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Edgar Lee Masters' "Paul McNeely"

Edgar Lee Masters' classic work, "Spoon River Anthology," offers a fascinating character study of the American mind in the mid-20th-century.

Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters

Introduction and Text of "Paul McNeely"

The epitaph character, "Paul McNeely," from Edgar Lee Masters' American classic, Spoon River Anthology, is the son of Washington McNeely, the wealthy and highly honored Spoon River citizen, whose children disappointed him. About Paul, he revealed only that the boy had become an invalid through "over study." Thus because of his invalidism Paul required the services of a nurse. In Paul's epitaph, he addresses Jane, the nurse of whom he had become quite fond.

Paul McNeely

Dear Jane! dear winsome Jane!
How you stole in the room (where I lay so ill)
In your nurse’s cap and linen cuffs,
And took my hand and said with a smile:
“You are not so ill—you’ll soon be well.”
And how the liquid thought of your eyes
Sank in my eyes like dew that slips
Into the heart of a flower.
Dear Jane! the whole McNeely fortune
Could not have bought your care of me,
By day and night, and night and day;

Nor paid for you smile, nor the warmth of your soul,
In your little hands laid on my brow.
Jane, till the flame of life went out
In the dark above the disk of night
I longed and hoped to be well again
To pillow my head on your little breasts,
And hold you fast in a clasp of love—
Did my father provide for you when he died,
Jane, dear Jane?

Reading of "Paul McNeely"

Commentary

Paul McNeely is addressing his nurse, likely the only person he felt ever offered him any attention or affection.

First Movement: An Invalid Addressing His Nurse

Dear Jane! dear winsome Jane!
How you stole in the room (where I lay so ill)
In your nurse’s cap and linen cuffs,
And took my hand and said with a smile:
“You are not so ill—you’ll soon be well.”

Paul McNeely, the speaker in the epitaph, is addressing his nurse whose name is Jane. He recalls how "winsome" she looked in her nurse uniform, her "nurse's cap" and her "linen cuffs." He also focuses on that fact that she treated him so sweetly, as she touched his hand, smiled at him, and told him that he was not "so ill" and that he would be up and about soon.

Readers will recall that the father of Paul McNeely had prepared them for Paul's condition. In his own epitaph, Washington had reported the his son, Paul, had become and invalid from studying too much.

Second Movement: Growing Affection for a Care-Giver

And how the liquid thought of your eyes
Sank in my eyes like dew that slips
Into the heart of a flower.

Paul then colorfully describes how Jane's words, reflected in the "liquid thought of [her] eyes" are absorbed by his own eyes. He likens his devouring her words to the dew that slides into the "heart of a flower." Such imagery suggests that Paul likely was a student of the literary arts—a field of study possibly incompatible with his father's wishes for him.

Third Movement: Vivid Imagination

Dear Jane! the whole McNeely fortune
Could not have bought your care of me,
By day and night, and night and day;

Nor paid for you smile, nor the warmth of your soul,
In your little hands laid on my brow.

Paul then attempts to evaluate the loving care he received from Jane. In monetary terms, he feels that the entire McNeely estate could not have bought better care. She attended him night and day. He appreciated her smile. He came to love her warmth, spreading from a soul he deemed beautiful and tender. He feels that her very soul could be felt in those "little hands" that she often "laid on [his] brow."

Fourth Movement: Weak Character

Jane, till the flame of life went out
In the dark above the disk of night
I longed and hoped to be well again
To pillow my head on your little breasts,
And hold you fast in a clasp of love—

Again, Paul waxes poetic as he admits to Jane that had wished to recover his health so he could make love to her. He envisioned laying his head on her bosom, pulling her tightly to him in a "clasp of love." That he leaves his love scene as merely an aspiration implies that he did not ever have the opportunity to couple with his nurse.

Paul is revealed a weak character. That literary studies laid him low is the first hint of his cravenness as a milquetoast. He likely lived vicariously through reading, and as an invalid, through his imagination. Jane could have been a hulking, mannish brute of woman, who spoke to him in accusatory tones, and Paul, being the cowardly, tone-deaf buttercup that he was might have used his vivid imagination to turn her into a sweet, winsome nurse with whom he craved to fondle.

Fifth Movement: The Pathos of Failure

Did my father provide for you when he died,
Jane, dear Jane?

Paul's final question puts the cap on his weakling, lack-of-accomplishment status. As he was never able to acquire his own estate and wealth, he pathetically asks, if "[his] father" upon his death left any provision for "Jane, dear Jane." Likely, his father's main activity of simply sitting under his cedar tree instead of actively serving as a successful model for his children has resulted in the failures of the offspring.

Washington McNeely's refrain of sitting beneath his cedar tree serves as a kind of confession of or testimony to his weakness and failure as a father. He drives home the likelihood that his own lack nerve caused the lack of success in his children.

Commemorative Stamp

Commemorative Stamp

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.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on June 21, 2018:

Thank you, Louise! The Spoon River Anthology continues to be one of America's poetry classics. It is filled with many different personalities, as you are learning. And the little themed sequences that pop up always make for fascinating little dramas. Always love hearing from you. Have a blessed day, Louise!

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on June 21, 2018:

I do enjoy poetry, and always learn something new from reading your articles.

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