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Edgar Lee Masters' "Paul 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 "Paul McNeely"

Paul McNeely 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

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.

Encore! Theatre Arts - trailer for the 2011 production of 'Spoon River Anthology'

© 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.