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Edgar Lee Masters’ "Conrad Siever"

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 - Chicago Literary Hall of Fame

Edgar Lee Masters - Chicago Literary Hall of Fame

Introduction and Text of "Conrad Siever"

The speaker of Edgar Lee Masters’ "Conrad Siever" from the American classic, Spoon River Anthology, is contrasting his feelings for the acres of his property where a cemetery is located with those acres that hold his prized apple tree. Siever’s property is mentioned in two other Spoon River poems; in "Hare Drummer," Hare asks if the young folk "still go to Siever’s / For cider, after school." Also in the epitaph,"Amelia Garrick," Amelia refers to Siever’s woods, "Where the thickets from Siever’s woods / Have crept over." Thus, the reader infers that Conrad Siever owned many acres of land.

The structure of this poem presents two movements that basically offer the theme of "not there, but here." The first movement dramatizes the speaker’s negative or "not there" rubric; he did not love the part of his property that tendered certain features. The second movement dramatizes the "but here" or positive part of the construction, which is the section of his land that he loved and attended to in life and seemingly continues to do so in death.

Conrad Siever

Not in that wasted garden
Where bodies are drawn into grass
That feeds no flocks, and into evergreens
That bear no fruit—
There where along the shaded walks
Vain sighs are heard,
And vainer dreams are dreamed
Of close communion with departed souls—
But here under the apple tree
I loved and watched and pruned
With gnarled hands
In the long, long years;
Here under the roots of this northern-spy
To move in the chemic change and circle of life,
Into the soil and into the flesh of the tree,
And into the living epitaphs
Of redder apples!

Reading of "Conrad Siever"

Commentary

Conrad Siever loved his apple tree and lovingly nurtured it in life and death.

First Movement: Fruitless Evergreens

Not in that wasted garden
Where bodies are drawn into grass
That feeds no flocks, and into evergreens
That bear no fruit—
There where along the shaded walks
Vain sighs are heard,
And vainer dreams are dreamed
Of close communion with departed souls—

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Despite his owning considerable property, Siever begins with a negative assertion that he did not take his essential being in "that wasted garden," where despite the continued interest of other people, there is no food for "flocks" and where fruitless evergreens abide. He points out that that wasted garden strikes him as rather useless, where "vain sighs are heard," and he adds that even "vainer dreams are dreamed." He is revealing that the part of his property that includes a cemetery is where those vain dreamers come to attempt "close communion with departed souls."

Siever first concentrates on the part of his land that he finds least useful and therefore least important. By beginning with a sort of condemnation of uselessness, he thereby emphasizes his interest in productive endeavors, which he finds important, much more significant than the land that merely hold the bodies of dead folks.

Second Movement: Not There, but Here

But here under the apple tree
I loved and watched and pruned
With gnarled hands
In the long, long years;
Here under the roots of this northern-spy
To move in the chemic change and circle of life,
Into the soil and into the flesh of the tree,
And into the living epitaphs
Of redder apples!

Siever has remarked that it is not to those useless parts of his property that he was attached but instead to "here under the apple tree." It was in this place that the speaker afforded his affection for his property; he worked on his apple tree, pruning and tending to its needs, even as his hands became "gnarled," likely causing pain during his hard labor. Obviously, Siever's real love and occupation was for his apple tree; thus, he tended it with great care and affection.

Now Siever is buried under his beloved "northern-spy," specifically and more importantly, "under the roots." And he attests that he is still attending to his former occupation. His spirit is now able to "move in the chemic change and circle of life." That spirit circulates "into the soil and into the flesh of the tree." Siever dramatically and triumphantly announces that just as when alive he strove to produce better apples, his spirit is now accomplishing the same goal as it pushes itself "into the living epitaphs / Of redder apples!"

Siever has shown that he bestowed his love and attention upon the fertile, apple-growing segment of his land. Instead of "epitaphs" of dead people, he continues to grow living reports of useful fruit as he continues to pursue "redder apples." He is demonstrating that his loving interest was in useful, productive activity, rather than dreaming and sighing and eternal waiting. Even in death, his strong spirit continues his dedication to caring for his apple producing tree.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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