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Edgar Lee Masters' "Frank Drummer" and "Hare Drummer"

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’ American classic, 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.

Frank Drummer

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!

Commentary

Perhaps a little too sure of his own mental acuity and strength, nevertheless, this character had the foresight to attempt some positive action for self-improvement.

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.

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Hare Drummer

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?

Commentary

Hare Drummer demonstrates a very different character from Frank. Hare is concerned about how life is continuing and moving on after his death.

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"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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