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Edgar Lee Masters' "Mary McNeely"

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

Introduction and Text of "Mary McNeely"

From Edgar Lee Masters' American classic, Spoon River Anthology, "Mary McNeely," who is mentioned briefly in her father's epitaph, mourned her life away after being abandoned by Daniel M’Cumber, who though a scoundrel of a human being, had the presence of mind to claim, "Why, Mary McNeely, I was not worthy / To kiss the hem of your robe!" It seems that Mary remained unaware of Daniel's high estimate of her, but regardless, it also remains a fact that Mary was, indeed, a very weak person.

Washington McNeely, remembered for whiling away his time sitting under his cedar tree instead of providing his offspring with any direction in life, lamented the failure of his children. The pathetic milquetoast, Paul, remained unproductive after becoming a invalid from too much "study," and now Mary is revealed as an ignorant woman who allows herself to pine away after being left by the man she loved.

The series of related epitaphs sharing this theme begun by Washington McNeely includes a total of five poems: Washington McNeely, Paul McNeely, Mary McNeely, Daniel M'Cumber, and Georgine Sand Miner—one of the saddest group of human beings to report from Spoon River.

Mary McNeely

Passerby,
To love is to find your own soul
Through the soul of the beloved one.
When the beloved one withdraws itself from your soul
Then you have lost your soul.
It is written: "I have a friend,
But my sorrow has no friend."
Hence my long years of solitude at the home of my father,
Trying to get myself back,
And to turn my sorrow into a supremer self.
But there was my father with his sorrows,
Sitting under the cedar tree,
A picture that sank into my heart at last
Bringing infinite repose.
Oh, ye souls who have made life
Fragrant and white as tube roses
From earth’s dark soil,
Eternal peace!

Reading of "Mary McNeely"

Commentary

Poor Mary McNeely! She spent her life mourning in her father's home for a lout not worth a second thought.

First Movement: Pop Culture Philosophy

Passerby,
To love is to find your own soul
Through the soul of the beloved one.
When the beloved one withdraws itself from your soul
Then you have lost your soul.

Mary McNeely begins her report with a pathetic psycho-babble homily that she, no doubt, believes and finds philosophically sound. Likely garnered from a pop culture rag, the notion that one finds one's own soul through that of another is absurd, but even more absurd is the notion that losing the target of one's affection renders one's own soul "lost."

Poor Mary had no direction is life. Her wealthy, respected father spent his time sitting under his cedar tree, instead of serving as a useful model for his children. There is no mention of a mother for Mary and her siblings, but because only the influence of the father is evident, the mother must have remained as feckless as the father in terms of child-rearing.

Second Movement: More Junk Philosophy

It is written: “I have a friend,
But my sorrow has no friend.”
Hence my long years of solitude at the home of my father,
Trying to get myself back,
And to turn my sorrow into a supremer self.

Mary then continues with her junk philosophy, placing another ludicrous statement in quotations, apparently to indicate her knowledge of junk that has been "written." She affirms that because her sorrow has no friend, she has sought "solitude" in her father's home, trying to find herself. She indicates that she was attempting to transform that "sorrow" into "a supremer self." Sadly for Mary, she has no concept of what a "supremer self" would be and do.

Third Movement: Not a Clue

But there was my father with his sorrows,
Sitting under the cedar tree,
A picture that sank into my heart at last
Bringing infinite repose.

That Mary remains clueless is then made even clearer as she once again draws on the image of her father "sitting under the cedar tree." She claims that the image of her father under the tree "sank into [her] heart." But then she states that after she began to feel so strongly about her father's sorrow, that "picture" of her father under the tree simply brought her "infinite repose." In other words, Mary seemed to take from her father's act the simple thought that life must be one long moment of doing nothing, just resting and more resting.

Fourth Movement: Remaining Clueless

Oh, ye souls who have made life
Fragrant and white as tube roses
From earth’s dark soil,
Eternal peace!

Mary's final words remain a bland statement of next to nothingness. She wishes "eternal peace" to all souls who have actually accomplished something in their lives. She chooses an odd image to stand for action. She wishes that infinite repose on those who have transformed from the dirt of the earth something that smells sweet and appears pure as white "tube roses." Poor Mary! Clueless to the end.

Tube Roses

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

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

Question: What are the strengths Mary McNeely had?

Answer: Mary is revealed as an ignorant, weak woman, who allows herself to pine away after being left by the man she loved.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes