Spoon River Anthology: All, All Sleep on the Hill


I come from a family line of insurance businessmen that dates back to the 1860s. It was a huge disappointment to my father when my brother and I decided to go into music and college. We assumed we couldn’t focus on the arts and sell insurance at the same time. But there have been people in the legal or insurance fields who have had remarkable creative careers.

The great American composer Charles Ives invented the estate planning insurance programs still in use today. Long ago, John Donne (1571-1631) was a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn in London while writing poetry. More recently, the poet Wallace Stevens was an insurance manager in Hartford and Archibald MacLeish, winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, practiced law in Boston. Which brings us to the poet featured in today’s column, Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950), who was a big enough lawyer in Chicago to enter into a partnership with the legendary Clarence Darrow. And yet he managed to publish six novels, six biographies, twelve plays and twenty-one collections of poetry. Case closed!

Masters of Edgar Lee

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Masters was a Midwestern son, born in Kansas and raised in rural Illinois not far from the real Spoon River. Through his poetry, he became part of what became known as the Chicago Literary Renaissance, small-town writers who spoke out against the loss of traditional values; a list including Theodore Dreiser (Indiana), Carl Sandburg (Illinois) and Sherwood Anderson (Ohio).

A few of Masters’ early poems were published under a pseudonym, but it wasn’t until he encountered epitaphs in a Greek anthology that he was inspired to create the poetic monologues that became Masters’ anthology. Spoon River. The concept was that people buried in a cemetery in Lewistown, Illinois, known locally as The Hill, could speak to us from their graves and share their thoughts and experiences. In thinly veiled disguise, he renamed Lewistown to an imaginary village called Spoon River, and he populated the cemetery with a wide array of deceased speakers who “slept on the hill”.

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The very first epitaph he wrote was called ‘Hod Putt’, which perhaps suggests a pun on the colloquial language ‘hard put’.

Here I lie by the grave
Of old Bill Piersol,
Who got rich by trading with the Indians, and who
Then took the bankruptcy law
And came out richer than ever
Myself grown tired of toil and poverty
And seeing how Old Bill and others grew rich
Robbed a traveler one night near Proctor’s Grove,
Unintentionally killing him while doing so,
For which I was tried and hanged.
It was my way of going bankrupt.
Now we who took bankruptcy law in our respective ways
Sleep peacefully side by side.

We already see that Masters was willing to embrace sordid as well as illuminating subject matter, and his fictional characters are often replete with outrages, innuendos, failed dreams, and disappointments. Just like in real life. Here is a second epitaph, titled “Chase Henry”.

In real life, I was the town drunk;
When I died, the priest refused me burial

In holy land.
Which made me happy.
For the Protestants bought this lot,
And buried my body here,
Near the tomb of the banker Nicolas,
And his wife Priscilla.
Take note, prudent and pious souls,
Against the currents of life
Who honor the dead, who lived in shame.

To which, another occupant of the cemetery, “Judge Somers”, an ardent law student, made this reply:

How it goes, tell me,
That I, who was the most knowledgeable of lawyers,
Who knew Blackstone and Coke
Almost by heart, who gave the greatest speech
The courthouse ever heard and wrote
A memoir that won praise from Judge Breese–
How it goes, tell me,
That I lie here unmarked, forgotten,
While Chase Henry, the town drunk,
Has a block of marble, surmounted by an urn,
Where Nature, in an ironic mood,
Has sown a flowering seed?

In the end, Spoon River Anthology included 245 epitaphs from the cemetery on the Hill.

Oak Hill Cemetery in Lewistown, Illinois

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Masters’ masterpiece (I couldn’t resist) is written in what is called free verse, that is, poetry that employs no rhyme schemes or metrical patterns. and is free from formal constraints. Under the name “Little the Poet”, Masters leaned on his own early and frankly mediocre poems and turned to a grander vision.

Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick,
Tick, tick, tick, like mites in a quarrel—
Weak iambics that the full breeze awakens –
But the pine makes it a symphony.
Triplets, villanelles, roundels, roundels,
Ballads by score with the same old thought:
Yesterday’s snows and roses have vanished;
And what is love but a wilting rose?
Life all around me here in the village:
Tragedy, comedy, value and truth,
Courage, constancy, heroism, failure—
All in the loom, and oh what patterns!
Woods, meadows, streams and rivers—
Blind to it all my life.
Triplets, villanelles, roundels, roundels,
Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, what a little iambic,
While Homer and Whitman roared through the pines?

Indeed, some of these post-mortem portraits are clearly autobiographical, and for those of us who come from small towns or rural backgrounds, the memory of childhood and adolescence can be very moving. In this pastoral poem, one of the finest in American literature, Masters evokes idyllic days, slightly changing the name of his childhood friend, Henry Hummer, to “Hare Drummer”. Siever’s farm had a favorite orchard.

Do boys and girls always go to Siever
For cider, after school, end of September?
Or picking hazelnuts among the thickets
On Aaron Hatfield’s farm when the frosts start?
For many times with the laughing girls and boys
I’ve played along the road and over the hills
When the sun was low and the air was cool,
Stop to bludgeon walnut
Standing leafless against a fiery west.
Now the smell of autumn smoke,
And the falling acorns,
And the echoes on the valleys
Bring dreams to life.
They fly over me.
They ask me:
Where are those laughing comrades?
How many are with me, how many
In the old orchards along Siever’s Road,
And in the woods above
Calm water?

The real Spoon River

Lucinda Matlock was the name Masters gave to his grandmother, whom he adored and considered a trailblazer. (See video link below.) His tribute to his grandfather. here called “Aaron Hatfield”, forms a kind of climax to the anthology and a remembrance of the plowmen and woodcutters who formed our country.

Better than granite, Spoon River,
Is the memory image you keep of me
Standing before the pioneer men and women
There, at Concord Church on Communion Day.
Speaking in a broken voice of the peasant youth
Of Galilee who went to town
And was killed by bankers and lawyers;
My voice mingling with the June wind
It blew over the wheat fields of Atterbury;
While the white stones in the graveyard
Around the church shone the summer sun.
And there, although my own memories
Were you too heavy to bear, were you, O pioneers,
With bowed heads breathing your sorrow
For slain sons and daughters
And the little children who disappeared in the morning of life,
Or at the intolerable noon hour.
But in those moments of tragic silence,
When the wine and the bread were passed,
Came reconciliation for us—
We plowmen and wood cutters,
We the peasants, brothers of the peasant of Galilee—
To us came the Comforter
And the consolation of tongues of fire!

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When the complete Spoon River anthology was published in 1915, it was an international literary and commercial success. A prominent English critic said that Masters was “the natural child of Walt Whitman”. However, back home in Lewistown, Illinois, there was little enthusiasm. The masters had sometimes used the names of real people for his more critical portraits, and even fictitious names were often easy to decipher. Due to the personal history of the individuals depicted and their relationship to the city, the book was banned from local schools and the library, and the ban was not lifted for sixty years. Today, where emotions were once raw, the Edgar Lee Masters and Spoon River celebrations are year-round events, and there are frequent tours of the cemetery whose inhabitants still sleep quietly on the hill.

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VIDEO: William Shatner joins Cynthia Herman, Jill Tanner and George Backman in presenting Spoon River Introduction and six of the best-known portraits: Lucinda Matlock, Fiddler Jones, Roscoe Purkapile, Mrs. Purkapile, Deacon Taylor and Anne Rutledge. We close with Edgar Lee Masters’ own epitaph.



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