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Edgar Lee Masters' "Washington 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, Esq.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Introduction and Text of "Washington McNeely"

In Edgar Lee Masters' American classic, Spoon River Anthology, Washington McNeely is lamenting the unfortunate lives of his "many children." Although he was wealthy and well-respected in the town, and they were "born of a noble mother," while he was able to afford his children the best education, their lives became a cause for despair for their father, and likely for the mother as well, although McNeely does not allow his audience any insight into the thoughts of that "noble mother."

The use of the refrain featuring the "cedar tree" renders this epitaph a fascinating read, as the speaker becomes more intense in the sorrow he is reporting.

Washington McNeely

Rich, honored by my fellow citizens,
The father of many children, born of a noble mother,
All raised there
In the great mansion-house, at the edge of town.
Note the cedar tree on the lawn!
I sent all the boys to Ann Arbor, all the girls to Rockford,
The while my life went on, getting more riches and honors—
Resting under my cedar tree at evening.
The years went on.
I sent the girls to Europe;
I dowered them when married.
I gave the boys money to start in business.
They were strong children, promising as apples
Before the bitten places show.
But John fled the country in disgrace.
Jenny died in child-birth—
I sat under my cedar tree.
Harry killed himself after a debauch,
Susan was divorced—
I sat under my cedar tree.
Paul was invalided from over study,
Mary became a recluse at home for love of a man—
I sat under my cedar tree.
All were gone, or broken-winged or devoured by life—
I sat under my cedar tree.
My mate, the mother of them, was taken—
I sat under my cedar tree,
Till ninety years were tolled.
O maternal Earth, which rocks the fallen leaf to sleep!

Commentary

The speaker offers a keen lament of sorrow regarding the unfortunate circumstances that involve his children. The importance of the "cedar tree" refrain cannot be overstated.

First Movement: Wealthy and Distinguished

Rich, honored by my fellow citizens,
The father of many children, born of a noble mother,
All raised there
In the great mansion-house, at the edge of town.
Note the cedar tree on the lawn!

Wealthy Washington McNeely reports that he was looked up to and considered distinguished by the citizens of Spoon River. He raised "many children" with his honorable wife. He says that all of those fine children were raised in his mansion at the "edge of town." He then leaves the first movement by asking his listeners to take notice of the "cedar tree" in the yard of the great mansion.

Second Movement: The Children

I sent all the boys to Ann Arbor, all the girls to Rockford,
The while my life went on, getting more riches and honors—
Resting under my cedar tree at evening.

McNeely continues his story placing emphasis on his children. As his life proceeded and he continues to accrue property and "honors," he remained fortunate enough to send his children to fine schools. The boys studied at Ann Arbor, while the girls attended school at Rockford. Again, McNeely directs his listeners' attention to the "cedar tree" on the lawn, stating that he reclined there leisurely every evening.

Third Movement: Strong Children

The years went on.
I sent the girls to Europe;
I dowered them when married.
I gave the boys money to start in business.
They were strong children, promising as apples
Before the bitten places show.

McNeely's life continues smoothly as he ships his daughters off to Europe and then allows them a dowry as they married. He bestows on the sons the financial wherewithal to begin their businesses. He then describes his children as "strong" and "promising as apples"—but only until the apple begins to show "bitten places."

Fourth Movement: The Children and the Cedar Tree

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But John fled the country in disgrace.
Jenny died in child-birth—
I sat under my cedar tree.
Harry killed himself after a debauch,
Susan was divorced—
I sat under my cedar tree.
Paul was invalided from over study,
Mary became a recluse at home for love of a man—
I sat under my cedar tree.

Now, McNeely begins to report the events that have caused the melancholy in his life. His son, John, was somehow disgraced and forced to leave the country. His daughter, Jenny, died giving birth. At this point, the growing refrain of the cedar tree makes its appearance as the only constant pleasure McNeely is now capable of enjoying. Suffering the shame of his son's disgrace and the pain of his daughter death, McNeely can only seeks solace in "[sitting] under [his] cedar tree."

But his sorrow is just getting started: his son, Paul, became an invalid, and oddly McNeely blames Paul's invalidism on "over study." Meanwhile, his daughter, Mary, confines herself to "home" after suffering the lost love relationship with a man. Again, the refrain—"I sat under my cedar tree"—that is now becoming more and more sorrowful caps the report of two more children lost in the fog of life.

Fifth Movement: The Importance of the Cedar Tree

All were gone, or broken-winged or devoured by life—
I sat under my cedar tree.
My mate, the mother of them, was taken—
I sat under my cedar tree,
Till ninety years were tolled.
O maternal Earth, which rocks the fallen leaf to sleep!

Summarizing the departure of children whether into physical escape from the country as with John or mentally and emotionally escaping form life as with Mary, McNeely laments that they are all "gone." He contends that they are all "broken-winged or devoured by life." Meanwhile he copes by continuing to sit "under [his] cedar tree."

Now McNeely turns to thoughts of his wife, the mother of all those unfortunate offspring: she was simply "taken" or simply died. And again, McNeely can be found beneath his cedar tree.

So McNeely lived on to be ninety years old. And he sums up his experience with a somewhat vague address to Mother Earth. In her maternal role, she "rocks the fallen leaf to sleep!" He had enjoyed such a promising beginning and apparently his own ability to accrue wealth and honor never waned, but the weakness and lucklessness of his children put a tremendous blight on his life.

McNeely's final remark is likely intended to offer himself some comfort. He no doubt remains deeply hurt and confused by the unfortunate events suffered by his children, but as the expression goes, "It is what it is," the earth will see to it that all the fallen will at least sleep comfortably, or at least "sleep."

The Use of the Refrain

This epitaph, "Washington McNeely," employs the fascinating refrain of the "cedar tree." Note how the refrain evolves from McNeely merely requesting that his audience take note of the tree in the first movement. He then reports that he rested under in his cedar in the second movement. At this point, his life is moving along smoothly.

The third movement again remains fairly innocuous and feature no mention of resting under the cedar tree. But things are falling apart fast by the fourth movement and McNeely has begun to rely heavily on resting under that tree; thus the fourth movement feature three returns to the refrain—one after each sad report for each child lamented. At least, McNeely could report two lines before inserting the refrain.

But the fifth movement has the refrain appearing after each sorrowful lament, or after only one line. The final two lines imply that McNeely is finally liberated from his reliance on resting under the cedar tree, as he is now resting in his grave. The maternal nature of earth has rocked him to sleep. As the cedar tree had provided him a place of comfort while alive, Mother Earth has now rocked the fallen leaf of McNeely's life to sleep.

The image of earth rocking a leaf to sleep comes as quite an appropriate one, for as McNeely did all that sitting beneath the cedar tree, he must have observed many leaves in the state of being rocked to sleep by Mother Earth.

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

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