Edgar Lee Masters' classic work, "Spoon River Anthology," offers a fascinating character study of the American mind in the mid-20th-century.
Introduction, Text of Poem, Commentary on "Frank Drummer"
The two epitaphs, "Frank Drummer" and "Hare Drummer" from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, feature two character studies of a couple of the milder personalities of the Spoon River collection.
Although the reader never learns to what specific goals he aspired, Frank reveals that he at least thought himself capable of achieving great things. He demonstrates an intense emotional make-up that was likely responsible for his landing in jail.
Out of a cell into this darkened space—
The end at twenty-five!
My tongue could not speak what stirred within me,
And the village thought me a fool.
Yet at the start there was a clear vision,
A high and urgent purpose in my soul
Which drove me on trying to memorize
The Encyclopedia Britannica!
First Movement: Died in Jail
Frank reports that he died in jail and was immediately introduced to the grave, "this darkened space"—and at the young age of twenty-five. His emotion was so strong that he could not even speak, and thus the town "thought me a fool."
Frank, of course, sees himself as one destined for high achievement, but instead he committed some crime that brought him low.
Second Movement: Bright Mind Turned Dark
However, early on in this life, his mind was bright and his soul possessed "[a] high and urgent purpose." That high purpose motivated him to try to "memorize / The Encyclopedia Britannica!"
Frank's evaluation of his own ability demonstrates that he was not in touch with reality. He thinks that memorizing an book of information was enough to support his contention that he was clear-minded and had "high purpose."
Reading of "Frank Drummer"
Introduction, Text of Poem, Commentary on "Hare Drummer"
Hare asks a series of questions, seeking to learn how things have continued on after his death. That question format is reminiscent of A. E. Housman's "Is my team ploughing," in which dead man asks for a report about how things are going now that he has died.
Do the boys and girls still go to Siever’s
For cider, after school, in late September?
Or gather hazel nuts among the thickets
On Aaron Hatfield’s farm when the frosts begin?
For many times with the laughing girls and boys
Played I along the road and over the hills
When the sun was low and the air was cool,
Stopping to club the walnut tree
Standing leafless against a flaming west.
Now, the smell of the autumn smoke,
And the dropping acorns,
And the echoes about the vales
Bring dreams of life. They hover over me.
They question me:
Where are those laughing comrades?
How many are with me, how many
In the old orchards along the way to Siever’s,
And in the woods that overlook
The quiet water?
First Movement: Does Life Go On After?
Hare begins by asking if the young folk "still go to Siever’s / For cider, after school, in late September?" He continues with his second question, asking if they still "gather hazel nuts among the thickets" on the farm owned by Aaron Hatfield "when the frost begins."
Hare’s purpose in questioning seems quite innocent, as if he is merely curious about the continuation of life as he had seen it. And his questions and comments simply paint a portrait of simple, pastoral life including farms, hills, trees, cold weather, and "quiet water."
Second Movement: Down Memory Lane
Hare then offers the explanation that he had accompanied "the laughing girls and boys" as they all "played [ ] along the road and over the hills." He remembers how they would knock down walnuts from the tree which stood "leafless against the flaming west."
Third Movement: The Smell of Autumn Smoke
Intimating that he now smells "autumn smoke" and acorns drop on his grave, he dramatizes how "echoes about the vales / Bring dreams of life." His memory abounds with sights and sounds that he experienced when he was alive. These dreams and experiences "hover over me," he asserts.
Fourth Movement: Questioned by Phantoms
And just as Hare questions some phantom audience, he is questioned by the same phantoms. They want to know how many of his former playmates are with him and how many are still making their way through "the old orchards along the way to Siever’s." And he also wonders how many still visit "the woods that overlook / The quiet water."
Reading of "Hare Drummer"
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.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes