Edgar Lee Masters' "Johnnie Sayre"

Updated on October 7, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq. - Clarence Darrow Law Library
Edgar Lee Masters, Esq. - Clarence Darrow Law Library | Source

Introduction and Text of "Johnnie Sayre"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ “Johnnie Sayre” from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker is talking to the Divine Creator, while most of the characters address their remarks to the citizens of Spoon River or one of their relatives.

Some of the characters who speak in this remarkable sequence become admirable in the eyes of their readers/listeners, while others invite further disdain, just as they obviously did in their miserable lifetimes.

Johnnie Sayre is one the more admirable characters. He accepts responsibility for his own transgressions in life, and he humbly offers his love and appreciation to the Divine Reality for the soul guidance he understands he is being given.

Johnnie Sayre

Father, thou canst never know
The anguish that smote my heart
For my disobedience, the moment I felt
The remorseless wheel of the engine
Sink into the crying flesh of my leg.
As they carried me to the home of widow Morris
I could see the school-house in the valley
To which I played truant to steal rides upon the trains.
I prayed to live until I could ask your forgiveness—
And then your tears, your broken words of comfort!
From the solace of that hour I have gained infinite happiness.
Thou wert wise to chisel for me:
“Taken from the evil to come.”

Reading of "Johnnie Sayre"


Masters’ character, Johnnie Sayre, speaks to the Divine Belovèd, remembering the excruciating pain that resulted in his death, finding grace in his early demise.

First Movement: Addressing His Creator

Father, thou canst never know
The anguish that smote my heart
For my disobedience, the moment I felt
The remorseless wheel of the engine
Sink into the crying flesh of my leg.

In a prayerful mode, Johnnie Sayre addresses his Maker, “Father, thou canst never know / The anguish that smote my heart.” He exaggerates the anguish by stating that God can never know its depth. Of course, God knows such, but by exclaiming that He cannot, Johnnie implies that the depth is well beyond human comprehension.

Johnnie was stealing a ride on a train, when he finds himself losing his leg to “[t]he remorseless wheel of the engine” that “[sank] into the crying flesh of [his] leg.” Johnnie’s anguish, however, is not that his leg was being crushed. That unhappy accident merely triggers his guilt over the act of theft. He suddenly becomes aware that he is paying a karmic debt, and his capability to understand and accept that debt causes him great “anguish.”

Second Movement: Remembering His Transgressions

As they carried me to the home of widow Morris
I could see the school-house in the valley
To which I played truant to steal rides upon the trains.

Johnnie is reminded of his transgression against one of the commandments as he is being transported to the nearby home of the widow Morris.

As the rescuers move Johnnie to the woman’s home, he could see his “school-house in the valley.” He admits that he played hooky from school “to steal rides upon the trains.”

Third Movement: Desirous of God's Forgivenesss

I prayed to live until I could ask your forgiveness—
And then your tears, your broken words of comfort!

Johnnie confesses that he wanted to live until he could beg God for His forgiveness. He talks to God as he would his human father. Johnnie expects to see God shed tears for His son’s transgression, and he awaits God’s “broken words of comfort!” At this point, Johnnie shows a touching sweetness in his relationship with the Divine.

Johnnie accepts his responsibility for his own behavior; he does not blame God or the Spoon River citizens as so many others in the cemetery do, for example “Minerva Jones” and “Daisy Fraser.”

Fourth Movement: Crediting the Divine Creator

From the solace of that hour I have gained infinite happiness.
Thou wert wise to chisel for me:
“Taken from the evil to come.”

Johnnie is amply rewarded because of his attitude. He finds “solace” and furthermore “gain[s] infinite happiness.” He credits the Divine Creator for “chisel[ing] for me” a life that he would probably have been too weak to have chosen for himself.

Johnnie realizes that God has rescued him from all the “evil to come”; he knows that the way he was living could have only brought more evil into his life, and through God’s grace, he has been spared that evil, and at the same time given succor.

The metaphorical chiseling also implies that perhaps upon Johnnie’s tombstone is chiseled the phrase, “Taken from the evil to come.” In that case, it becomes clear that Johnnie’s exploits were well known by those close to him, which makes Johnnie’s attitude even more admirable. Instead of cursing those who knew of his “evil,” he accepts their admonitions and rightly credits Divine Intervention that finally liberates him from further wrongs.

Edgar Lee Masters Memorial Stamp


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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


    Submit a Comment
    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      2 years ago from U.S.A.

      No. The Hallwas commentary offers nothing to refute my contention that the speaker in the "Johnnie Sayre" epitaph is addressing his Divine Creator, not his earthly father.

      I suggest that it is very unlikely that one would address one's biological father with "Father, thou canst never know . . . " and "Thou wert wise . . . " as Johnnie does in the poem.

      The depth of the forgiveness that Johnnie seeks is more than a child would be seeking from an earthly parent. Johnnie fears for his immoral soul, not just the discomfort of being out of the good graces of his dad. Furthermore, an earthly father would not likely have the prescience to foresee that Johnnie was “Taken from the evil to come.”

      Thank you for your comment, Stephanie. Have a blessed day!

    • profile image

      stephanie cassidy 

      2 years ago

      if you read the commentary in the john. e. hallwas annotated edition of spoon river anthology you'll be redirected in your interpretation of this poem. rather than god, the speaker, johnnie sayer, is talking of his earthly father.


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