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Edgar Lee Masters' "William and Emily"

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

Introduction and Text of "William and Emily"

Edgar Lee Masters’ "William and Emily" from Spoon River Anthology finds the speaker making a profound statement about the cessation of passion in a marriage. It is quite likely that he does so unwittingly.

William and Emily

There is something about Death
Like love itself!
If with some one with whom you have known passion,
And the glow of youthful love,
You also, after years of life
Together, feel the sinking of the fire,
And thus fade away together,
Gradually, faintly, delicately,
As it were in each other’s arms,
Passing from the familiar room—
That is a power of unison between souls
Like love itself!

Reading of "William and Emily"

Commentary

From time to time, Edgar Lee Masters, the atheist, happens upon a spiritual truth. This unique epitaph is titled, "William and Emily," yet it offers no details about the pair. But the gravity of the message is, indeed, spiritual and interestingly appropriate.

First Movement: Death and Love

There is something about Death
Like love itself!

The speaker begins with an intriguing proposition, vaguely offering, "there is something about Death." Don’t we all know that? We dread it, we crave it, we mostly wonder about it, but yes, dude, there is definitely something about "Death." What the reader is not expecting is that someone would assert that death is "like love itself."

Readers have come to expect all sorts of nonsense from the residents, or might one say, inmates of the Spoon River cemetery. So when one of them asserts that death and love have something in common, readers might not blink an eye, as they curiously wait to find out what this dude thinks death and love have in common.

Second Movement: Reason Is an "If"

If with some one with whom you have known passion,
And the glow of youthful love,
You also, after years of life
Together, feel the sinking of the fire,
And thus fade away together,

The speaker then offers his reason for making such a statement that love and death have something in common. The curious speaker begins with an "if" clause—if you have known someone with "passion" and "the glow of youthful love," but you start losing that fiery passion of youth.

Third Movement: A Fiery Thought

Gradually, faintly, delicately,
As it were in each other’s arms,
Passing from the familiar room—
That is a power of unison between souls
Like love itself!

The speaker then breaks the fiery thought. his slow loss, "Gradually, faintly, delicately" builds up a drama that might have easily been glossed over. It is a cliché that sexual passion fades with the age of the paramours, but if it is lost slowly, the loss takes on a different context.

The cessation of violent sexual passion between two individuals is scheduled by nature to occur. That cessation allows room for the spiritual bond between them to flower. After all, sexual passion has only one true purpose—to create other human beings.

Once the physical ability to give birth has passed, there is no longer a need for sexual passion, even though, as many erroneously believe otherwise, the ability to be sexually aroused does not subside, unless, of course, there are health issues. Perfectly healthy sexagenarians are as capable of basking in the "glow of youthful love" as they were in their twenties, thirties, etc,—but should they? What do they lose if they do?

Fourth Movement: Soul Unity

That is a power of unison between souls
Like love itself!

They lose "the power of unison between souls"—a man who continues to pound his wife as a sex object past the age of the ability to conceive and spawn offspring can hardly be considered a soul-living creature. The main purpose of sexual coupling long past, all that is left is that "shudder in the loins" that speaks only one word, "selfishness." Or perhaps two words, "selfish ignorance." It is the "power of the unison between souls" that speaks to the union with "love itself."

So what is there about "Death" that is like "love itself"? God is love—pure love: not sex, not physical passion that leads to procreation, which is only a tiny aspect of God. As the human being grows older, s/he becomes more aware of the necessity of knowing God. After procreating, the human body/mind has only one true, dual-pronged purpose: to pursue and find itself as a soul and connect it to the OverSoul, or God. After the human being leaves the body/mind at "Death," it craves only the company of its Creator. A little preparation beforehand is always advisable on this mud ball of planet Earth.

Edgar Lee Masters

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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