Edgar Lee Masters' "Rev. Lemuel Wiley"

Updated on January 25, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edgar Lee Masters

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Rev. Lemuel Wiley"

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Rev. Lemuel Wiley"

Rev. Wiley was one the advisors of the couple, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Bliss. As Mrs. Bliss has recounted, Rev. Wiley counseled her not to divorce Mr. Bliss because of the children. Mr. Bliss received the same advice from Judge Somers.

Rev. Wiley's epitaph must be experienced along with that of Mrs. Charles Bliss in order to see the vastly different views each has taken away from the reverend's counseling insight.

90. Rev. Lemuel Wiley

I preached four thousand sermons,
I conducted forty revivals,
And baptized many converts.
Yet no deed of mine
Shines brighter in the memory of the world,
And none is treasured more by me:
Look how I saved the Blisses from divorce,
And kept the children free from that disgrace,
To grow up into moral men and women,
Happy themselves, a credit to the village.

Reading of "Rev. Lemuel Wiley"

Commentary

First Movement: Long Career as Preacher

I preached four thousand sermons,
I conducted forty revivals,
And baptized many converts.

Rev. Wiley begins his epitaph by citing the number of sermons he has delivered, 4000 of them. Plus he led 40 revivals, and he baptized many whom he had converted to the faith. He feels his years of service with the many sermons, revivals, and baptisms has granted him a special grace that he could be proud of and about which he can boast.

Second Movement: His Brightest Memory

Yet no deed of mine
Shines brighter in the memory of the world,
And none is treasured more by me:

The reverend then pulls out from his long line of good deeds in service to his faith one "deed," which for him remains his highest accomplishment, his deed that glows with the brightest of all his memories. It is memory of a service that he treasures more than any other.

Third Stanza: Saved From Disgrace

Look how I saved the Blisses from divorce,
And kept the children free from that disgrace,
To grow up into moral men and women,
Happy themselves, a credit to the village.

Then in a rather odd mode of discourse, the reverend chooses to place his most excellent deed in a command. He thus commands his readers/listeners to "look how I saved the Blisses from divorce."

Continuing with command construction, the reverend imparts the claim that he kept the Bliss children from "disgrace." They were able to be reared to become "moral men and women." Those children were "happy themselves," and they were, likely most importantly for the preacher, "a credit to the village."

By stating his claims inside this awkward command, the reverend likely intends his evaluation of the Bliss situation to take on more authority. But instead, it possibly resounds in the listener's ear that he may be hedging or protesting too much.

And when one hears Mrs. Bliss' conclusion about her children growing up in a loveless, dark, and dank atmosphere, one has to wonder who is correct. Could it be that the children were, in fact, moral men and women who were a credit to the village, and yet inside they were the cripples, as described by Mrs. Bliss?

Life Sketch of Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters, (August 23, 1868 - March 5, 1950), authored some 39 books in addition to Spoon River Anthology, yet nothing in his canon ever gained the wide fame that the 243 reports of people speaking from the beyond the grave brought him. In addition to the individual reports, or "epitaphs," as Masters called them, the Anthology includes three other long poems that offer summaries or other material pertinent to the cemetery inmates or the atmosphere of the fictional town of Spoon River, #1 "The Hill,"#245 "The Spooniad," and #246 "Epilogue."

Edgar Lee Masters was born on August 23, 1868, in Garnett, Kansas; the Masters family soon relocated to Lewistown, Illinois. The fictional town of Spoon River constitutes a composite of Lewistown, where Masters grew up and Petersburg, IL, where his grandparents resided. While the town of Spoon River was a creation of Masters' doing, there is an Illinois river named "Spoon River," which is a tributary of the Illinois River in the west-central part of the state, running a 148-mile-long stretch between Peoria and Galesburg.

Masters briefly attended Knox College but had to drop out because of the family's finances. He went on to study law and later had a rather successful law practice, after being admitted to the bar in 1891. He later became a partner in the law office of Clarence Darrow, whose name spread far and wide because of the Scopes Trial—The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes—also jeeringly known as the "Monkey Trial."

Masters married Helen Jenkins in 1898, and the marriage brought Master nothing but heartache. In his memoir, Across Spoon River, the woman features heavily in his narrative without his ever mentioning her name; he refers to her only as the "Golden Aura," and he does not mean it in a good way.

Masters and the "Golden Aura" produced three children, but they divorced in 1923. He married Ellen Coyne in 1926, after having relocated to New York City. He stopped practicing law in order to devote more time to writing.

Masters was awarded the Poetry Society of America Award, the Academy Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Award, and he was also the recipient of a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

On March 5, 1950, just five months shy of his 82 birthday, the poet died in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, in a nursing facility. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
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      Linda Sue Grimes 2 months ago from Spring Hill, TN

      Thank you, Louise! I've been at the poetry gig for many years. So I guess I can confess to knowing a little bit.

      Masters' Spoon River Anthology has become an American classic. It is a fascinating piece of work. The characters are varied and represent just about every aspect of human nature. I highly recommend it for study and for just an interesting, entertaining read.

      Have a blessed day, Louise! I always love hearing from you.

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      Louise Powles 2 months ago from Norfolk, England

      How interesting. I don't know of Edgar Lee Masters, so it's been interesting reading your article. You know a lot about poetry, so always look forward to your articles.

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