‘Archibald Higbie’ by Edgar Lee Masters is one of several poems from Masters’ groundbreaking collection, Spoon River Anthology. Each poem in this volume is an epitaph, meaning its words written or spoken after someone has died. The names of the poem, like ‘Archibald Higbie,’ are the names of the deceased. They usually spend their stanzas generally complaining about their lives, how they died, or focusing specifically on something they regret. This particular poem is one of a few that some scholars have related to Masters’ opinion of himself. But, that is up to each individual reader to decide.
Explore Archibald Higbie
Summary of Archibald Higbie
The speaker, who is talking to the reader from beyond the grave, spends the poem complaining about his inadequacies when it comes to art. He tried all his life to make good art, but he never felt that he did anything worthwhile. This was only reinforced when he traveled to France or Italy. There, he says, he felt the draw and power of the old masters, but he was unable to tap into the skill for himself. He died, blaming Spoon River, his home, for his artistic inadequacies.
Themes in Archibald Higbie
In ‘Archibald Higbie,’ Masters engages with themes of cultural history and heritage, as well as art and success. The speaker in the piece mourns the course of his life and his unfortunate place of origin. Although there was nothing he could do about it, he still placed the blame on Spoon River. He believes that it doomed him to create inferior art due to his cultural heritage. When he travels to other places, like Italy and France, he only feels inadequacies more fully. This is expressed through other’s opinions of his work rather than his own. It does raise questions about Masters’ speaker’s self-confidence and responsibility as he’s placing the blame for his perceived failures on where he lived.
Structure and Form
‘Archibald Higbie’ by Edgar Lee Masters is a twenty-one line poem that can be separated into sets of seven lines. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, meaning that the poem is written in free verse. Despite this, there are several examples of rhyme. For instance, the first two lines of the poem are “exact” rhymes meaning that the same word is repeated at the end of both lines. There are also some half-rhymes, for example, “over” and “another” in lines seventeen and nineteen.
Masters makes use of several literary devices in ‘Archibald Higbie.’ These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and examples of caesura. The latter is a formal device, one that’s concerned with the pauses that a poet puts in the middle of lines. For example, lines one and two of the poem read: “I loathed you, Spoon River. I tried to rise above you, / I was ashamed of you. I despised you.” These are both examples of medial caesura.
Enjambment is another formal device, one that occurs when the poet cuts off a sentence before its natural conclusion. For example, the transition between lines eight and nine as well as that between lines seventeen and eighteen.
Alliteration is a type of repetition. It occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For instance, “weight” and “western” in line eighteen and “River” and “Rooted” in lines twenty and twenty-one.
Analysis of Archibald Higbie
I loathed you, Spoon River. I tried to rise above you,
I was ashamed of you. I despised you
As the place of my nativity.
And there in Rome, among the artists,
Speaking Italian, speaking French,
I seemed to myself at times to be free
Of every trace of my origin.
The speaker, the deceased Archibald Higbie, begins this poem by directing his words at Spoon River, the town in which he died. This is an example of an apostrophe, or words directed to someone or something that cannot hear them and/or can’t respond. He tells Spoon River that he hated the town and that he did everything could to be better than it.
He wished throughout his life that he was from another place, somewhere like Rome or France. It was only when he was in these other, foreign, more distinguished places that he felt himself. He was free of “every trace of [his] origin.”
I seemed to be reaching the heights of art
And to breathe the air that the masters breathed,
And to see the world with their eyes.
But still they’d pass my work and say:
“What are you driving at, my friend?
Sometimes the face looks like Apollo’s,
At others it has a trace of Lincoln’s.”
When the speaker was away from home, in a place of historical importance, he felt as though he was reaching the “heights of art.” His life was fuller and more meaningful. He could even. He adds, “see the world with their eyes.” Despite this, the work he made was subpar. He couldn’t get close to the “master’s” level. People would look at what he made and not know what he was trying to accomplish.
There was no culture, you know, in Spoon River,
And I burned with shame and held my peace.
And what could I do, all covered over
And weighted down with western soil,
Except aspire, and pray for another
Birth in the world, with all of Spoon River
Rooted out of my soul?
In the final lines, the speaker describes how his work fell short because everyone could also sense the lack of “culture” in his creations. It all felt like it had originated from Spoon River, meaning that it was less in some fundamental way. In the concluding lines, which take on an additional meaning considering that the speaker is supposed to be dead, adding that the only thing he could wish for was that he’d be reborn into a different life. His greatest wish was to live with “Spoon River” out of his soul. There are good examples of alliteration and enjambment in these lines with “River” and “Rooted” in lines twenty and twenty-one.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Archibald Higbie’ should also consider reading some of Edgar Lee Masters’s other best-known poems. For example, ‘Minerva Jones,’ ‘Fletcher McGee,’ and ‘Conrad Siever.’ All of these are part of Masters’ well-loved Spoon River Anthology. The first, ‘Minerva Jones,’ describes the tragic life of a young woman and her solitary death. She introduces herself and describes her role as the “village poetess.” ‘Fletcher McGee’ is a confessional poem in which the speaker talks about the man responsible for the death of his wife, Ollie McGee. ‘Conrad Siever’ presents the liveliness of the northern-spy apple tree and the impact of autumn on the surroundings.