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Spoon River Anthology - Masters

Spoon River Anthology

Edgar Lee Masters

In Masters’ collection of post-mortem autobiographical “epitaphs,” 244 former citizens of the fictional Spoon River, Illinois tell us the truth about their lives—with the honesty no fear of consequences enables.

1. 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 a jail,


One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife—


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,


One of a thwarted love,


One at the hands of a brute in a brothel,


One of a broken pride, in the search for heart’s desire,


One after life in far-away London and Paris


Was brought to her little space by Ella and Kate and Mag—


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?—


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.


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?


Lo! he babbles of the fish-frys of long ago,


Of the horse-races of long ago at Clary’s Grove,


Of what Abe Lincoln said


One time at Springfield.

12. Judge Somers

HOW does it happen, tell me,


That I who was most erudite of lawyers,


Who knew Blackstone and Coke


Almost by heart, who made the greatest speech


The court-house ever heard, and wrote


A brief that won the praise of Justice Breese—


How does it happen, tell me,


That I lie here unmarked, forgotten,


While Chase Henry, the town drunkard,


Has a marble block, topped by an urn,


Wherein Nature, in a mood ironical,


Has sown a flowering weed?



18. Trainor, the Druggist

ONLY the chemist can tell, and not always the chemist,


What will result from compounding


Fluids or solids.


And who can tell


How men and women will interact


On each other, or what children will result?


There were Benjamin Pantier and his wife,


Good in themselves, but evil toward each other:


He oxygen, she hydrogen,


Their son, a devastating fire.


I Trainor, the druggist, a mixer of chemicals,


Killed while making an experiment,


Lived unwedded.


23. Doctor Meyers

NO other man, unless it was Doc Hill,


Did more for people in this town than I.


And all the weak, the halt, the improvident


And those who could not pay flocked to me.


I was good-hearted, easy Doctor Meyers.


I was healthy, happy, in comfortable fortune,


Blest with a congenial mate, my children raised,


All wedded, doing well in the world.


And then one night, Minerva, the poetess,


Came to me in her trouble, crying.


I tried to help her out—she died—


They indicted me, the newspapers disgraced me,


My wife perished of a broken heart.


And pneumonia finished me.

90. Rev. Lemuel Wiley

I PREACHED four thousand sermons,


I conducted forty revivals,


And baptized many converts.


Yet no deed of mine


Shines brighter in the memory of the world,


And none is treasured more by me:


Look how I saved the Blisses from divorce,


And kept the children free from that disgrace,


To grow up into moral men and women,


Happy themselves, a credit to the village.


121. The Unknown

YE aspiring ones, listen to the story of the unknown


Who lies here with no stone to mark the place.


As a boy reckless and wanton,


Wandering with gun in hand through the forest


Near the mansion of Aaron Hatfield,


I shot a hawk perched on the top


Of a dead tree.


He fell with guttural cry


At my feet, his wing broken.


Then I put him in a cage


Where he lived many days cawing angrily at me


When I offered him food.


Daily I search the realms of Hades


For the soul of the hawk,


That I may offer him the friendship


Of one whom life wounded and caged.


226. The Village Atheist

YE young debaters over the doctrine


Of the soul’s immortality,


I who lie here was the village atheist,


Talkative, contentious, versed in the arguments


Of the infidels.


But through a long sickness


Coughing myself to death


I read the Upanishads and the poetry of Jesus.


And they lighted a torch of hope and intuition


And desire which the Shadow,


Leading me swiftly through the caverns of darkness,


Could not extinguish.


Listen to me, ye who live in the senses


And think through the senses only:


Immortality is not a gift,


Immortality is an achievement;


And only those who strive mightily


Shall possess it.



196. Many Soldiers

THE IDEA danced before us as a flag;


The sound of martial music;


The thrill of carrying a gun;


Advancement in the world on coming home;


A glint of glory, wrath for foes;


A dream of duty to country or to God.


But these were things in ourselves, shining before us,


They were not the power behind us,


Which was the Almighty hand of Life,


Like fire at earth’s centre making mountains,


Or pent up waters that cut them through.


Do you remember the iron band


The blacksmith, Shack Dye, welded


Around the oak on Bennet’s lawn,


From which to swing a hammock,


That daughter Janet might repose in, reading


On summer afternoons?


And that the growing tree at last


Sundered the iron band?


But not a cell in all the tree


Knew aught save that it thrilled with life,


Nor cared because the hammock fell


In the dust with Milton’s Poems.


109. Elsa Wertman

I WAS a peasant girl from Germany,


Blue-eyed, rosy, happy and strong.


And the first place I worked was at Thomas Greene’s.


On a summer’s day when she was away


He stole into the kitchen and took me


Right in his arms and kissed me on my throat,


I turning my head. Then neither of us


Seemed to know what happened.


And I cried for what would become of me.


And cried and cried as my secret began to show.


One day Mrs. Greene said she understood,


And would make no trouble for me,


And, being childless, would adopt it.


(He had given her a farm to be still.)


So she hid in the house and sent out rumors,


As if it were going to happen to her.


And all went well and the child was born—They were so kind to me.


Later I married Gus Wertman, and years passed.


But—at political rallies when sitters-by thought I was crying


At the eloquence of Hamilton Greene—


That was not it.


No! I wanted to say:


That’s my son! That’s my son!

98. Yee Bow

THEY got me into the Sunday-school


In Spoon River


And tried to get me to drop Confucius for Jesus.


I could have been no worse off


If I had tried to get them to drop Jesus for Confucius.


For, without any warning, as if it were a prank,


And sneaking up behind me, Harry Wiley,


The minister’s son, caved my ribs into my lungs,


With a blow of his fist.


Now I shall never sleep with my ancestors in Pekin,


And no children shall worship at my grave.