Updated date:

Edgar Lee Masters’ "The Hill"

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 "The Hill"

Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology has become an American classic in poetry. The anthology consists of 246 poems, three of which differ from the predominant form of the epitaph: #1 "The Hill" locates the graveyard and offers a brief overview of the nature of the characters who will be speaking; #245 "The Spooniad" is a parody of Jonathan Swift's "The Dunciad," and offers a unifying piece to the disparate nature of the many idiosyncratic voices of the Spoon River cemetery deceased, and #246 "Epilogue" features several voices waxing philosophical about profound topics.

The bulk of the poems, the remaining 243, features dramatic epitaphs spoken by the deceased, former residents of the fictional town, Spoon River. The speakers all reside on the hill cemetery from which they report their various current states of mind, based primarily on the lives they lived while they were citizens of Spoon River.

The poem, “The Hill,” opens the American classic and features seven free verse paragraphs (versagraphs, a term I coined for use in my commentaries). It offers an overview of some the characters who will be speaking later for themselves.

The Hill

Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
All, all, are sleeping on the hill.

One passed in a fever,
One was burned in a mine,
One was killed in a brawl,
One died in a jail,
One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith,
The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one?—
All, all, are sleeping on the hill.

One died in shameful child-birth,
One of a thwarted love,
One at the hands of a brute in a brothel,
One of a broken pride, in the search for heart’s desire,
One after life in far-away London and Paris
Was brought to her little space by Ella and Kate and Mag—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where are Uncle Isaac and Aunt Emily,
And old Towny Kincaid and Sevigne Houghton,
And Major Walker who had talked
With venerable men of the revolution?—
All, all, are sleeping on the hill.

They brought them dead sons from the war,
And daughters whom life had crushed,
And their children fatherless, crying—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Where is Old Fiddler Jones
Who played with life all his ninety years,
Braving the sleet with bared breast,
Drinking, rioting, thinking neither of wife nor kin,
Nor gold, nor love, nor heaven?
Lo! he babbles of the fish-frys of long ago,
Of the horse-races of long ago at Clary’s Grove,
Of what Abe Lincoln said
One time at Springfield.

Reading of "The Hill"

Commentary

The poem, "The Hill," opens the American classic character study, Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, told in a series of dramatic epitaphs by the deceased residents of Spoon River, an imaginary town.

First Versagraph: Beginning with a Rhetorical Question

Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
All, all, are sleeping on the hill.

In Edgar Lee Masters’ “The Hill,” the speaker begins by asking, “Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,” adding a brief description each of man, “The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter.” He then answers his question, reporting that they are all dead; they are “all, all sleeping on the hill.”

Second Versagraph: Describing Characters

One passed in a fever,
One was burned in a mine,
One was killed in a brawl,
One died in a jail,
One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

The speaker continues his description of the men he has named; he tells how each one died: fever, burned to death, killed in a fight, in jail, which says where but not actually how, and falling from a bridge. Even though they all died under very different circumstances, some obviously more honorable than other, they “All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.” The repetition of “sleeping” drives home that fact that the speaker is using “sleeping” as a metaphor for “dead.”

Third Versagraph: The Feminine Rhetorical

Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith,
The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one?—
All, all, are sleeping on the hill.

The speaker turns next to five women, asking “Where are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith,” and as with the men offering a brief descriptor of each: “The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one.”

Fourth Versagraph: More Bio Info

One died in shameful child-birth,
One of a thwarted love,
One at the hands of a brute in a brothel,
One of a broken pride, in the search for heart’s desire,
One after life in far-away London and Paris
Was brought to her little space by Ella and Kate and Mag—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

Again, as with the men, the speaker gives a bit more biographical information about the women, about how they died: giving birth, “thwarted love,” killed in a house of prostitution, “broken pride,” and one who died while living far away. Apparently, Ella, Kate, and Mag brought home the body of the one who died far away. And yet again, the women just as the men, “All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.”

Fifth Versagraph: They Are All on the Hill

Where are Uncle Isaac and Aunt Emily,
And old Towny Kincaid and Sevigne Houghton,
And Major Walker who had talked
With venerable men of the revolution?—
All, all, are sleeping on the hill.

The speaker continues to ask where certain folks are, “Where are Uncle Isaac and Aunt Emily, / And old Towny Kincaid and Sevigne Houghton?” He wonders where is the old military man, “Major Walker who had talked / With venerable men of the revolution.” And again, he supplies the answer; they are “All, all, are sleeping on the hill.”

Sixth Versagraph: The War Dead

They brought them dead sons from the war,
And daughters whom life had crushed,
And their children fatherless, crying—
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

The speaker then reports that other dead that lie in the cemetery on the hill are the war dead: “They brought them dead sons from the war.” The imprecise “they” probably refers to authorities, perhaps military officers responsible for transporting the fallen soldiers back to their home for burial. But this indefinite “they” also brought home “daughters whom life had crushed.” And children were left “fatherless, crying.” Again, the speaker reports that they “All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.”

Seventh Versagraph: A Colorful Character

Where is Old Fiddler Jones
Who played with life all his ninety years,
Braving the sleet with bared breast,
Drinking, rioting, thinking neither of wife nor kin,
Nor gold, nor love, nor heaven?
Lo! he babbles of the fish-frys of long ago,
Of the horse-races of long ago at Clary’s Grove,
Of what Abe Lincoln said
One time at Springfield.

The speaker concludes his overview of the cemetery’s inmates by asking about one final deceased man, a colorful character named, “Old Fiddler Jones.” This old fellow “played with life all his ninety years.” He was a rather selfish character who did not behave with consideration for his “wife nor kin.” He seemed to have no real interests, except for stirring up rowdiness at “fish-frys” and “horse-races,” and he liked to report “what Abe Lincoln said / One time at Springfield.”

Edgar Lee Masters—Commemorative Stamp

Edgar Lee Masters—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.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles