Edgar Lee Masters' "Washington McNeely"

Updated on June 23, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edgar Lee Masters

Source

Introduction and Text of "Washington McNeely"

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

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.

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.

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    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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