33. Sarah Brown.
MAURICE, weep not, I am not here under this pine tree.
The balmy air of spring whispers through the sweet grass,
The stars sparkle, the whippoorwill calls,
But thou grievest, while my soul lies rapturous
In the blest Nirvana of eternal light!
Go to the good heart that is my husband,
Who broods upon what he calls our guilty love:—
Tell him that my love for you, no less than my love for him
Wrought out my destiny—that through the flesh
I won spirit, and through spirit, peace.
There is no marriage in heaven, But there is love.
47, Margaret Fuller Slack
I WOULD have been as great as George Eliot
But for an untoward fate.
For look at the photograph of me made by Penniwit,
Chin resting on hand, and deep-set eyes—
Gray, too, and far-searching.
But there was the old, old problem:
Should it be celibacy, matrimony or unchastity?
Then John Slack, the rich druggist, wooed me,
Luring me with the promise of leisure for my novel,
And I married him, giving birth to eight children,
And had no time to write.
It was all over with me, anyway,
When I ran the needle in my hand
While washing the baby’s things,
And died from lock-jaw, an ironical death.
Hear me, ambitious souls,
Sex is the curse of life!
204 Rebecca Wasson
SPRING and Summer, Fall and Winter and Spring
After each other drifting, past my window drifting!
And I lay so many years watching them drift and counting
The years till a terror came in my heart at times,
With the feeling that I had become eternal; at last
My hundredth year was reached! And still I lay
Hearing the tick of the clock, and the low of cattle
And the scream of a jay flying through falling leaves!
Day after day alone in a room of the house
Of a daughter-in-law stricken with age and gray.
And by night, or looking out of the window by day
My thought ran back, it seemed, through infinite time
To North Carolina and all my girlhood days,
And John, my John, away to the war with the British,
And all the children, the deaths, and all the sorrows.
And that stretch of years like a prairie in Illinois
Through which great figures passed like hurrying horsemen,
Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Webster, Clay.
O beautiful young republic for whom my John and I
Gave all of our strength and love!
And O my John!
Why, when I lay so helpless in bed for years,
Praying for you to come, was your coming delayed?
Seeing that with a cry of rapture, like that I uttered
When you found me in old Virginia after the war,
I cried when I beheld you there by the bed,
As the sun stood low in the west growing smaller and fainter
In the light of your face!
206 Hannah Armstrong
I WROTE him a letter asking him for old times’ sake
To discharge my sick boy from the army;
But maybe he couldn’t read it.
Then I went to town and had James Garber,
Who wrote beautifully, write him a letter;
But maybe that was lost in the mails.
So I traveled all the way to Washington.
I was more than an hour finding the White House.
And when I found it they turned me away,
Hiding their smiles. Then I thought:
“Oh, well, he ain’t the same as when I boarded him
And he and my husband worked together
And all of us called him Abe, there in Menard.”
As a last attempt I turned to a guard and said:
“Please say it’s old Aunt Hannah Armstrong
From Illinois, come to see him about her sick boy
In the army.”
Well, just in a moment they let me in!
And when he saw me he broke in a laugh,
And dropped his business as president,
And wrote in his own hand Doug’s discharge,
Talking the while of the early days,
And telling stories.
* 246 Alphonsine Slater
FROM here where the green slope gently rises
I look down at the grave of Annie Garver:
Annie who grew wide-eyed at the words
Of Shakespeare, Sappho, and the thrilling voice
Of Adelina Patti.
Annie who used to often visit
My bookish rooms, bringing her rhubarb pie
And lingering to stroke the dog
And all my calf-bound volumes.
None knew in twenty years the secret life of Annie
Who was my kitchen fairy, and singing in the parlor
And elsewhere too, she made the stars to glitter
Against the empty paleness of my ceiling.
Beside Annie lies that Gilbert Garver
Who was the clerk at Burt McMurphy’s feed store
And came home smelling not like dusty books or sunshine
To silently consume his slice of meatloaf
And his own share of Annie’s sweet confections.
More than that I still can barely stand to think of,
Because you know, I think that is what killed me.
I never thought Gilbert knew of Annie’s whispers
And all the hundred treasure that she hoarded
To give us in the hours we had together
Unknown to Gilbert. Unknown to Gilbert sleeping fast
Beside her still, she murmurs words and phrases
Meant for my ears only, and they drift up through
The grasses, and I lie here listening
Through the unwinding hours of light and darkness
As we did for all those twenty summers.
** 207 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.
210 Jenny McGrew
NOT, where the stairway turns in the dark,
A hooded figure, shriveled under a flowing cloak!
Not yellow eyes in the room at night,
Staring out from a surface of cobweb gray!
And not the flap of a condor wing,
When the roar of life in your ears begins
As a sound heard never before!
But on a sunny afternoon,
By a country road,
Where purple rag-weeds bloom along a straggling fence,
And the field is gleaned, and the air is still,
To see against the sun-light something black,
Like a blot with an iris rim—
That is the sign to eyes of second sight….
And that I saw!
222 Faith Matheny
And you may never know,
And we may never tell you:—
These sudden flashes in your soul,
Like lambent lightning on snowy clouds
At midnight when the moon is full.
They come in solitude, or perhaps
You sit with your friend, and all at once
A silence falls on speech, and his eyes
Without a flicker glow at you:—
He sees it in you, and you in him.
And there you sit thrilling lest the Mystery
Stand before you and strike you dead
With a splendor like the sun’s.
Be brave, all souls who have such visions!
As your body’s alive as mine is dead,
You’re catching a little whiff of the ether
Reserved for God Himself.
232 Lydia Humphrey
Unwedded, alone in the world,
Finding brothers and sisters in the congregation,
And children in the church.
I know they laughed and thought me queer.
I knew of the eagle souls that flew high in the sunlight,
Above the spire of the church, and laughed at the church,
Disdaining me, not seeing me.
But if the high air was sweet to them, sweet was the church to me.
It was the vision, vision, vision of the poets
So much can be inferred in the course of a leisurely walk – and how far our speculations may be removed from the truth may be of less relevance than the fact that when we read the names of the dead we in effect re-member them in our minds.
In such another ‘fine and private place’ they may assume a different identity from the one they possessed whilst in the flesh – but one they may be willing for a few moments to inhabit, and so indulge us by playing a part.
The Dead after all are familiar with the stripping away of vanity, and then too, perhaps the place they now inhabit is one where identity no longer has the same charge and meaning as we ascribe to it here above ground.
The 244 inhabitants of Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River have, through an inspired feat of uncanny ventriloquism, been given a chance to speak in their individual voices. It would seem that they have awaited this opportunity with great prescience, and used the days of their chthonic sojourn to formulate with the greatest of sharpness and compression their own epitaphs.
For the inhabitants of Spoon River the afterlife is a time given over to entertaining the echo of this one in a persistent rumination. The fond or bitter or philosophical contemplations which occupy their endless fallow seasons still retain the vivid traces of their former existence.
There is no heaven here, or hell for that matter, for all that has been left behind in the past. The present is in fact a simple recapitulation of that past – and if any desire now remains, it is simply to speak, to sum up, to communicate and to be made known to the living. There is a residue of life which instills the dust of death with a sense of our continuance.
‘In the beginning was the word’ – or so they say, and now it appears that it comes to rest in the end as well. The ‘Word’ here is wholly writ through the inspiration of one of America’s most brilliant humanistic writers, Edgar lee Masters. When his Spoon River Anthology was first published in 1915 the public found it as horrifying as they found it irresistible. Master’s had ripped off the veneer of circumspection and propriety so prized by the pillars of small town respectability.
Masters’s unvarnished and mordant characterizations must have rung squirmingly true as they surfaced in hundreds of conversations in feed stores and bar rooms and church socials. Prudishness and prurience are very close cousins, and respectability loves nothing more than a good scandal to add a much needed piquancy to the dullness of bourgeois pretension.
When Masters began to write the poems that comprise his famous anthology, the words poured out of his mind in an irresistible flood. His subconscious it seemed was the graveyard of all the several dead inhabitants who now put to immediate use the channel he provided, as they each came forth to speak.
The epitaph as a conceit employed to serve the purpose of biography through the medium of poetry had never before been attempted in a unified work such as this. Masters had 82 more subjects than there are characters in Tolstoy’s War and Peace (approximately 132), and we can only imagine the what the outcome might have been if Masters had stayed with his original intention, which was to write a novel populated by them.
But the unrestrained brilliance in these snapshots of human lives is distinct from the drone of Tolstoy’s prolixity. Nor did Masters compel his wife to re-write by hand six versions of an unabashed door-stopper as Tolstoy did with his long-suffering spouse Sophia, but hurriedly penned his notes on scraps of paper and the backs of envelopes as they came to him unbidden at times both opportune and otherwise.
Masters ran away from his small town beginnings, and from the stifling proprieties that pinned convention-following townsfolk like bugs on a wax-board, but for all that they rooted their spirits within his innermost imagination and compelled him to tell their stories. The feeling that comes through most strikingly in Spoon River Anthology is Master’s acceptance of human nature. In this he is a kindred spirit to Terrence who said “Nothing human is alien to me.” The sturdy unvarnished forms of these poems and the straightforward unembellished imagery in the depictions of Masters’s deceased characters drives through the insistence upon a degree of honesty that the living would find intolerable.
Since I am a misanthrope of the first water and growing more misanthropic with age, I sometimes feel the need of an effective ameliorative for my condition.
The danger that the intractable dislike of my own species might reduce the scope of my own humanity is a very real one, and then a sovereign antidote such as Masters provides serves to pull me back a few inches from the brink. As I read the words of these shades, I can re-frame human nature in a less aversive light, and even feel a warming of my heart towards affection. If Masters was able with such enormously touching clarity to see both the flaws as well as the virtues of his fellow Americans untinged by bitterness or intolerance, might it not be possible for someone like me to do the same?
If all the distillations of our hectic lives yield only such a residues as these, we have cause to be humble, and less given to vanity and egotism. We might choose to take ourselves more easily, and with less vehemence and seriousness, and say our bit as pithily and honestly as we can, since there will be no Edgar Lee Masters to give voice to our unexpressed selves.
In Verdi’s opera Don Carlos there is a beautiful aria which begins with the words ” Tu che la vanità conoscenti del mondo, e godi nell’ avel il riposo profundo” which means ‘ You have known the vanities of of the world, and now you enjoy the grave’s profound repose” – but if there is something we can glean from the collective wisdom of Spoon River’s inhabitants, who speak to us from beyond the grave, it might be that perhaps we may not want to wait until our lives on earth are over in order to find a little wisdom and a little rest.
* I could find in Master’s anthology no significant mention of any Lesbians, of whom there must have been at least a few even in such a place a s Spoon River. I do not in any way hold this against Masters, who shocked his contemporaries more than just a bit with his plain displaying of so many unvarnished truths concerning human nature.
However, I was unable to resist an attempt at remedying the deficit – hence my channeling of the voice of Alphonsine Slater.
** Lucinda Matlock was Edgar Lee Masters’s grandmother.