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Edgar Lee Masters' "Mary McNeely"

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 "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.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

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.

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

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