Edgar Lee Masters: Serepta Mason (Spoon River Anthology)

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!
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.

***

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Edgar Lee Masters: Cassius Hueffer (Spoon River Anthology)

THEY have chiseled on my stone the words:
“His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him
That nature might stand up and say to all the world,
This was a man.”
Those who knew me smile
As they read this empty rhetoric.
My epitaph should have been:
“Life was not gentle to him,
And the elements so mixed in him
That he made warfare on life
In the which he was slain.”
While I lived I could not cope with slanderous tongues,
Now that I am dead I must submit to an epitaph
Graven by a fool!

THEY have chiseled on my stone the words:
“His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him
That nature might stand up and say to all the world,
This was a man.”
Those who knew me smile
As they read this empty rhetoric.
My epitaph should have been:
“Life was not gentle to him,
And the elements so mixed in him
That he made warfare on life
In the which he was slain.”
While I lived I could not cope with slanderous tongues,
Now that I am dead I must submit to an epitaph
Graven by a fool!

***

Edgar Lee Masters: Robert Fulton Tanner (Spoon River Anthology)

If a man could bite the giant hand
That catches and destroys him,
As I was bitten by a rat
While demonstrating my patent trap,
In my hardware store that day.
But a man can never avenge himself
On the monstrous ogre Life.
You enter the room that’s being born;
And then you must live work out your soul,
Of the cross-current in life
Which Bring honor to the dead, who lived in shame.

Another Version

If a man could bite the giant hand
That catches and destroys him,
As I was bitten by a rat
While demonstrating my patent trap,
In my hardware store that day.
But a man can never avenge himself
On the monstrous ogre Life.
You enter the room–that’s being born;
And then you must live–work out your soul,
Aha! the bait that you crave is in view:
A woman with money you want to marry,
Prestige, place, or power in the world.
But there’s work to do and things to conquer–
Oh, yes! the wires that screen the bait.
At last you get in–but you hear a step:
The ogre, Life, comes into the room,
(He was waiting and heard the clang of the spring)
To watch you nibble the wondrous cheese,
And stare with his burning eyes at you,
And scowl and laugh, and mock and curse you,
Running up and down in the trap,
Until your misery bores him.

***

Edgar Lee Masters: Ollie McGee and Fletcher McGee (Spoon River Anthology)

Ollie McGee

Have you seen walking through the village
A Man with downcast eyes and haggard face?
That is my husband who, by secret cruelty
Never to be told, robbed me of my youth and my beauty;
Till at last, wrinkled and with yellow teeth,
And with broken pride and shameful humility,
I sank into the grave.
But what think you gnaws at my husband’s heart?
The face of what I was, the face of what he made me!
These are driving him to the place where I lie.
In death, therefore, I am avenged.

Fletcher McGee

She took my strength by minutes,
She took my life by hours,
She drained me like a fevered moon
That saps the spinning world.
The days went by like shadows,
The minutes wheeled like stars.
She took the pity from my heart,
And made it into smiles.
She was a hunk of sculptor’s clay,
My secret thoughts were fingers:
They flew behind her pensive brow
And lined it deep with pain.
They set the lips, and sagged the cheeks,
And drooped the eye with sorrow.
My soul had entered in the clay,
Fighting like seven devils.
It was not mine, it was not hers;
She held it, but its struggles
Modeled a face she hated,
And a face I feared to see.
I beat the windows, shook the bolts.
I hid me in a corner
And then she died and haunted me,
And hunted me for life.

***

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Edgar Lee Masters: Hod Putt (Spoon River Anthology)

Here I lie close to the grave
Of Old Bill Piersol,
Who grew rich trading with the Indians, and who
Afterwards took the Bankrupt Law
And emerged from it richer than ever
Myself grown tired of toil and poverty
And beholding how Old Bill and others grew in wealth
Robbed a traveler one night near Proctor’s Grove,
Killing him unwittingly while doing so,
For which I was tried and hanged.
That was my way of going into bankruptcy.
Now we who took the bankrupt law in our respective ways
Sleep peacefully side by side.

***

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***

Edgar Lee Masters: The Hill (Spoon River Anthology)

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.

***

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Edgar Lee Masters: 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 Upanishadsand 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.

***

This poem was included in the original 1915 edition of Spoon River Anthology.

***

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Edgar Lee Masters: Petit, the Poet

Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick, 
Tick, tick, tick, like mites in a quarrel— 
Faint iambics that the full breeze wakens— 
But the pine tree makes a symphony thereof. 
Triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus, 
Ballades by the score with the same old thought: 
The snows and the roses of yesterday are vanished; 
And what is love but a rose that fades? 
Life all around me here in the village: 
Tragedy, comedy, valor and truth, 
Courage, constancy, heroism, failure— 
All in the loom, and oh what patterns! 
Woodlands, meadows, streams and rivers— 
Blind to all of it all my life long. 
Triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus, 
Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick, 
Tick, tick, tick, what little iambics, 
While Homer and Whitman roared in the pines?