Edgar Lee Masters: Contribution as American Poet

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      Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) was born in Kansas in the same year with Moody and Robinson. In the next year his family moved to Illinois, which is his real “native” state. As a boy he had wide opportunities for reading. At the age of twenty-one he entered Knox College and plunged with zest into the study of the classics, but was forced to withdraw at the end of the year because Mr. Masters, Sr., would acknowledge no value in these studies for the practice of law, toward which he was directing his son. After a brief experiment in independence the young man surrendered and eventually entered on a successful career as a Chicago attorney. Yet the law did not take complete possession of him; he has always been a devoted reader of Greek literature. “Songs and Satires,” published in 1916, contains a few lyrics from a volume of 1898 which was printed, but through an accident of the trade never published. One of these ends with the significant stanza:

Mr. Masters’s next venture was a poetic drama in 1900, “Maximilian,” a tragedy in verse which was accorded a few sympathetic reviews but no wide reading. Other works followed in the next fifteen years, some in law and some in literature. And finally, in 1915, appeared the “Spoon River Anthology.” This is in all probability the most widely circulated book of new poems in the history of American literature; others may have achieved a greater total of copies during a long career, but it is doubtful whether any others have equaled fifty thousand within three years of publication.
Edgar Lee Masters

 

 Helen of Troy, Greek art
 Hath made our heart thy heart,
 Thy love our love.
 For poesy, like thee,
 Must fly and wander free
 As the wild dove.

      Mr. Masters’s next venture was a poetic drama in 1900, “Maximilian,” a tragedy in verse which was accorded a few sympathetic reviews but no wide reading. Other works followed in the next fifteen years, some in law and some in literature. And finally, in 1915, appeared the “Spoon River Anthology.” This is in all probability the most widely circulated book of new poems in the history of American literature; others may have achieved a greater total of copies during a long career, but it is doubtful whether any others have equaled fifty thousand within three years of publication.

      The most valuable single utterance on this much-discussed work is the richly compacted preface of Mr. Masters in “Toward the Gulf,” with its inscription to William Marion Reedy. Mr. Masters had submitted various contributions to Reedy’s Mirror, but had received most of them back with friendly appeals for something fresh. The first five Spoon River epitaphs were written almost casually in answer to this repeated challenge. At the same time they were a more than casual application of a hint from the Greek: a “resuscitation of the Greek epigrams, ironical and tender, satirical and sympathetic,” assembled into an ultimate collection of nearly two hundred and fifty brief units, each a self-inscribed epitaph by one of the Spoon River townsfolk. These represent the chief types in an American country town and recognize in particular the usual line of cleavage between those who choose to be considered virtuous and those who do not care what they are considered. Unfortunately the first of these classes includes both the idealist and the hypocrite; and the second, both the conscious radical and the confirmed reprobate. A typical issue which might arise in such a town, as well as a typical alignment of forces, is described in “The Spooniad,” the closing mock-heroic fragment and the longest unit in the book.

      The “Anthology” has been violently assailed as a wantonly cynical production, each assault on this ground carrying within itself a proof that the censor either had not read the book through or did not understand it. As a matter of fact the most impressive element in the book and the one which bulks largest in the last quarter of it are the victorious idealists. There is Davis Matlock, who decided to live life out like a god, sure of immortality. There is Tennessee Claflin Shope, who asserted the sovereignty of his own soul, and Samuel Gardiner, who determined to live largely in token of his ample spirit, and the Village Atheist, who knew that only those who strive mightily could possess eternal life, and Lydia Humphrey, who in her church found the vision of the poets. In spite of the protests of readers who were so disgusted with the Inferno of the earlier portion that they never progressed to the concluding Paradiso, the book achieved its great circulation among a tolerant public and enviable applause from the most discriminating critics.

      “Spoon River” established Mr. Masters’s reputation and prepared the public for further thrills and shocks in the volumes to follow. This expectation has been only half fulfilled. The certainty of a public hearing has naturally encouraged the poet to more rapid production, but the subsequent books—“Songs and Satires” and “The Great Valley” of 1916 and “Toward the Gulf” of 1918—have been divided both in tone and content between the caustic informality for which Mr. Masters was known in his earlier work and the classic finish which is a return to his unknown, earliest style.

      In his treatment of sex, however, Mr. Masters has supplied the shocks and thrills expected, dealing with various aspects of passion with a frank minuteness which is sometimes distasteful and sometimes morbid. Unusually his discussions of passion are more analytical than picturesque. He assumes its existence as a dominant factor in life and discusses not the experience itself so much as its influence. Frequently whole poems are concerned with it. He takes for granted passionate love without benefit of clergy, recording it without either idealizing it or defending it. Doubtless life has included the material for the “Dialogue at Perko’s,” for “Victor Rafolski on Art,” and for “Widow La Rue,” and certainly modern poetry supplies parallels in the works of other men. In a more significant way the sex psychology of Freud crops out in many poems not ostensibly devoted to it, as, for example, in “To-morrow is my Birthday.” This soliloquy attributed to Shakespeare in his tercentenary year stands in striking contrast to Mr. Robinson’s “Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford.” In these two poems (of about four hundred lines each) Mr. Robinson writes in the manner of Ben Jonson, paying his tribute to Shakespeare at the height of his powers in London, touching on his susceptibility to women but passing this to dilate on his almost superhuman wisdom; Mr. Masters devotes the last two thirds of Shakespeare’s monologue on the night of his last carousal to sex confessions which become increasingly gross as the bard becomes increasingly drunk. Mr. Robinson’s passage is only a few lines in length and concludes:

 There’s no long cry for going into it,
 However, and we don’t know much about it.

      Mr. Masters’s approaches two hundred and fifty lines, begins with “The thing is sex,” continues with

 Give me a woman, Ben, and I will pick
 Out of this April, by this larger art
 Of fifty-two, such songs as we have heard,
 Both you and I, when weltering in the clouds
 Of that eternity which comes in sleep,
 Or in the viewless spinning of the soul
 When most intense, and ends with common brothel profanity.

      The popular method of justifying the Masters treatment is to gibe at the Robinson reticence as Puritan prudishness, but it is a gibe which for many enforces the value of reticence even in modern art. So much for the negative side of Mr. Masters’s work—the so-called cynicism declaimed at by the inattentive reader and the preoccupation with sex which is fairly open to criticism. On the positive side the greater weight of his work lies in poems of searching analysis. “So We Grew Together” is the changing relations of an adopted son for his Bohemian father; “Excluded Middle,” an inquiry into the mystery of inheritance; “Dr. Scudder’s Clinical Lecture,” the study of a paranoiac—dramatic monologues suggestive of Browning in execution as well as content. The reader of Mr. Masters as a whole is bound to discover in the end that all these analyses are searchings into the mystery of life. It appears in “The Loom” as it does in “The Cry”:

 There’s a voice in my heart that cries and cries for tears.
 It is not a voice, but a pain of many years.
 It is not a pain, but the rune of far-off spheres.

      And he is bound to confess that Mr. Masters, instead of being a cynic, is a sober optimist. Take the last lines of the opening and closing poems in “Toward the Gulf”:

 And forever as long as the river flows toward the Gulf
 Ulysses reincarnate shall come
 To guard our places of sleep,
 Till East and West shall be one in the west of heaven and earth!

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