With this instalment of our Epigram of the Month series, I would like to take a short break from Latin poetry and move far away, both geographically and chronologically, to a small American town at the beginning of the 20th century.
Spoon River is a fictional place, invented by the American attorney and writer Edgar Lee Masters to serve as a setting for his poems in form of verse epitaphs, narrating the lives of its inhabitants. Spoon River is not, actually, completely a result of Masters’ imagination, as it is clearly inspired by Lewistown (if you want to get an idea of how Lewistown looks like today, I suggest to have a tour on Google Maps), the town in Illinois where Masters spent his childhood and which is, in fact, touched by the river Spoon.
Masters’ poems appeared first weekly on the Reedy’s Mirror and were then collected in the book that made him famous, the Spoon River Anthology, published in 1915. Further to his work as attorney, Edgar Lee Masters wrote some theatre plays, which did not exactly grant him a place in the history of literature. The creation of the Spoon River poems, in turn, happened more or less by chance: in 1909 he was introduced, by a friend, to the Greek Anthology, especially to book 7, containing funerary epigrams. From that time onwards, Masters started composing poems in form of free-verse epitaphs, which share some features with Latin verse inscriptions in a more than impressive way.
The former members of the community of Spoon River introduce themselves, speaking from their own tombstones, exactly like some of the ancient Roman counterparts do. The inhabitants of Spoon River address in their monologues universal themes, sometimes talking about their own lives, sometimes in a more general way. Unlike the funerary monuments that we are used to read, these stones tell the truth, sounding from time to time like post mortem confessions and revealing lies, jealousy, and crimes, hidden behind the quiet façade of the small American town.
The selection of poems that I am going to present here does not include, perhaps, the most famous and beautiful ones, but those which recall themes that are also present in Roman funerary verse inscriptions. Hence my recommendation: If you haven’t read any poems of Masters yet, do not hesitate to do so (here you find some of the Open Access editions). The fascination that Masters’ poems, and potentially also verse inscriptions, exert on the reader is incredible, andit is certainly not limited to the pages of the book. Some of the epitaphs like “Fiddler Jones” (one of my favourites) have also inspired (Italian) songs (if you are curious, you can listen to it here).
Reading the poems, you quickly get the impression that Latin verse inscriptions have been transposed and adapted to the American 20th century provincial life and you start wondering how much comes from Master’s models (ancient and modern) and how much is the product of Masters’ imagination, which, addressing universal life and death themes, comes impressively close to the texts typical of the Roman funerary habits.
Let’s start our overview with the epitaph of Cassius Hueffer:
They have chiselled on my stone the words:
„His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him
That nature might stand up and say to all the world:,
This was a man.“
Those who knew me smile
As they read this empty rhetoric.
My epitaph should have been:
„Life was not gentle to him,
And the elements so mixed in him
That he made warfare on life,
In the which he was slain.“
While I lived I could not cope with slanderous tongues,
Now that I am dead I must submit to an epitaph
Graven by a fool!
This poem seems more than any other a parody of a funerary epitaph. On his tombstone Cassius Hueffer is portrayed as kind and loving, but he was in fact a resentful man. People who knew him would have laughed reading his epitaph. That’s why he suggests his own version of the inscription, which contradicts the empty rethoric used by the author of his funerary text (is it the stonecutter or some family member?).
The epitaph of Judge Somers shows also parodically that even the death cannot stop envy:
How does it happen, tell me,
That I who was most erudite of lawyers,
Who knew Blackstone and Coke
Almost by heart, who made the greatest speech
The court-house ever heard, and wrote
A brief that won the praise of Justice Breese –
How does it happen, tell me,
That I lie here unmarked, forgotten,
While Chase Henry, the town drunkard,
Has a marble block, topped by an urn,
Wherein Nature, in a mood ironical,
Has sown a flowering weed?
It doesn’t matter if you have been a famous lawyer and the most outstanding orator during your lifetime – this is, of course the perception, without doubt exaggerated, that the judge of the small town of Illinois had of himself – , the town drunk has a better monument: a marble block topped by an urn, which, by the way, recalls somehow ancient funerary monuments.
And dealing with funerary monuments, an attempt to evoke the ancient world is explicitly made in the epitaph of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who has been named after the famous poet. The other Percy Shelley (my namesake) is indeed buried in the Protestant Cemetery of Rome, which is close to the Pyramid of Cestius.
Over me a fond father erected this marble shaft,
On which stands the figure of a woman
Carved by an Italian artist.
They say the ashes of my namesake
Were scattered near the pyramid of Caius Cestius
Somewhere near Rome.
Some characters of the Spoon River anthology address the passers-by, exactly like the inhabitants of the Roman Empire did in their verse inscriptions. Their epitaphs are written to be read by people visiting the graveyard, their aim is to catch their attention, like Mrs. Meyers, who admonishes the passer-by on how to behave in a Christian way:
Passers by, an ancient admonition to you:
If your ways would be ways of pleasantness,
and all your pathways peace,
Love God and keep his commandments.
Or the circuit judge, who points out that not even the funerary monument is able to grant immortality. His own, probably as the majority of ancient inscriptions, has been slowly destroyed by wind and rain. And with the monument also his memory is slowly getting destroyed.
Take note, passer-by, of the sharp erosions
Eaten in my head-stone by the wind and rain –
Almost as if an intangible Nemesis or hatred
Were marking scores against me,
But to destroy, and not preserve, my memory.
When addressing the passer-by the speakers do not just tell anecdotes on their own life, but, as we have seen, they leave universal messages, like the one of Lyman King about Fate:
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.
In some of the poems, exactly like in Latin epitaphs, the name of the deceased is accompanied by the mention of other honourable family members, who use the chance to make themselves visible and immortal on the monument. This happens for instance in the poem dedicated to Lois Spears:
Here lies the body of Lois Spears,
Born Lois Fluke, daughter of Willard Fluke,
Wife of Cyrus Spears,
Mother of Myrtle and Virgil Spears,
Children with clear eyes and sound limbs –
(I was born blind).
I was the happiest of women
As wife, mother and housekeeper,
Caring for my loved ones,
And making my home
A place of order and bounteous hospitality:
For I went about the rooms,
And about the garden
With an instinct as sure as sight,
As though there were eyes in my finger tips –
Glory to God in the highest.
This text presents more than one similarity with Latin inscriptions, starting from the most classical of the incipits (Here lies / hic sita est). Furthermore, Lois Spears is, like most of Roman women depicted in verse inscriptions, an example of chaste and devoted wife (wife, mother and housekeeper).
The same values can be observed in the poem for Lucinda Matlock:
And then I found Davis.
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick,
I made the garden, and for holiday
Rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed –
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
The central verses are almost a literary translation of the Latin phrase domum servavit, lanam fecit. Unlike Roman women Lucinda Matlock also nursed the sick and made the garden.
The honour and values inherited directly from the parents and the family are also present in the poem of Hamilton Greene:
I was the only child of Frances Harris of Virginia
And Thomas Greene of Kentucky,
Of valiant and honorable blood both.
To them I owe all that I became,
Judge, member of Congress, leader in the State.
From my mother I inherited
Vivacity, fancy, language;
From my father will, judgment, logic.
All honor to them
For what service I was to the people!
In his epitaph Henry Layton addresses the passer-by to reveal the nature of his parents. It is a further example of a character not using his monument to praise himself and his forefathers, but to confess the truth. He is the result and resumes in himself the two opposite natures of his parents, one gentle, his father, the other violent, his mother.
Whoever you art who passest by
Know that my father was gentle,
And my mother was violent,
While I was born the whole of such hostile halves,
Not intermixed and fused,
But each distinct, feebly soldered together.
Some of you saw me as gentle,
Some as violent,
Some as both.
But neither half of me wrought my ruin.
It was the falling asunder of halves,
Never a part of each other.
That left me a lifeless soul.
In verse inscriptions themes like migration and homesickness are quite common. These can be recognised in some of the few epitaphs for foreigners living in the small and conservative town in Illinois. One of them is 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.
I would like to conclude this overview with the funerary monument of the stonecutter of Spoon River himself, Richard Bone:
When I first came to Spoon River
I did not know whether what they told me
Was true or false.
They would bring me the epitaph
And stand around the shop while I worked
And say “He was so kind,” “He was wonderful,”
“She was the sweetest woman,” “He was a consistent Christian.”
And I chiselled for them whatever they wished,
All in ignorance of its truth.
But later, as I lived among the people here,
I knew how near to the life
Were the epitaphs that were ordered for them as they died.
But still I chiselled whatever they paid me to chisel
And made myself party to the false chronicles
Of the stones,
Even as the historian does who writes
Without knowing the truth,
Or because he is influenced to hide it.
As historians, we should always keep in mind that what we read on the stone, especially in case of verse inscriptions, might not be the truth. What the inhabitants of Spoon River show us clearly is that people put on stone a polished version of themselves and of their relatives, while real events are often completely hidden by a false appearance.