August 23, 2012

Birth of Masters: reap life's jest

Though he later claimed it was 1869, Edgar Lee Masters was, in fact, born on August 23, 1868 in Garnett, Kansas. The majority of his childhood, however, was spent in Illinois, among scenes which would inspire his greatest success, The Spoon River Anthology (1915). The book collected several poems about ghosts talking in a midwestern cemetery, originally published in a St. Louis magazine beginning in May 1914. It was rumored that the book sold over 80,000 copies in its first year alone. It was Masters's only success, however.

Masters had published several other books — both before and after The Spoon River Anthology, some under the pseudonym Webster Ford or Dexter Wallace — but none were critically or commercially significant. His first book, A Book of Verses (1898), was published in Chicago compiled works mostly written while Masters was a college student. In fact, the author noted, the manuscript was completed by 1892, and it took years to get it published. The day the book was released, the publisher, Way and Williams, declared bankruptcy. This inaugural collection ended with "Farewell Muses":

HO! Muses nine,
If one be mine,
Should I then pine
      For all the rest?
Nay, under my vine,
I'll sip my wine,
And herd the swine—
      And forsake the quest.

For each man's breast
Hath a bard for guest
And ah! 'tis best
      The bard should die.
Who heeds his behest
Will reap life's jest,
And the thorn hath pressed,
      Where his heart would lie.

And ye who buy
Men's souls with a cry
To fame while ye fly
      The clasp they need;
It is vain to vie
With gods who deny,
And over you high
      The gods have heed.

They have decreed
Each word and deed—
You shall but feed
      The sacred flame,
And those you lead
With a syren reed
Will wish them freed
      From your evil claim.

No win a name
Is a worthy aim;
And how free from blame
      Are the laurel leaves.
But 'tis a game
Where the swift get fame
And the slow have shame
      And the weak heart grieves.

But all spent sheaves,
My Muse retrieves,
She fashions and weaves
      With wheatless straw.
Whilst ye were thieves
Of my days and eves—
So my bosom heaves
      For Themis—the law!

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