Spoon River

Violin. Auckland War Memorial Museum, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
Fiddler Jones
The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove. . . . 
Spoon River Anthology, first edition, in its original dust jacket, quoting a laudatory review. Fair use.

Galesburg’s literary fame does not rest only on the shoulders of Carl Sandburg and Jack Finney. There is also Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950), who published a poetry collection titled Spoon River Anthology in 1915.

Usually we think of an anthology as a collection of poems or other content by various authors. Spoon River Anthology still qualifies in a sense, because its central conceit is that each poem is voiced by a deceased town resident speaking from the grave. The lives and viewpoints thus chronicled are diverse and lively. Consider the reminiscence of a long-lived lady, with its flinty valedictory:

Lucinda Matlock

I went to the dances at Chandlerville,
And played snap-out at Winchester.
One time we changed partners,
Driving home in the moonlight of middle June,
And then I found Davis.
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun,
I wove,
I kept the house,
I nursed the sick,
I made the garden, and for holiday
Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed—
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you—
It takes life to love Life.

The young Edgar Lee Masters. Photo by unknown photographer. Public domain.

Born in Kansas, Edgar Lee Masters grew up in Illinois—first at Petersburg in Menard County, then in Lewistown, Fulton County, where he attended high school and had his first publication in the Chicago Daily News. In 1889-1890 he attended the Knox Academy in Galesburg, a college-prep school run by Knox College in those days, but was forced to drop out for financial reasons.

Masters became an attorney, poet, biographer, and dramatist. He published twelve plays, twenty-one books of poetry, six novels and six biographies, including those of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Vachel Lindsay, and Walt Whitman. None of these many works ever matched the success of his graveyard poems collected under the banner of Spoon River—a quiet stream that drains the prairies east and south of Galesburg, snaking its way down to the Illinois River at Havana.

Spoon River at Seville in Fulton County. NOAA photo. Public Domain.

Here are more examples of Masters’s craft:

Griffy the Cooper
The cooper should know about tubs.
But I learned about life as well,
And you who loiter around these graves
Think you know life.
You think your eye sweeps about a wide horizon, perhaps,
In truth you are only looking around the interior of your tub.
You cannot lift yourself to its rim
And see the outer world of things,
And at the same time see yourself.
You are submerged in the tub of yourself—
Taboos and rules and appearances,
Are the staves of your tub.
Break them and dispel the witchcraft
Of thinking your tub is life
And that you know life.
Mrs. George Reece
To this generation I would say:
Memorize some bit of verse of truth or beauty.
It may serve a turn in your life.
My husband had nothing to do
With the fall of the bank—he was only cashier.
The wreck was due to the president, Thomas Rhodes,
And his vain, unscrupulous son.
Yet my husband was sent to prison,
And I was left with the children,
To feed and clothe and school them.
And I did it, and sent them forth
Into the world all clean and strong,
And all through the wisdom of Pope, the poet:
“Act well your part, there all the honor lies.”
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.

Generations of students have read these poems—in other anthologies, fittingly, high school anthologies—and, perhaps in olden days, memorized some of them, free verse and all. They were, among other things, indicators of the stern and happy potentialities of life. I do not know whether Spoon River Anthology still holds a place in public school curricula. If not, we are the poorer for it.

Wikipedia notes, “Masters died in poverty at a nursing home on March 5, 1950, in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, age 81. He is buried in Oakland cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois.” I wonder if he felt at all like his creation, Fiddler Jones—

. . . How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill—only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

To have left on earth behind you some bit of music, art, or poetry, quivering in the air for those with ears to hear—perhaps it’s not such a bad epitaph.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer