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Themes of Spoon River Poems


"Spoon River Anthology" is a rather bleak look at the machinations of a small town. Edgar Lee Masters, an important 20th century poet, created over 200 poetic vignettes to depict life in the fictitious Midwest small town of Spoon River at the turn of the century. As John Hallwas wrote, "Spoon River Anthology focused on the triumph of the forces of disorder and decline in turn-of-the-century America." The poems were written in free verse, and each character told his or her story from beyond the grave. The themes of these poems show an in-depth look at the seemingly idyllic small town. Theme in poetry refers to what the reader learns about life after reading a poem; Masters spins several life lessons liberally throughout his work, many of them cynical.

Expect the Unforeseen

One theme that runs throughout the poems is that the unforeseen often occurs. For instance, Trainor the druggist was killed by a chemical explosion. Masters wrote, "I Trainor, the druggist, a miser of chemicals,/Killed while making an experiment." Townspeople would not expect that the man who mixed chemicals for a living would end up blowing himself up. Likewise, Margaret Fuller Slack died an ironic death. Although she wanted to be a writer, she married and had eight children. She proclaimed, "It was all over with me, anyway,/When I ran the needle in my hand/While washing the baby's things,/And died from lock-jaw, an ironical death." As a writer she had ideas to express, but she was unable to speak with lockjaw.

The World is Often Not As It Appears

Masters creates several vignettes that teach the lesson that appearances can be deceiving. For instance, the holy man Deacon Taylor was a drunk. He says, "I slipped behind the prescription partition/In Trainor's drug store/And poured a generous drink/From the bottle marked 'Spiritus frumenti.'" Although parishioners thought he was a holy man, he was drinking every afternoon to the point of intoxication. Meanwhile, Robert Southey Burke lived a life of deception. He spent all of his time and energy trying to get A.D. Blood elected mayor, but hated him. He said, "I hated the love I had for you,/I hated myself, I hated you/For my wasted soul." One would think if you were campaigning for someone's election that you would support him.

People Often Sleep With the Enemy

Another theme is that spousal love is not as kind as one would think. Amanda Barker, for instance, was killed by her husband who impregnated her, knowing that she had a medical condition in which she could not survive giving birth. She maintains, "It is believed in the village where I lived/That Henry loved me with a husband's love/But I proclaim from the dust/That he slew me to gratify his hatred." Also in town, Mrs. Benjamin Painter was so disgusted with her noisy, smelly husband that she sent him to live with the dog in a dark room behind his office. One would think that spouses who appear to love on the outside would act kinder toward each other on the inside.

Life Is Not Always Easy

Masters creates characters who have had too much of life, including "Indignation Jones," who was certainly tired of living. He says, "Sometimes a man's life turns into a cancer/From being bruised and continually bruised." As an old man, he realized that he had no joy. Elizabeth Childers, on the other hand, laments the baby that died with her in childbirth. She sees life as a series of disappointments, including "And the earliest wound, when a little mate/Leaves you alone for another." The theme of life being difficult figures prominently through Masters' work.

About the Author

Kathryne Bradesca has been a writing teacher for more than 15 years. She has also contributed to newspapers and magazines such as "The Morning Journal" and "The Ignatius Quarterly." Bradesca received a master's degree in teaching from Kent State University.

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