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Edgar Lee Masters' "Yee Bow"

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 - Chicago Literary Hall of Fame

Edgar Lee Masters - Chicago Literary Hall of Fame

Introduction and Text of "Yee Bow"

From Edgar Lee Masters' American classic Spoon River Anthology, this epitaph remains one of Masters least successful pieces. While readers can sympathize with the lament of the boy, Yee Bow, the concepts revealed in this poem reveal Western material-level thinking. Eastern concepts would have precluded that the Eastern-religion influenced victim in this poem would make the complaints that he does.

Yee Bow

They got me into the Sunday-school
In Spoon River
And tried to get me to drop Confucius for Jesus.
I could have been no worse off
If I had tried to get them to drop Jesus for Confucius.
For, without any warning, as if it were a prank,
And sneaking up behind me, Harry Wiley,
The minister’s son, caved my ribs into my lungs,
With a blow of his fist.
Now I shall never sleep with my ancestors in Pekin,
And no children shall worship at my grave.

Reading of "Yee Bow"

Commentary

The unfortunate reliance of stereotype limits the effectiveness of this epitaph.

First Movement: Confucius vs Jesus

They got me into the Sunday-school
In Spoon River
And tried to get me to drop Confucius for Jesus.

The speaker, whom by his name readers will surmise to be Asian, begins his report by telling his audience that someone or some facility, had managed to have him begin classes in a Spoon River Sunday school. He does not designate which church the Sunday school was attached to, but he apparently feels it is necessary that his audience understand that the church was Christian, as he names "Jesus."

Confucianism is not the spiritual path most Western thinkers first discern when encountering the religions of the East—China, Japan, India, and other countries. That position belongs to the Buddha, for Buddhism possesses the largest number of adherents in the Far East (except for Indian, where 80% of the population is Hindu). It is unclear why Masters' chose Confucianism over Buddhism when creating this character.

Second Movement: The Infused Sneer

I could have been no worse off
If I had tried to get them to drop Jesus for Confucius.

After announcing that unfortunate attempt to get the boy to forsake his native religion for "Jesus," Yee Bow makes the startling claim that if he has tried to get "them" to leave "Jesus for Confucius," his lot in life would not have come off any worse.

Third Movement: A Victim

For, without any warning, as if it were a prank,
And sneaking up behind me, Harry Wiley,
The minister’s son, caved my ribs into my lungs,
With a blow of his fist.

Poor Yee Bow then becomes the victim of a brutal beating and by the minister's son no less. The scoundrel, Harry Wiley, son of Rev. Lemuel Wiley, sneaked up behind the unsuspecting Yee Bow and delivered a "blow of his fist" that shoved the boy's ribs into his lungs.

Yee Bow says that this brutal act was delivered "as if it were a prank." The juxtaposition of "prank" and the killing blow to the boy's lungs is startling. Perhaps Yee Bow thought Harry did not intend to kill him, but it seems upon later rethinking the act, Yee Bow must have changed his mind because it is quite obvious that he associates the death blow with the fact that he was an Asian who believed in "Confucius" not "Jesus."

Fourth Movement: Where He Sleeps Eternally

Now I shall never sleep with my ancestors in Pekin,
And no children shall worship at my grave.

Whatever the machinations of the ultimate act, Yee Bow, now from his grave, laments that he is buried in the Spoon River cemetery and not with his "ancestors in Pekin" ("Peking"—now known as "Beijing.") He laments that he "shall never sleep" with those ancestors—a strange concept that demonstrates the limitation of Masters' knowledge of Eastern thought and philosophy. According to all of the Eastern religions, after death, the soul is not bound to an earthly locus; thus, Yee Bow would have understood that concept.

Of course, readers are supposed to keep their thoughts on the material level and agree that the boy's physical body being interred in Spoon River will not, in fact, rest in "Pekin." But Yee Bow, like all of the other speakers in this series, is not actually reporting literally from the grave, but instead from their liberated position in the astral world.

That Yee Bow will produce no children to "worship at [his] grave" offers a grieving moment for its alignment with the nature of reality, but then because readers know so little about boy Yee Bow, his aspirations, and desires, they must rely on a stereotype in order to feel the grief that the speaker wishes to represent by his reportage of the omissions from his life.

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.

Questions & Answers

Question: How was most of Yee Bow's time spent?

Answer: Yee Bow laments that he was bullied because he was Asian. So he apparently spent most of his time pitying himself.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on May 01, 2018:

The Spoon River poems always offer an interesting and entertaining read, lots to think about in Masters' works. There are still many more of them to go, plus I now have in my possession his sequence that followed the original. They should keep me busy for quite a while.

Nice to hear from you, Louise. Thanks for the response.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on May 01, 2018:

Thanks once again for sharing your thoughts on a lovely poem, Linda.

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