Monday, September 10, 2007

Spoon River Anthology

As I noted in an earlier post, I paddled a 15 mile stretch of the Spoon River in west central Illinois on Labor Day.

The impetus for this trip was twofold. The river is close to the Peoria area, where my brother Bob lives. But it is also a "literary" river, the title river of Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, which bears a thematic and stylistic resemblance to Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The book features 243 epitaph-like poems that frame a portrait of small town life from the past dead residents' points of view. Masters grew up along the Spoon River in Lewistown and Petersburg, IL, and many of the people he portrayed in Spoon River Anthology are based on real events and residents.

"Charles E. Burgess on the Particular, the Current, and the Local in Spoon River Anthology"

It has been known since the publication in 1915 of Spoon River Anthology that Edgar Lee Masters drew much of its substance from the names, personalities, activities, and events of the central Illinois region where he grew to manhood. Both contemporary and current residents of the area have recognized that the book, in many senses, draws on community history. Scholars have agreed that matter was vital source material of the landmark in modern American poetry. Less well realized has been the role of communities of Masters's youth in the artistic and psychological stimulating of his expression. Such stimuli did exist, strong enough to impel him to use the region, a quarter of a century after he had left it, as the base of his most memorable work. That interval gave him the widened experience and the intellectual perspective necessary to impart to Spoon River Anthology senses of universality of subject, place, and time. Yet the broadening into a recognizable picture of many societies of many times did not diminish the functional importance of the book's particulars. In the use of the specific sources lies Spoon River Anthology's verisimilitude. The particulars were so strongly etched in Masters's mind and were brought forth with such sincere exactness in his writing that they were quite recognizable to people acquainted with the same communities--although seen from other lights, usually, by these persons.
In a larger sense, Masters--by 1915 an attorney of substantial reputation--was dealing in justice in creating Spoon River Anthology. He wanted to see that due praise was given to the sturdier spirits who had wrested the region from the wilderness of physical nature or who had, in later times, stood as bulwarks against the consequences of corrupt or weak human nature.

from Charles E. Burgess, "Masters and Some Mentors" p. 105.

I've read through most of the epitaphs. Here is my favorite, so far:

243. Elijah Browning

I WAS among multitudes of children
Dancing at the foot of a mountain.
A breeze blew out of the east and swept them as leaves,
Driving some up the slopes.... All was changed.
Here were flying lights, and mystic moons, and dream-music. 5
A cloud fell upon us. When it lifted all was changed.
I was now amid multitudes who were wrangling.
Then a figure in shimmering gold, and one with a trumpet,
And one with a sceptre stood before me.
They mocked me and danced a rigadoon and vanished.... 10
All was changed again. Out of a bower of poppies
A woman bared her breasts and lifted her open mouth to mine.
I kissed her. The taste of her lips was like salt.
She left blood on my lips. I fell exhausted.
I arose and ascended higher, but a mist as from an iceberg 15
Clouded my steps. I was cold and in pain.
Then the sun streamed on me again,
And I saw the mists below me hiding all below them.
And I, bent over my staff, knew myself
Silhouetted against the snow. And above me 20
Was the soundless air, pierced by a cone of ice,
Over which hung a solitary star!
A shudder of ecstasy, a shudder of fear
Ran through me. But I could not return to the slopes—
Nay, I wished not to return. 25
For the spent waves of the symphony of freedom
Lapped the ethereal cliffs about me.
Therefore I climbed to the pinnacle.
I flung away my staff.
I touched that star 30
With my outstretched hand.
I vanished utterly.
For the mountain delivers to Infinite Truth
Whosoever touches the star!

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