Edgar Lee Masters

E dgar Lee Masters is remembered for his extraordinary volume Spoon River Anthology. The 246 poems which make up the collection were published together in 1915 and the work has since become one of the most popular collections of poetry ever published in America. Despite its success, the follow up The New Spoon River sold poorly.

Edgar Lee Masters


Life Facts

  • Edgar Lee Masters was born in Garnett, Kansas in August of 1868.
  • He was admitted to the bar in 1891. 
  • His best-known and most celebrated work is ‘Spoon River Anthology’.
  • Masters wrote a sequel that was much less successful titled ‘The New Spoon River’. 
  • In 1950 Edgar Lee Masters died in a convalescent home in Philadelphia. 

Interesting Facts

  • Edgar Lee Masters’ family was not wealthy and his father did not believe his son should become a writer. 
  • His first work was published in the 1880s, appearing in the Chicago Daily News.
  • ‘Spoon River Anthology’ is one of the most popular books of poetry ever published in America. 
  • Masters started his own law firm in 1911.
  • He left his family in 1917 and remarried someone who was 30 years younger. 


Famous Poems by Edgar Lee Masters

‘Carl Hamblin’ is a multilayered piece in which the speaker describes what happened to him, everything which was the result of him publishing some lines in the Clarion. He describes an image of lady justice, standing on the steps of a “marble temple”. She struck down those she chose until someone jumped up and ripped the bandage off her face, revealing her blinds and “dying soul”. 

 

‘The Circuit Judge’ is a clever poem in which the speaker addresses his death, his headstone, and the ways the elements are battering it. He asks the readers and passers-by to take note of the ravages of time. He was a “Circuit Judge” in life but now he can’t even get the wind and rain to leave his headstone alone. 

 

‘Minerva Jones’ is a short poem that is part of the 246 poems in Spoon River Anthology. The poem describes the desperate and tragic life of Minerva Jones and her death. She speaks in the first person, telling the reader that she’s the “village poetess”. No one respects her or takes her seriously because of her profession but also because of how she looks and walks. She is an easy target for the “Yahoos” in her town. She eventually becomes pregnant and sinks into a deep depression. This poem is characteristic of the memorable first-person narratives that fill Spoon River Anthology. 

 

‘Inexorable Deities’ contains the words of a speaker who is beseeching the gods for the power to look on beauty and not feel overwhelmed or out of control. It is the gift to “endure” all that he’s been given by the “Muses”. The speaker alludes to the fact that this “gift” is one of an artistic or literary nature. He wants this ability so that he might be able to take full use of his gifts without losing his way. 

 

‘Archibald Higbie’ is one of the Spoon River poems. In the text, the speaker speaks on his hatred for Spoon River, and the times he tried to get away and become something more. He doesn’t want to acknowledge the area as his home and sometimes even manages not to think about it. He hates the culture-less culture of Spoon River and prays to be reborn with new origins. 


Early Life

Edgar Lee Masters was born in Garnett, Kansas in August of 1868. His mother was Emma J. Dexter and his father was Hardin Wallace Masters, an attorney. The family had moved to Kansas with the hope that Hardin Masters would be able to set up a law practice, this proved to be unsuccessful and resulted in their move back to a farm in Menard County, Illinois where their extended family lived. They did not remain in one place for long and soon moved on to Lewistown, Illinois. Master’s youth was not easy. The family consistently struggled with finances and Master’s father was unwilling to support his son when his literary passions came to the surface. 

 

Masters attended high school in Lewistown, and it was in the 1880s that his first work was published, appearing in the Chicago Daily News. In 1889 Masters went on to attend Knox Academy, a program run by Knox College. His time there was brief as his family’s financial troubles came back to haunt him. He was forced to leave due to their inability to pay for his education. Although no longer studying in an institution, Masters continued his studies on his own. His hard work, and time spent within his father’s law practice, resulted in his admittance to the bar in 1891. 


Career

A year later, in 1892, Masters moved to Chicago where he worked collecting bills for the Edison Company. Over the next decade, Masters built his law practice alongside his partner Clarence Darrow. His new stable financial footing allowed him to published his first collection of poetry, A Book of Verses. This volume was strongly influenced by the Romantic poets of England.  The same year this work was published, he married his first wife Helen Jenkins. Together the couple would have three children.

 

Masters’ law practice and his partnership with Darrow were defined by his dedication to helping the poor. It lasted from 1903-1908. The next years of Masters’ life were chaotic. He began arguing with his partner and was engaged in a number of extramarital affairs. In 1910, his volume Songs and Sonnets was released. The next year Masters decided to start his own law firm. 


Spoon River Anthology 

It was also around this period of time that Masters began work on a novel. The inspiration for the subject matter came from his time living in small-town Illinois and the forms he would pursue were drawn from a prolonged engagement with J. W. Mackail’s Selected Epigrams from the Greek Anthology. He admired the style of this collection and chose to challenge himself by attempting to utilize and combine a number of different poetic forms. These included free verse or poems written without a structured rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, epitaph, or statements written in memory of someone who has died, as well as realism and cynicism. These pursuits coalesced into his best-known and most celebrated work, Spoon River Anthology. 

 

The title is derived from a river in Illinois and the locations and personalities originated from Masters’ childhood home of Lewistown as well as nearby Petersburg, where his grandparents lived. In 1914 the poems were serialized by Reedy’s Mirror, a literary journal based out of St. Louis, Missouri. By 1915 the entire first edition had been issued with the help of Harriet Monroe, the founder, editor, and publisher of Poetry magazine. It would be reissued in 1916 with Masters adding another thirty-five poems. 

 

The volume was extremely successful and became one of the most popular books of poetry ever published in America. It was Masters’ goal with the collection to demystify small-town American life and shine a light on the wildly interesting and distinct lives of the residents of rural communities. The book includes 212 characters and 244 accounts of their own losses and deaths. One of the most interesting features of the work is the way in which the poems relate to one another. They create a whole community within the volume. Some of the most notable characters are Tom Merrit and Fiddler Jones. They speak on their own histories, deaths, and petty complaints. 


Later Life and Death

Masters followed Spoon River Anthology with a sequel titled, The New Spoon River. This collection focused on the urbanization of the once rural areas and was much less successful. Although Masters published over forty books in his life, including biographies, novels, and plays, he could never replicate the success of Spoon River Anthology. In 1917, Masters left his family. He remarried in 1926 to Ellen Coyne, who was thirty years his junior.

 

In 1950 Edgar Lee Masters died in a convalescent home in Philadelphia. He was buried near his hometown in Petersburg, Illinois. 


Influence from other Poets

Edgar Lee Masters was notably influenced by writers such as Mark Twain, Vachel Lindsay, and Walt Whitman.


Poems by Edgar Lee Masters

Explore poetry by Edgar Lee Masters below, analyzed by the team at Poem Analysis.

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