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Edgar Lee Masters' "Conrad Siever"

Updated on April 19, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edgar Lee Masters

Source

Introduction and Text of "Conrad Siever"

The speaker of Edgar Lee Masters’ "Conrad Siever" from Spoon River Anthology presents a contrast between the land that he owned and his prized apple orchard. Siever’s property is mentioned in two other Spoon River poems; in "Hare Drummer," Hare asks if the young folk "still go to Siever’s / For cider, after school."

Also in the epitaph,"Amelia Garrick," Amelia refers to Siever’s woods, "Where the thickets from Siever’s woods / Have crept over." Thus the reader infers that Conrad Siever owned property that included an apple orchard.

The structure of this poem presents two movements, each with two parts that basically offer the theme of "not there, but here": the first movement dramatizes the speaker’s negative or not there rubric; he did not love the part of his property that tendered certain features. The second movement dramatizes the "but here" or positive part of the construction which is the section of his land that he loved and attended to in life and continues to do so in death.

Conrad Siever

Not in that wasted garden
Where bodies are drawn into grass
That feeds no flocks, and into evergreens
That bear no fruit—
There where along the shaded walks
Vain sighs are heard,
And vainer dreams are dreamed
Of close communion with departed souls—
But here under the apple tree
I loved and watched and pruned
With gnarled hands
In the long, long years;
Here under the roots of this northern-spy
To move in the chemic change and circle of life,
Into the soil and into the flesh of the tree,
And into the living epitaphs
Of redder apples!

Reading of "Conrad Siever"

Commentary

Conrad Siever loved his apple trees and lovingly nurtured them in life and death.

First Movement, Part I: Fruitless Evergreens

Not in that wasted garden
Where bodies are drawn into grass
That feeds no flocks, and into evergreens
That bear no fruit—

Despite his owning considerable property, Siever begins with a negative assertion that he did not take his essential being in "that wasted garden," where despite the continued interest of other people, there is no food for "flocks" and where fruitless evergreens abide.

First Movement, Part II: Talking to Departed Souls

There where along the shaded walks
Vain sighs are heard,
And vainer dreams are dreamed
Of close communion with departed souls—

The speaker then points out another area of his land that also strikes him as rather useless, where "vain sighs are heard," and he adds that even "vainer dreams are dreamed."

Siever implies that his property also includes a cemetery, and those vain dreamers come there to attempt "close communion with departed souls."

Second Movement, Part I: Not There but Here

But here under the apple tree
I loved and watched and pruned
With gnarled hands
In the long, long years;

Siever has remarked that it is not to those parts of his property that he was attached, but instead to "here under the apple tree." It was in this place that the speaker "loved and watched and pruned / With gnarled hand" for many seasons of his life. The speaker Siever's real love and occupation was his apple orchard which he tended with great care.

Second Movement, Part II: Horticulture After Death

Here under the roots of this northern-spy
To move in the chemic change and circle of life,
Into the soil and into the flesh of the tree,
And into the living epitaphs
Of redder apples!

Now Siever is buried under his beloved "northern-spy" "under the roots," as a matter of fact. And he reports that he is still attending to his former occupation. His spirit is now able to "move in the chemic change and circle of life."

That spirit circulates "into the soil and into the flesh of the tree." And he dramatically and triumphantly announces that just as when alive he strove to produce better apples, his spirit is now accomplishing the same goal as it pushes itself "into the living epitaphs / Of redder apples!"

Life Sketch of Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters, (August 23, 1868 - March 5, 1950), authored some 39 books in addition to Spoon River Anthology, yet nothing in his canon ever gained the wide fame that the 243 reports of people speaking from the beyond the grave brought him. In addition to the individual reports, or "epitaphs," as Masters called them, the Anthology includes three other long poems that offer summaries or other material pertinent to the cemetery inmates or the atmosphere of the fictional town of Spoon River, #1 "The Hill,"#245 "The Spooniad," and #246 "Epilogue."

Edgar Lee Masters was born on August 23, 1868, in Garnett, Kansas; the Masters family soon relocated to Lewistown, Illinois. The fictional town of Spoon River constitutes a composite of Lewistown, where Masters grew up and Petersburg, IL, where his grandparents resided. While the town of Spoon River was a creation of Masters' doing, there is an Illinois river named "Spoon River," which is a tributary of the Illinois River in the west-central part of the state, running a 148-mile-long stretch between Peoria and Galesburg.

Masters briefly attended Knox College but had to drop out because of the family's finances. He went on to study law and later had a rather successful law practice, after being admitted to the bar in 1891. He later became a partner in the law office of Clarence Darrow, whose name spread far and wide because of the Scopes Trial—The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes—also jeeringly known as the "Monkey Trial."

Masters married Helen Jenkins in 1898, and the marriage brought Master nothing but heartache. In his memoir, Across Spoon River, the woman features heavily in his narrative without his ever mentioning her name; he refers to her only as the "Golden Aura," and he does not mean it in a good way.

Masters and the "Golden Aura" produced three children, but they divorced in 1923. He married Ellen Coyne in 1926, after having relocated to New York City. He stopped practicing law in order to devote more time to writing.

Masters was awarded the Poetry Society of America Award, the Academy Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Award, and he was also the recipient of a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

On March 5, 1950, just five months shy of his 82 birthday, the poet died in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, in a nursing facility. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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