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Edgar Lee Masters' "Emily Sparks"

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

Introduction and Text of "Emily Sparks"

Edgar Lee Masters’ epigraph titled "Emily Sparks" from his American classic, Spoon River Anthology, portrays a very devout teacher, who behaved very motherly toward her students. She thought of them all as her own children.

Emily Sparks reports that one young student—Reuben Pantier—who suffered a dysfunctional home-life needed her prayers and care even more than many of the others.

Emily Sparks

Where is my boy, my boy—
In what far part of the world?
The boy I loved best of all in the school?—
I, the teacher, the old maid, the virgin heart,
Who made them all my children.
Did I know my boy aright,
Thinking of him as spirit aflame,
Active, ever aspiring?
Oh, boy, boy, for whom I prayed and prayed
In many a watchful hour at night,
Do you remember the letter I wrote you
Of the beautiful love of Christ?
And whether you ever took it or not,
My boy, wherever you are,
Work for your soul’s sake,
That all the clay of you, all of the dross of you,
May yield to the fire of you,
Till the fire is nothing but light!...
Nothing but light!

Reading of "Emily Sparks"

Commentary

The fourth epitaph from the Pantier Sequence features Reuben's very spiritual teacher, whose prayers and guidance ultimately affected the boy's life.

First Movement: The Strength of Spiritual Ties

Where is my boy, my boy—
In what far part of the world?
The boy I loved best of all in the school?—

Miss Emily speaks in a pleading tone, asking "Where is by boy, my boy—." She wonders, "in what part of the world" this sad child might be living. Her concern for him is strong because he was "the boy I loved best of all in the school."

Although many years have passed and, of course, both individuals are dead and speaking from their graves, the strength of spiritual ties lends credence to the drama being played out in this Spoon River scenario

Second Movement: Marian Love for All Children

I, the teacher, the old maid, the virgin heart,
Who made them all my children.

Miss Emily then succinctly describes herself in the second movement which is an unrimed couplet: "I, the teacher, the old maid, the virgin heart, / Who made them all my children."

The teacher’s virginal quality provides a gentle parallel to Marian love for all children, especially the lowly birthed and less fortunate. She becomes a symbol for Christian love.

Third Movement: Faith in Christ's Healing Love

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Did I know my boy aright,
Thinking of him as spirit aflame,
Active, ever aspiring?

Emily then contemplates and questions her understanding of the young Reuben Pantier, for she chose to see in him one who aspired to "spirit aflame." She knows that she might have read more into his character, sensing him to be more spiritually advanced than he was, but she continued in her faith that Christ would touch his soul and lift him from the travails to which mortals are susceptible.

Fourth Movement: Spiritual Love in a Letter

Oh, boy, boy, for whom I prayed and prayed
In many a watchful hour at night,
Do you remember the letter I wrote you
Of the beautiful love of Christ?

Exclaiming again, "Oh, boy, boy," she queries him about a letter she wrote to him. She reports having "prayed and prayed / In many a watchful hour at night." Then asks if he remembers the letter she wrote him, "Of the beautiful love of Christ."

Of course, she will not be able to receive a concrete response and has no way of knowing what, if any, effect she might have had on this young boy’s later life.

Fifth Movement: Spiritual Advice

And whether you ever took it or not,
My boy, wherever you are,
Work for your soul’s sake,
That all the clay of you, all of the dross of you,
May yield to the fire of you,
Till the fire is nothing but light!...
Nothing but light!

The speaker’s uncertainty is confirmed again as she remarks, "And whether you ever took it or not." She has never been able to know what her influence has been over the young Reuben.

Miss Emily reports what the reader will understand to be the advice she had given him: "Work for your soul’s sake, / That all the clay of you, all of the dross of you, / May yield to the fire of you."

Emily knows that if the boy follows her spiritual admonition, his earthly "fire" or human passions will transform and transcend into the light of spirit, and his human frailties will become "nothing but light!... / Nothing but light!"

A Cheerful Note

For the reader, the sad note, on the one hand, is that Miss Emily might never know that her advice was taken to heart by her former student, but on the other hand, a cheerful note that the student did eventually become the spiritual aspirant for which the virgin-hearted teacher had "prayed and prayed."

Emily Sparks remains on of the more uplifting epitaphs from the entire sequence because it features a truly magnanimous character who cared about others instead of making excuses for a misbegotten path. Miss Emily remained true to herself and continues to send her spiritual strength to others through her prayers.

The Pantier Sequence

The following poems comprise the Pantier sequence of themed epitaphs begun by Benjamin Pantier:

Benjamin Pantier
Mrs. Benjamin Pantier
Reuben Pantier
Emily Sparks
Trainor, the Druggist

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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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