The book consists of a series of short monologues by the inhabitants of a graveyard in a small Illinois town, all written in free verse. The dead know what has happened in the town since their deaths - "Do you remember, passer-by," one man says, "the path I wore across the lot where now stands the opera house" - and about the other townspeople who have joined them under the hill. Death has brought a certain insight for a few of them but most continue to strike the attitudes they adopted in life: they nurse grievances, blame their tormentors, and justify their actions to each other and to us. It is often the plainest monologues that are the most haunting:
Dow KrittSamuel, the gardener, has his monologue on the facing page. "Now I," he writes, "an under-tenant of the earth, can see / That the branches of a tree / Spread no wider than its roots. / And how shall the soul of a man / Be larger than the life he has lived?" Masters, as you can see from the quotes, does not write realistically in the voices of his characters. Except for his intellectuals and poets (and these strike me as some of the weaker poems in the collection) death has lent everyone the same, simple eloquence.
Samuel is forever talking of his elm--
But I did not need to die to learn about roots:
I, who dug all the ditches about Spoon River.
Look at my elm!
Sprung from as good a seed as his,
Sown at the same time,
It is dying at the top:
Not from lack of life, nor fungus,
Nor destroying insect, as the sexton thinks.
Look, Samuel, where the roots have struck rock,
And can no further spread.
And all the while the top of the tree
Is tiring itself out, and dying,
Trying to grow.
There are 244 separate monologues in the book dating back to the Revolutionary War, and they proceed up to the early part of the 20th century (the book was published in 1915). Some of the characters are entirely isolated - one person happened to die on a train passing through Spoon River - but most connect to at least one other person in the book: there are lovers, spouses, children, friends, victims and abusers scattered throughout the collection, and part of the fun of reading the book is flipping back to the index and establishing this web of connections. The characters intersect across a number of plotlines - a failed bank, an arson, a few political campaigns, and any number of illicit romances - that lend the book a certain coherence even as it doesn't really progress towards anything.
Sometimes these connections prove to be less illuminating than the individual poems. Masters has a weakness for somewhat mechanical ironies: the temperance crusader is secretly a drunk, the upstanding citizen is an adulterer, the town's priest is proud of saving a marriage that the wife believes poisoned the lives of the entire family, and so on. Masters also tends to re-use the same effects to achieve intensity (at one point I counted six poems in a row that ended with an exclamation mark) which lends a certain sameness to the weaker poems.
A larger flaw is his habit of forcing his own judgments into the mouths of his characters. Here is a judge, for example, that Masters clearly dislikes: "I reached the highest place in Spoon River / But through what bitterness of spirit!" Or another powerful man - named, with something less that subtlety, John M. Church - who declares that he "pulled the wires with judge and jury, / And the upper courts, to beat the claims / Of the crippled, the widow and orphan, / And made a fortune thereat." When Church's monologue ends with "But the rats devoured my heart / And a snake made a nest in my skull!" it seems less like an artistic statement about what waits for everyone and more a piece of bitter wish-fulfillment from the author (after all, no one's heart will end up in very good shape at the end). And apparently it is this pamphleteering instinct that marred the other narrative poems that Masters produced over the remainder of his life - May Swenson, in her introduction to this book, describes them as "dogmatic novels in verse," and I can easily imagine what she means from the weaker poems in the collection.
But the Spoon River Anthology is largely unmarred by such faults. It is one of the greatest ideas for a long poem in all of English literature and Masters rises to the challenge much of the time. The Anthology also makes a demand of the reader that very few good books make directly nowadays: think on your life. What are you doing, and why, in the time that you have left? Not the most original questions, obviously, but real ones - and a book that forces them on us could do much worse.
You may think, passer-by, that Fate
Is a pit-fall outside of yourself,
Around which you may walk by the use of foresight
Thus you believe, viewing the lives of other men,
As one who in God-like fashion bends over an anthill,
Seeing how their difficulties could be avoided.
But pass on into life:
In time you shall see Fate approach you
In the shape of your own image in the mirror;
Or you shall sit alone by your own hearth,
And suddenly the chair by you shall hold a guest,
And you shall know that guest,
And read the authentic message of his eyes.