Death and Life in Spoon River

Something reminded me of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology this morning. It was probably my ever-present and rather burdensome obsession with death (which might be funny if it weren’t so true). Anyhow, if you’ve never read the book, it’s a fascinating collection of short poems that narrate the epitaphs of the residents of a fictional small town called Spoon River — residents with names like Jeduthan Hawley, Plymouth Rock Joe, Lydia Puckett, and Minerva Jones. An excerpt from “The Hill,” Spoon River‘s opening poem, gives a good sense of Masters’ take on small town America:

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.

As you can see, Masters’ prose is lyrical and incredibly moving. He also manages to weave dense and often complex narratives into each epitaph. While thinking about Masters’ book this morning, I discovered that someone went to the trouble of creating an online edition. So if you’ve never read Spoon River, it’s worth your time.

(Illustration: Giovanni Robustelli. Caption: Spoon River, Edgar Lee Masters, Spazio Papel, Milano 2012.)