Thursday, April 12, 2012

An Epitaph Graven by A Fool

They have chiseled 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 is 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!

Thus laments Cassius Hueffer, one of the denizens of the cemeteries of Spoon River, in Edgar Lee Masters’ masterful Spoon River Anthology.

I have teased fellow poets that poetry is dead, yet I read it and occasionally write it. Masters’ poetry in its collective form is the best poetry can be: A stained-glass window’s worth of thought, each filtering the sunlight or moonlight or darkness differently. And oh, what fun it is to read.

Masters wrote it, of course, as part of that uniquely American genre of literature called Rebellion Against the Village. The open-minded, the progressive, the liberal, felt stifled by American small-town life and, as the 19th century turned, they left it in droves for the bustling, sophisticated anonymity of the city. Like some of Masters’ characters, some who left the village discovered they could never leave it, with their small-town minds forever bound by the Spoon River, the mill, the petty squabbles, the powerful overbearing on the meek, the meek seeking impotent justice.

I’ve read a lot of this kind of literature. My favorite is Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street because it, of any book of the genre, shows the small-mindedness of the small town. But the most successful in this genre is Babbitt, another Lewis accomplishment. Because in this story – as we see in Masters’ Spoon River – it’s not the size of the village one flees that matters.

George Babbitt lives in the comfortable largeness of Zenith, an anonymous large American city, synonymous with the Meccas those of the Spoon River ilk were attracted to as they fled their small towns. But poor George, though living in paradise, is just as bound by the type of small-town thinking that Carol Kennicott sees in Gopher Prarie, Minnesota. Though George lives in the big city, he has, as in Spoon River, a small circle of friends and acquaintances and caricatures that, no matter how he tries, he cannot escape. The narrow-mindedness of each country village is transplanted into the city and multiplied a thousand times over. The only surcease a city-dweller has is to sneak off into a neighborhood where he or she is unknown. But as the denizens of Spoon River discover, George still has to go home and can never excape the scrutiny of small minds, bith progressive and convervative, because in some way he is not conforming with their wills, even if their will is nonconformity itself. The tyranny of the small town is not escaped, even in the largest of urban conglomerations. Only the distractions are multiplied.

Samuel, laments Dow Kritt of Spoon River, 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.

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