from Spoon River Anthology (1915)
by Edgar Lee Masters
Herbert broke our engagement of eight years
When Annabelle returned to the village
From the Seminary, ah me!
If I had let my love for him alone
It might have grown into a beautiful sorrow--
Who knows?--filling my life with healing fragrance.
But I tortured it, I poisoned it,
I blinded its eyes, and it became hatred--
Deadly ivy instead of clematis.
And my soul fell from its support,
Its tendrils tangled in decay.
Do not let the will play gardener to your soul
Unless you are sure
It is wiser than your soul's nature.
All your sorrow, Louise, and hatred of me
Sprang from your delusion that it was wantonness
Of spirit and contempt of your soul's rights
Which made me turn to Annabelle and forsake you.
You really grew to hate me for love of me,
Because I was your soul's happiness,
Formed and tempered
To solve your life for you, and would not.
But you were my misery. If you had been
My happiness would I not have clung to you?
This is life's sorrow:
That one can be happy only where two are;
And that our hearts are drawn to stars
Which want us not.
Today's two poems are from Edgar Lee Masters' 1915 poem anthology called the Spoon River Anthology. The book features free-verse epitaphs of 214 Midwestern townspeople (some based on real people, though set in a fictional town) speaking from the grave about their lives' lost hopes and dreams.
My 12th grade AP Literature class studied at least some of the Spoon River Anthology (possibly all--I don't remember now). As a culminating project, each of us was tasked with writing our own epitaph in similar style, which we shared in class and then compiled into our own class anthology. Ours was affectionately titled: "Shut Up, Aaron, You're Dead" (an inside joke from class discussions.) I still have my copy.
I hadn't thought much about any of this in years, but today while searching for a poem to share, I plucked my copy of Spoon River Anthology from my poetry shelf and scanned through the text. I loved the way Louise Smith's and Herbert Marshall's monologues not only act like a conversation, but also highlight how much perspective matters.
If you're interested in reading more (or all) of the anthology, it is available for free here.