The Poets Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950)


About the Poet

One of America's most cited poets, Edgar Lee Masters pioneered the psychological character study. A neglected, one-book poet offhandedly admired for his Spoon River Anthology (1915), a collection of poetic laments spoken by different characters, he maintained his appeal through repeated anthologizing of his curt, often grimly regretful verse monologues. He is considered a transitional figure at the beginning of the twentieth century who drew on his readings of English Romantic poets, including Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Browning, as well as the Americans Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, for a massive output of essay, drama, novel, biography, and history. Masters, a maverick by nature, refused to be drawn into arguments about criticism and poetic styles of writing. Rather, he consciously chose everyday naturalistic truths over dense poetic complexities.

Masters was a native of Garnett, Kansas, who grew up in Petersburg and Lewistown, Illinois, in grass country near Spoon River. During hard times, the family lived comfortably on handouts of clothing, firewood, apples, and root vegetables from his grandfather's farm, which Masters cherished as an oasis from an unhappy home life. In boyhood, he displayed an interest in publishing by working as a reporter, printer's helper, and storywriter and verse writer for magazines.

Masters struggled to hold on to literature, his heart's aim, as did the figures in the Spoon River cemetery. Masters dutifully read law with his father because his father, disdainful of poetry, insisted that his son study law; he achieved bar certification in 1891. He joined a Chicago law firm allied with attorney Clarence Darrow and specialized in labor and industrial casework. After his marriage to Helen Jenkins, mother of their three children, he often visited Spring Lake, Wisconsin, where he established a sizable farm and he escaped his life as a lawyer.

While successfully pursuing legal work and supporting populist political candidates in Chicago, Masters submitted unoriginal poems to Chicago newspapers. He also published A Book of Verses (1889), a derivative work of belles lettres, and an anti-war pamphlet, The Constitution and Our Insular Possessions (1900), later collected in The New Star Chamber and Other Essays (1904). For a decade, he worked on a series of plays, including Maximilian (1902), Althea (1907), The Trifler (1908), The Leaves of the Tree (1909), Eileen (1910), The Locket (1910), and The Bread of Idleness (1911). During this time, Masters was acquainted with novelist Theodore Dreiser, editor Harriet Monroe, and poets Amy Lowell, John Masefield, Vachel Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg.

Under the influence of editor William Marion Reedy, Masters gave up artsy poetry and initiated a characteristic style and subject choice that improved with succeeding poems. He produced a collection of self-revelatory verse epitaphs, Spoon River Anthology, drawing on settings and ordinary people he remembered from his youth in Lewiston. The work, a landmark American microcosm comprised of free verse satires of former residents of Illinois, appeared under the pseudonym Webster Ford in Reedy's St. Louis Mirror from May 1914 to January 1915 before it was published in a stand-alone volume. The cleverly arranged verse soliloquies, naturalistic in their probing of the sterility of village life, earned him the 1916 Levinson Prize and a critical deluge that ranged from the highest praise to outright castigation.

In 1920, two years after the publication of Toward the Gulf, a collection of lyrical ballads, Masters abandoned law to become a full-time poet, taking up residence in New York's Chelsea Hotel. A later anthology, The New Spoon River (1924), criticized urbanism and helped to bracket the poet into the limited category of caustic satirist ridiculing city life.

In 1926, Masters remarried Ellen F. Coyne and withdrew from the literary circuit. Throughout the 1930s, Masters' various works — such as Poems of the People (1936); subsequent prose, including biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Vachel Lindsay, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain; and an autobiography, Across Spoon River (1936) — failed to alter the public perception of him as a dull, ponderous, but essentially courteous curmudgeon. Despite a lack of popularity, Masters continued to publish: A late poetry collection, Illinois Poems (1941), contains the title "Petersburg," recapturing a boyhood residence; The Sangamon (1942) lauds the beauties of the American Midwest. Masters died in a nursing home in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, on March 5, 1950. He was buried in nearby Oakland Cemetery. His Petersburg home became a museum.

Chief Works

In Spoon River Anthology, Masters creates a symbol for democracy at the town cemetery when he "buries" long-past residents, such as the town marshal, druggist, physician, and a housewife, side-by-side. Residents like "Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom, and Charley" lie alongside one unknown person and 245 identified graves on the hill above Spoon River. Their passing, equally egalitarian, juxtaposes fates such as fever and accident with brawling, jail, childbirth, and a suspicious fall from a bridge. The lamentations, griefs, and woes about death give place to a comforting blessing, "All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill." The narrative concludes with a dramatic epilogue that blends a checker game and Beelzebub's oratory with the reassuring blessing of the sun and Milky Way. To a four-line homily written in old-school puritan moralizing — "Worship thy power, / Conquer thy hour, / Sleep not but strive, / So shalt thou live" — the poet claims the last word: "Infinite Law, / Infinite Life."

"Petit, the Poet" (1915), one of the best of Masters' nonjudgmental epitaphs, speaks the poet's after-death faith in the lines, "Life all around me here in the village." A repetitious craftsman (tick, tick, tick), Petit, named for the smallness of his vision, regrets the "little iambics" of his life's work. To characterize spiritual poverty and poetic tedium, Masters imprisons elegant verse style in a confining "dry pod." To further minimize the "triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus, / Ballades by the score," the simile "like mites in a quarrel" reduces them to ridicule. When his spirit is freed from the outworn snows and roses of Horace and François Villon, Petit is at last able to hear "Homer and Whitman" roaring in the pines.

One of Masters' enduring characterizations of determination, "Lucinda Matlock" (1915) spins a tightly interconnected strand of meeting and marrying her husband and bearing their children. Locked into a pattern of nurturing, Lucinda devotes herself, over a seventy-year marriage, to raising children, nursing, and gardening. Now at age 96, she upbraids the young for their crankiness. Masters typifies Lucinda's prairie-rich philosophy with the oft-quoted aphorism, "It takes life to love Life."

"Doc Hill" is melodramatic compared to the other more restrained confessions in Spoon River Anthology. It focuses on the good deeds performed in compensation for a sad home life. Affectionately known as "Doc," the title character has always been afraid to sever his fruitless, disastrous relationships with a spiteful wife and ruined son. Although Masters does not criticize or judge Doc's wife and son, he implies the too-late sorry wisdom of looking out from the grave at the firm devotion of Em Stanton.

Although "Serepta Mason" is in the same vein, it is less successful than "Doc Hill" at expressing regret. Unlike Lucinda Matlock, who ventured out of the village and met new people, Serepta harbors resentment against villagers who saw only her stunted side. The epitaph slips into overblown language with the poet's conclusions about "the unseen forces / That govern the processes of life." More touching is the lament of a historical figure, Anne Rutledge, Abraham Lincoln's beloved, who speaks with the patriotism of Walt Whitman, "Bloom forever, O Republic, / From the dust of my bosom!"

Discussion and Research Topics

1. Summarize the range of personal credos in segments of Masters' Spoon River Anthology.

2. Trace evidence of Masters' heartland speech and characterizations in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Hamlin Garland's Main-Traveled Roads, or Sinclair Lewis's Main Street or Babbitt.

3. Contrast Masters' Spoon River portraiture with that of Edwin Arlington Robinson's "Richard Cory," "Miniver Cheevy," "Mr. Flood's Party," or "Luke Havergal."

4. Discuss the absence of meaningful human relationships in Masters' poetry.