E Edgar Lee Masters

The Hill by Edgar Lee Masters

‘The Hill’ by Edgar Lee Masters describes the lives and deaths of some of the residents of Spoon River—the community that features in much of his verse.

The Hill by Edgar Lee Masters Visual Representation

This interesting poem contains numerous examples of imagery, despite the poet’s use of simple language. While the language itself is easy to understand, there is a great deal to interpret in the speaker’s allusions to how these men and women lived and died. 

The Hill 
Edgar Lee Masters

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.

Where are Uncle Isaac and Aunt Emily,
And old Towny Kincaid and Sevigne Houghton,
And Major Walker who had talked
With venerable men of the revolution? —
All, all are sleeping on the hill.

They brought them dead sons from the war,
And daughters whom life had crushed,
And their children fatherless, crying —
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where is Old Fiddler Jones
Who played with life all his ninety years,
Braving the sleet with bared breast,
Drinking, rioting, thinking neither of wife nor kin,
Nor gold, nor love, nor heaven?
Lo! he babbles of the fish-frys of long ago,
Of the horse-races of long ago at Clary's Grove,
Of what Abe Lincoln said
One time at Springfield.
The Hill by Edgar Lee Masters


Summary

‘The Hill’ by Edgar Lee Masters is an elegy written for several of the many interesting residents of Spoon River. 

The poem begins by listing out five men who passed away, each of which had a different personality. All five men met different deaths that are only alluded to through the speaker’s sparse use of language. The same is repeated for five women. The poem concludes with the poet describing Fiddler Jones, one of the best-known characters in Spoon River, who played his instrument with no regard for gold or heaven. 

Structure and Form 

‘The Hill’ by Edgar Lee Masters is a seven-stanza poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains three lines, the second: six, the third: three, the fourth: seven, the fifth: five, the sixth: four, and the seventh: nine. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The end sounds, like “hill” and “fighter” in the first stanza, do not rhyme. But, throughout the poem, Masters does use repetition quite frequently.

Literary Devices 

Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “brute” and “brothel” in line three of the fourth stanza and “weak” and “will” in line two of the first stanza. 
  • Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one?”
  • Anaphora: can be seen when the poet repeats the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “One” which begins all but one line in stanza two and five lines out of stanza four. 
  • Juxtaposition: occurs when the poet contrasts two images against one another. For example, the reference to the various personalities in line two, “the weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the booze, the fighter.” 


Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One 

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.

In the first stanza of ‘The Hill,’ the speaker begins by referring to the loss of five different men, each of which the reader later learns, has passed away. These five men, who are named specifically, are very different from one another. But, all of them are “sleeping on the hill.” This is both a euphemism and a metaphor. It is a way of describing death without specifically having to say that someone died. The men are quite different from one another. For example, one of them was more clown-like while another was a fighter. 

While describing specific people, the poet also alludes to the different personalities that can be found throughout history and among, very likely, the readers on friends. They are attempting to remind readers that no matter who won is or the kind of life they lead, they are always going to end up “sleeping on the hill.”

Stanza Two 

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.

In the second stanza, the speaker describes how the five people passed away. Their deaths were as different as their personalities. For example, one was killed in a brawl, likely the “fighter” from the first stanza, while another committed suicide for lost “children and wife.” In this stanza, the poet makes use of a literary device known as anaphora. This occurs when they repeat the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. This creates a list-like feeling in this particular poem as the poet describes, one at a time, how these very different men lost their lives.

While it’s clear, as the poem progresses, that the speaker cared about these people, they are also describing their deaths in a very simple indirect way. Their lines are not imbued with a great deal of mourning or grief. They’re stating the simple facts in a way that all readers can understand.

Stanza Three 

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.

The next stanza questions the absence of five women, each of whom is as different as the five men mentioned in the last two stanzas. These women are described using juxtaposition, for example, the “simple soul” and “the proud.” 

The speaker sees each of them in different ways and defines them, very simply, for the reader. It’s likely that each reader is going to have a different opinion of what a “tender heart” or “simple soul” means and, therefore, a different idea of each woman’s life. The poet did not provide readers with many details, something that makes the poem easier to relate to. Readers may be inspired to consider who they know that they’ve lost who matches the simple descriptions. 

Stanza Four 

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.

The fourth stanza mirrors the second stanza in that it utilizes anaphora in the same way, through the repetition of “One” and in how it describes the deaths of the five women. Each woman gets one line and a few simple words dedicated to how she passed away. One died from “shameful child-birth,” the speaker declares. This is an example of an allusion that refers to a child conceived out of wedlock that took the mother’s life. 

Another woman died “of broken pride” while searching for her “heart’s desire.” This is one of the more cryptic descriptions in the poem. It’s going to be up to readers to determine exactly what the poet means in these lines. Perhaps, she was seeking out some purpose in life and, unable to find it, lost the will to live. The worst death described in the stanza is in line three. One woman was killed “at the hands of a brute in a brothel.” This suggests that one of the women was a prostitute and was beaten to death by a male guest of the brothel. It’s a terrible and devastating death that’s described, as they are all, in simple, direct language. 

The final line of the stanza describes how each woman, like each man and the previous dances, is “sleeping “on the hill. In this line, Readers can note the poet’s use of repetition. This is seen through the use of the word “All” twice and the use of the word “sleeping “three times. By repeating the word sleeping, the poet is emphasizing home these women are never going to wake from this very specific slumber.

Stanza Five 

Where are Uncle Isaac and Aunt Emily,

And old Towny Kincaid and Sevigne Houghton,

And Major Walker who had talked

With venerable men of the revolution? —

All, all are sleeping on the hill.

The fifths stanza asks where five more people are. But provides readers with a few more details. This includes the fact that Isaac was the speaker’s uncle and that Emily was their aunt. By describing a variety of people from different walks of life and always concluding with the line “sleeping on the hill,” the poet is ensuring that readers walk away from this poem with a clear reminder that no matter the life one leads ends in death. This is even true for someone as memorable as “Major Walker” who talked “with venerable men of the revolution.” 

Stanza Six 

They brought them dead sons from the war,

And daughters whom life had crushed,

And their children fatherless, crying —

All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

The sixth stanza is a quatrain, meaning that it contains four lines. The speaker notes that war “crushed” the life out of many that he knew. It changed the mothers and fathers he was familiar with by taking their children, and other children were left without a parent—their fathers were taken by violence. These people are lost, “sleeping on the hill,” just as their bereaved loved ones will be one day.

Stanza Seven 

Where is Old Fiddler Jones

Who played with life all his ninety years,

Braving the sleet with bared breast,

Drinking, rioting, thinking neither of wife nor kin,

Nor gold, nor love, nor heaven?

Lo! he babbles of the fish-frys of long ago,

Of the horse-races of long ago at Clary’s Grove,

Of what Abe Lincoln said

One time at Springfield.

In the final stanza, the poet ends by focusing on one memorable character, “Old Fiddler Jones.” This man evokes both amusement and admiration from the speaker (and should likely inspire the same from the reader). The man was brave and, at times, seemingly foolish. He was always found outside playing his instrument, with no regard for “love,” “heaven,” or “gold” throughout his days. Interestingly, Masters also mentions Jones in his poem Fiddler Jones,’ an epitaph written specifically for this resident of Spoon River. 

He had one passion that was never usurped by anything during his ninety years of life. Now, he’s passed, as have all the men and women previously mentioned in the poem. Death is the only thing that could stop him from playing. 

Not only was he known for his playing, but he was also known for talking. “Of fish-fry” and “Abe Lincoln” and more. These conversations are stuck in the speaker’s mind. They are a part of the speaker’s community’s identity, and now, as all these people have passed, it seems likely that the speaker is questioning what’s left of the world and the people he knew. 

FAQs 

What is the purpose of ‘The Hill?’ 

The poet likely penned this piece to describe the all-consuming nature of death. Throughout, he provides readers with an outline of the lives and deaths of a few members of his community. They vary in their profession, personality, and how they lost their lives.

What is the theme of ‘The Hill?’ 

The central theme is that no matter the life these people led, death is inevitable. It came for every man, woman, and child mentioned in this seven-stanza poem, no matter who they were. 

Who is the speaker in ‘The Hill?’ 

The speaker is very likely meant to be the poet himself. His best-known works were published in Spoon River Anthology, a collection of epitaphs written about the residents of a small town called Spoon River. Some of these residents are mentioned in ‘The Hill.’

Why did Masters write ‘The Hill?

Masters wrote this poem in order to convey the lives and deaths of some of the many residents of Spoon River. Specifically, while focusing on the theme of death, he suggests how inescapable it is. All people fall into its grasp. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some of Edgar Lee Masters’ other poems. For example: 

  • Carl Hamblin– an epitaph that tells the story of how Hamblin ended up tarred and feathered through a story of injustice and anarchism.
  • Conrad Siever’ – presents the liveliness of the northern-spy apple tree and the impact of autumn on the surroundings.
  • Fiddler Jones’ – highlights how following one’s passion, no matter what it is, is always worthwhile and helps lead a life without any regrets.

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The Hill by Edgar Lee Masters Visual Representation
Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
  • Nishantha Kaluarachchi says:

    👍👍👍😊😊

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