw me perish before you,
Like this geranium which someone has planted over me,
And left to die.

Comment

.......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 . . . ."

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The Circuit Judge

Take note, passers-by, of the sharp erosions
Eaten in my head-stone by the wind and rain—
Almost as if an intangible Nemesis or hatred
Were marking scores against me,
But to destroy, and not preserve, my memory......................................5
I in life was the Circuit Judge, a maker of notches,
Deciding cases on the points the lawyers scored,
Not on the right of the matter.
O wind and rain, leave my head-stone alone!
For worse than the anger of the wronged,.............................................10
The curses of the poor,
Was to lie speechless, yet with vision clear,
Seeing that even Hod Putt, the murderer,
Hanged by my sentence,
Was innocent in soul compared with me..............................................15

Comment

.......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. 

Notes

Circuit Judge: Judge who travels from county to county in a particular area to hear cases beyond the jurisdiction of local judges. 
Nemesis: In Greek mythology, the goddess of justice and vengeance. In modern usage, it often refers to someone who causes another's defeat or downfall.

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Rev. Abner Peet

I had no objection at all
To selling my household effects at auction
On the village square.
It gave my beloved flock the chance
To get something which had belonged to me.....................................5
For a memorial.
But that trunk which was struck off
To Burchard, the grog-keeper!
Did you know it contained the manuscripts
Of a lifetime of sermons?.................................................................10
And he burned them as waste paper.

Comment

.......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. 

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Dora Williams

When Reuben Pantier ran away and threw me
I went to Springfield. There I met a lush,
Whose father just deceased left him a fortune.
He married me when drunk. My life was wretched.
A year passed and one day they found him dead................................5
That made me rich. I moved on to Chicago.
After a time met Tyler Rountree, villain.
I moved on to New York. A gray-haired magnate
Went mad about me—so another fortune.
He died one night right in my arms, you know.....................................10
(I saw his purple face for years thereafter.)
There was almost a scandal. I moved on,
This time to Paris. I was now a woman,
Insidious, subtle, versed in the world and rich.
My sweet apartment near the Champs Élysées...................................15
Became a center for all sorts of people,
Musicians, poets, dandies, artists, nobles,
Where we spoke French and German, Italian, English.
I wed Count Navigato, native of Genoa.
We went to Rome. He poisoned me, I think..........................................20
Now in the Campo Santo overlooking
The sea where young Columbus dreamed new worlds,
See what they chiseled: ”Contessa Navigato
Implora eterna quiete.”
(Entreat eternal Rest)

Comment

.......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 man—also wealthy—falls for her and marries her. She murders him, too, and thus enlarges her fortune. 
.......She then goes to Paris and becomes a popular socialite, hosting artists, poets, musicians, and other elegant people at her apartment near the most famous street in the city, the Champs Élysées. After marrying an Italian count named Navigato, she moves to Rome with him. But this time he strikes first, poisoning her and apparently inheriting her fortune. 
.......She was a New World to him, just as America was a New World to Columbus, and he plundered her. After her death, the Italians erected a memorial to her on which were chiseled these words: Contessa Navigato Implora eterna quiete. It presents a paradox, asking for eternal rest for a woman who is restless.

Notes

Champs Élysées: Famous boulevard in Paris. (Champs Élysées: French for Elysian Fields)
Campo Santo: Cemetery near Genoa, Italy. (Campo Santo: Italian for holy field)
Implora eterna quiete: Entreat eternal rest; rest in peace.

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Andy the Night-Watch

In my Spanish cloak,
And old slouch hat,
And overshoes of felt,
And Tyke, my faithful dog,
And my knotted hickory cane,.........................................5
I slipped about with a bull’s-eye lantern
From door to door on the square,
As the midnight stars wheeled round,
And the bell in the steeple murmured
From the blowing of the wind;...........................................10
And the weary steps of old Doc Hill
Sounded like one who walks in sleep,
And a far-off rooster crew.
And now another is watching Spoon River
As others watched before me...........................................15
And here we lie, Doc Hill and I
Where none breaks through and steals,
And no eye needs to guard.

Comment

.......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 him—or Doc Hill, who lies with him in the Spoon River cemetery—because 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

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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. 
I seemed to be reaching the heights of art 
And to breathe the air that the masters breathed, 
And to see the world with their eyes........................................10 
But still they’d pass my work and say: 
“What are you driving at, my friend? 
Sometimes the face looks like Apollo’s, 
At others it has a trace of Lincoln’s.” 
There was no culture, you know, in Spoon River,.......................15 
And I burned with shame and held my peace. 
And what could I do, all covered over 
And weighted down with western soil, 
Except aspire, and pray for another 
Birth in the world, with all of Spoon River...................................20 
Rooted out of my soul? 

Comment

.......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. 

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Hannah Armstrong

I wrote him a letter asking him for old times’ sake
To discharge my sick boy from the army;
But maybe he couldn’t read it.
Then I went to town and had James Garber,
Who wrote beautifully, write him a letter;....................................5
But maybe that was lost in the mails.
So I traveled all the way to Washington.
I was more than an hour finding the White House.
And when I found it they turned me away,
Hiding their smiles. Then I thought:............................................10
“Oh, well, he ain’t the same as when I boarded him
And he and my husband worked together
And all of us called him Abe, there in Menard.”
As a last attempt I turned to a guard and said:
“Please say it’s old Aunt Hannah Armstrong...............................15
From Illinois, come to see him about her sick boy
In the army.”
Well, just in a moment they let me in!
And when he saw me he broke in a laugh,
And dropped his business as president,......................................20
And wrote in his own hand Doug’s discharge,
Talking the while of the early days,
And telling stories.

Comment

.......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. 
.......Mrs. Armstrong is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois

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Margaret Fuller Slack

I would have been as great as George Eliot
But for an untoward fate.
For look at the photograph of me made by Penniwit,
Chin resting on hand, and deep-set eyes—
Gray, too, and far-searching..........................................5
But there was the old, old problem:
Should it be celibacy, matrimony or unchastity?
Then John Slack, the rich druggist, wooed me,
Luring me with the promise of leisure for my novel,
And I married him, giving birth to eight children,...............10
And had no time to write.
It was all over with me, anyway,
When I ran the needle in my hand
While washing the baby’s things,
And died from lock-jaw, an ironical death.........................15
Hear me, ambitious souls,
Sex is the curse of life!

Comment

.......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."

Notes

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.
Lockjaw: Tetanus, a disease that causes muscle spasms, stiffness of the jaw, and breathing difficulty. It can be fatal.

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Deacon Taylor

I belonged to the church,
And to the party of prohibition;
And the villagers thought I died of eating watermelon.
In truth I had cirrhosis of the liver,
For every noon for thirty years,..........................................5
I slipped behind the prescription partition
In Trainor’s drug store
And poured a generous drink
From the bottle marked
Spiritus frumenti.”............................................................10

Comment

.......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. 

Notes

party of prohibition: Political party seeking to outlaw the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Spiritus frumenti: Whiskey. (Spiritus frumenti: Latin, spirit of the grain.)

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Hon. Henry Bennet

It never came into my mind
Until I was ready to die
That Jenny had loved me to death, with malice of heart.
For I was seventy, she was thirty-five,
And I wore myself to a shadow trying to husband
Jenny, rosy Jenny full of the ardor of life.
For all my wisdom and grace of mind
Gave her no delight at all, in very truth,
But ever and anon she spoke of the giant strength
Of Willard Shafer, and of his wonderful feat
Of lifting a traction engine out of the ditch
One time at Georgie Kirby’s.
So Jenny inherited my fortune and married Willard—
That mount of brawn! That clownish soul!

Comment

.......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 wisdom—if he really had any—should 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. 

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Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in Spoon River Anthology. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Alliteration

my 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)
Apostrophe
Your 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)
The judge addresses the wind and the rain

Anaphora
One passed in a fever,
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,
And overshoes of felt,
And Tyke, my faithful dog,
And my knotted hickory cane ("Andy the Night-Watch," lines 2-5)

Hyperbole
And I wore myself to a shadow ("Hon. Henry Bennet," line 5)
Irony
It never came into my mind
Until I was ready to die
That Jenny had loved me to death, with malice of heart. ("Hon. Henry Bennet," lines 1-3)
Metaphor
My life’s 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.
Simile
You 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 geranium
Study 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.
2...List additional examples of alliteration besides those mentioned above. 
3...Write an essay that defines the term free verse.
4.  What an essay analyzing one of the poems in Spoon River Anthology. Do not choose a poem on this page. 
5.  Pretend that you are a professional actor. Then, before your class, recite one of the poems in Spoon River Anthology. Afterward, answer your classmates' questions about the meaning of the poem.

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