Edgar Lee Masters' "Yee Bow"

Updated on December 11, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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 - Chicago Literary Hall of Fame
Edgar Lee Masters - Chicago Literary Hall of Fame | Source

Introduction and Text of "Yee Bow"

The poet should have done more research for this one, or else abandoned it. While readers can sympathize with the lament of the boy, Yee Bow, the concepts revealed in this poem are straight out of 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.

The "hate America first" crowd will fall hook-line-and-sinker for the pathology featured in this poem. But that attitude is based on misinformation as well as lack of any information at all. Lack of cultural knowledge nearly always leads straightway to reliance on stereotypes, which is always a killer when it comes to poetry.

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"


While this piece is an example of "hate America first" and blame Christianity for every evil, it also demonstrates the paucity of thought by a punditry that relies on stereotypes in an attempt to imply meaning.

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.

Unfortunate for the bigoted school and ultimately for the poor lad, Yee Bow, was the fact that the likely teachers of the school attempted to convert the boy from his native religion to Christianity.

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.

The very sneer infused in Yee Bow's remark comes from an attitude of "blame Americans first." For a certain subset of misinformed and low-information Americans and even world citizenry, the United States of America produces only ignorant, selfish citizens who disdain people of other countries and religions—this despite the fact that America happens to be the only country made up almost entirely of immigrants and people of all faiths.

Nevertheless, the cry of anti-Americanism taken up and expanded by the political left is at work in this poem, despite the fact that its author died eight years before the publication of the book that perpetuated these anti-American notions, Burdick and Lederer's novel, The Ugly American. No matter, as an American leftist, Masters was in touch with this crippling attitude long before it was canonized by that novel.

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 "ancestor in Pekin" (Peking, now through compliments of political correctness, called "Bejing.") He laments that he "shall never sleep" with those ancestors—a strange concept that demonstrates the limitations of the creator of this poem regarding the knowledge of Eastern thought and philosophy. After death, the soul is not bound to an earthly locus, and all of the Eastern Religions hold this concept; thus, Yee Bow likely would have been schooled in that thought.

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.

Edgar Lee Masters - 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.

Questions & Answers

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes


Submit a Comment
  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    2 years ago from U.S.A.

    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.

  • Coffeequeeen profile image

    Louise Powles 

    2 years ago from Norfolk, England

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


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