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Edgar Lee Masters' "Louise Smith"

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

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Introduction and Text of "Louise Smith"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ “Louise Smith” from his American classic, Spoon River Anthology, the speaker laments allowing her love for the man who jilted her to turn into hate. This epitaph is offered in the form of an American sonnet. Louise is speaking many years after the sorrowful event. She becomes very philosophical about what happened to her. Thus, Louise offers advice to others about selfish wishes and the nature of the soul.

Louise Smith

Herbert broke our engagement of eight years
When Annabelle returned to the village
From the Seminary, ah me!
If I had let my love for him alone
It might have grown into a beautiful sorrow—
Who knows?—filling my life with healing fragrance.
But I tortured it, I poisoned it,
I blinded its eyes, and it became hatred—
Deadly ivy instead of clematis.
And my soul fell from its support,
Its tendrils tangled in decay.
Do not let the will play gardener to your soul
Unless you are sure
It is wiser than your soul’s nature.

Reading of "Louise Smith"

Commentary

Masters' American sonnet, “Louise Smith,” feature the drama of a woman who was jilted after an eight-year engagement.

First Movement: An "Ah, Me!" Moment

Herbert broke our engagement of eight years
When Annabelle returned to the village
From the Seminary, ah me!

Louise says that after Annabelle came back to Spoon River “from the Seminary,” her fiancé, Herbert, broke their eight-year engagement. Louise then heaves a verbal indication of a sigh, “ah me!”

Second Movement: Waxing Philosophical

If I had let my love for him alone
It might have grown into a beautiful sorrow—
Who knows?—filling my life with healing fragrance.

Louise has garnered a philosophical stance regarding her unpleasant situation with Herbert. Louise has turned over the situation in her mind and concluded that if she had simply allowed herself to continue loving him and thus allowed herself to grieve, that love “might have grown into a beautiful sorrow.”

This “beautiful sorrow” likely would have led to a healing; she express that sentiment gently and graciously, “filling my life with healing fragrance.” The reader then realizes that Louise will possibly be announcing how she took a different route and the “healing fragrance” eluded her.

Third Movement: A Confession

But I tortured it, I poisoned it,
I blinded its eyes, and it became hatred—
Deadly ivy instead of clematis.

Louise then confesses that she “tortured” and “poisoned” that love. She “blinded its eyes,” and love transformed into hate. Louise allowed herself to become bitter, concentrating not on what the love had been but simply that Herbert had dumped her for Annabelle.

No doubt, Louise's hatred was doubled as she included Annabelle in that violent emotion. Louise likens metaphorically her embattled loathing to “deadly ivy” whereas it had been “clematis.” Louise's own hatred poisoned her mind and heart.

Fourth Movement: Poisoning Her Soul

And my soul fell from its support,
Its tendrils tangled in decay.

By allowing her heart and mind to poison her soul, to turn the beauty of clematis into the lethality of ivy, Louise caused her soul to fall “from its support.” Continuing with the plant metaphor, Louise says her soul support’s “tendrils tangled in decay.”

Clematis produces lovely flowers as it climbs up a wall or trellis, but deadly ivy is poison ivy that can kill. Both grow on stems that are called tendrils. Louise’s metaphor focuses on the tangling of the deadly ivy that would cause decay because the tangled stems would choke the plant keeping out air and sunlight. Louise is thus showing how her negative attitude choked off her positive emotions, which caused her love to become tangled in a web of hate where it decayed.

Fifth Movement: Advice to the Love-Lorn

Do not let the will play gardener to your soul
Unless you are sure
It is wiser than your soul’s nature.

Louise offers advice based on her own experience. She counsels others, “[d]o not let the will play gardener to your soul / Unless you are sure / It is wiser than your soul’s nature.”

Remaining with the plant metaphor, she tells her listeners not allow selfish wishes to tend the soul, as a gardener would tend plants—that is, unless you know that those selfish wishes are more intelligent and “wiser” than the soul. Because the soul is always wiser than selfish wishes, Louise accomplishes the goal of her advice.

Edgar Lee Masters - Commemorative Stamp

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