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Edgar Lee Masters' "Amos Sibley" and "Mrs. Sibley"

Edgar Lee Masters' classic work, "Spoon River Anthology," offers a fascinating character study of the American mind in the mid-20th-century.

Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters

Introduction and Text of "Amos Sibley"

The epitaph of "Amos Sibley" from Edgar Lee Masters’ American classic, Spoon River Anthology, features an unhappy clergyman, whose marriage causes him pain and anguish. His wife is a serial adulteress, and he chafes under the moral restriction placed on him as a man of the cloth, forbidding him to divorce his "wanton" wife.

Amos Sibley

Not character, not fortitude, not patience
Were mine, the which the village thought I had
In bearing with my wife, while preaching on,
Doing the work God chose for me.
I loathed her as a termagant, as a wanton.
I knew of her adulteries, every one.
But even so, if I divorced the woman
I must forsake the ministry.
Therefore to do God’s work and have it crop,
I bore with her!
So lied I to myself!
So lied I to Spoon River!
Yet I tried lecturing, ran for the legislature,
Canvassed for books, with just the thought in mind:
If I make money thus, I will divorce her.

Reading of "Amos Sibley"

Commentary

Amos Sibley is man who wishes to divorce his adulteress wife but finds himself in bind because of his chosen profession.

First Movement: An Admission

Not character, not fortitude, not patience
Were mine, the which the village thought I had
In bearing with my wife, while preaching on,
Doing the work God chose for me.

The character, Amos Sibley, admits his own lack of virtue, rendering him a very different sort of personality from most of the Spoon River inmates who attempt to rehabilitate their own reputations by blaming circumstances or other people for their misdemeanors and crimes. Instead of belittling some other Spoon River citizen, he admits that he lacked "character," "fortitude," and "patience." However, some blame is on the horizon, for Amos next brings his wife into his report.

He says that despite his lack of a handful of positive qualities that the villagers thought he possessed for staying with his shrewish wife, he continued to remain a preacher, claiming that he was doing the work the "God chose for [him]."

Second Movement: Christian Loathing

I loathed her as a termagant, as a wanton.
I knew of her adulteries, every one.
But even so, if I divorced the woman
I must forsake the ministry.

Amos’ supposed virtuous nature then becomes tainted as he admits that he hated his wife—not exactly a Christian virtue. But then he reports that his reason for hating her as a "termagant" and as a "wanton" was that she committed serial "adulteries."

He confesses that he knew about each one of her adulterous liaisons. But he remained with her because if he had divorced her, he would have had to leave his ministry. Divorce was, at the time of the creation of these epitaphs, looked upon as a disqualification from serving as a preacher in a church. According to Lesli White of beliefnet,

There was a time when the possibility of hiring a pastor who was divorced was rare but by the 1980s, a growing number of clergymen were divorced and married. There are many divorced pastors serving in churches today, including evangelical, Bible believing churches.

The Spoon River Anthology was first published in 1915; thus, the characters created by Edgar Lee Master in the late 19th and early 20th centuries would adhere to the mores of the time.

Third Movement: Living a Big Lie

Therefore to do God’s work and have it crop,
I bore with her!
So lied I to myself!
So lied I to Spoon River!

Amos decides to remain married to his dreaded wife because he wanted to continue to "do God’s work," and he wanted his work to be effective. Thus, he makes his painful confessions that he was living a lie—lying to himself as well as lying to the community that he was supposed to be spiritually serving.

Amos seems to be an honest fellow as he confesses his sins of lying, but through that confession, he is also implying that what he was doing was wrong, as he was going against his own inner inclinations; his life then became a living hell that was being covered up by his prevarications.

Fourth Movement: What He Will Do

Yet I tried lecturing, ran for the legislature,
Canvassed for books, with just the thought in mind:
If I make money thus, I will divorce her.

Amos then reports that he attempted to "make money" by secular means—giving speeches, selling books, and even running for "the legislature." He concludes his unfinished report by merely stating that if he could make money by some other means than preaching, he would divorce his wife.

Amos leaves his audience with an unclear picture of what finally happened: did he finally divorce her? If he is telling his tale from the grave, which all of the Spoon River inmates are doing, then why did he simply leave off and leave us with a mystery?

Likely, Amos is simply emphasizing what his life came to emphasize: his great desire to divorce his wife. He rearranged his life so he could do just that, but perhaps he was still unsuccessful. The important factor remains that from the grave Amos is reliving his greatest dread and his greatest goal—two aspects of his life that remained in his thoughts and now will continue to replay in his psyche even after death.

 Quotation by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Quotation by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Introduction and Text of "Mrs. Sibley"


Because Amos Sibley fails to reveal if he actually was able to divorce Mrs. Sibley, readers will likely look to this epitaph for a possible resolution. It will not be forthcoming, but it will allow readers to make up their own mind regarding the final resolutions involving the Sibleys.

Mrs. Sibley

The secret of the stars,—gravitation.
The secret of the earth,—layers of rock.
The secret of the soil,—to receive seed.
The secret of the seed,—the germ.
The secret of man,—the sower.
The secret of woman,—the soil.
My secret: Under a mound that you shall never find.

Reading of "Mrs. Sibley"

Commentary

The reader who comes away from the epitaph of "Amos Sibley" unsatisfied with his ultimate resolution of his problem will not find any satisfaction offered by Mrs. Sibley. She simply offers a cryptic set of so-called secrets. Supposedly revealing her own "secret" in the final line, she remains even more mysterious.

First Movement: Six Secrets?

The secret of the stars,—gravitation.
The secret of the earth,—layers of rock.
The secret of the soil,—to receive seed.
The secret of the seed,—the germ.
The secret of man,—the sower.
The secret of woman,—the soil.

Mrs. Sibley purports to reveal seven "secrets"; however, she simply make seven bizarre, puzzling remarks that reveal no secrets, while at the same time, actually offering untruths.

There is nothing "secret" about "gravitation" and its relationship to the "stars." Any grade-school child knows that the planets are held in check through the agency of gravitation.

The same wrong-headed notions are expressed in her claims about the "earth" whose "secret" is "layers of rock." How is a "layer[] of rock" any more secretive than the bottom of the ocean? or the phenomenon of the tiled axis? or variations in the seasons?

As she continues, Mrs. Sibley adds more inaccurate "secrets"—however, as she reveals her "secrets" of soil, seed, man, woman, she does imply an accumulated sexual scenario. The soil receives the seed and the seed contains the germ, which she then fails to turn into a new human being.

Mrs. Sibley concludes her sexual implication by claiming that the secret of "man" is that he is "the sower" and that "woman" is "the soil"—clearly a reference to the male/female sex act of the man sewing his seed (injecting his sperm) into the soil of the vaginal receptacle.

And of course, all that is true enough, but neither individually nor taken together does any of it smack of secrecy. Again, by the time a child had reached age twelve, and sometimes much sooner, s/he knows about the birds and the bees.

Second Movement: Taking Her Secret to the Grave

My secret: Under a mound that you shall never find.

Finally, the mysterious Mrs. Sibley, whom the reader knows to have been a serial adulteress, reveals her own secret, but instead of revealing a secret, she says that her secret will remain in a place, "[u]nder a mound," where no one will ever find it. Thus, she has taken her secret to the grave.

Perhaps, Amos Sibley grew tired of living with a woman who was not only a serial adulteress but a serial liar, as she revealed herself to be in her epitaph where she concocted secrets that were not secrets.

© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on September 23, 2021:

Hello, Teodora. Nice to hear from you again. Thank you for the kind words.

Yes, inspiration for poetry composition can come in surprising forms. Likely, Edgar Lee Masters was influenced in his many vignettes about unhappy marriages by his own miserable marriage.

This poem remains a fascinating study because of the mystery that hangs about each partner in that dysfunctional marriage. Readers don't get to know either of them very well. We don't know if they actually divorced. We don't know exactly how Amos felt about this wife's apparent penchant for philosophizing.

Likely, they both remained dissatisfied, leading restless lives that are obviously spilling over into their afterlives.

Teodora Gheorghe on September 23, 2021:

A very interesting and thought-provoking article about a tumultuous marriage. It seems that both Mr. and Mrs. Sibley took their secrets to their grave. The good thing about experiencing heartache as a poet is that it can become a great source of inspiration.

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