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Edgar Lee Masters' "Doc Hill"

Updated on January 28, 2018
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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 Poem, "Doc Hill"

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Doc Hill" from Spoon River Anthology features the pathetic character of a town doctor who basically lived his life through the people he cared for in his medical practice. Like the other graveyard complaining epitaphs, Doc Hill's is full of pathos and self-pity.

But while apparently obliterating his own family from his memory, he does hold special sorrow for one Spoon River resident. Although the doc does not elaborate upon his relationship with Em Stanton, his reticence allows his listener/reader to image the extent that would cause him such sorrow at seeing her stand alone.

31. Doc Hill

I went up and down the streets
Here and there by day and night,
Through all hours of the night caring for the poor who were sick.
Do you know why?
My wife hated me, my son went to the dogs.
And I turned to the people and poured out my love to them.
Sweet it was to see the crowds about the lawns on the day of my funeral,
And hear them murmur their love and sorrow.
But oh, dear God, my soul trembled, scarcely able
To hold to the railing of the new life
When I saw Em Stanton behind the oak tree
At the grave,
Hiding herself, and her grief!

Reading of "Doc Hill"

Commentary

Poor Doc Hill, spurned by his wife and gone-to-the-dogs son, turned to healing the sick to find an outlet for his love and affection.

First Movement: The Wages of Altruism?

I went up and down the streets
Here and there by day and night,
Through all hours of the night caring for the poor who were sick.

The doc begins by reporting that he spent most of his time with his patients who were poor as well as sick. Doc Hill made his way "up and down the streets / Here and there by day and night." Any hour of the day would find him "caring for the poor who were sick." The doc's life centered on his profession, seemingly making him a rather altruistic individual.

Second Movement: No Love at Home

Do you know why?
My wife hated me, my son went to the dogs.
And I turned to the people and poured out my love to them.

Lest one think he was an entirely altruistic workaholic or simply obsessed with his medical practice, Doc wants to explain that such was not the case. The doc begins by proffering the question: "Do you know why?" His wife detested him, and his son felt no better toward his father.

Thus, the doc had no family life. He had to find consolation somewhere so he "turned to the people and poured out my love to them." Doc does not assert that he was merely looking for love for himself.

The Doc's explanation makes him sound more altruistic than one who is expecting attention in return: he was looking for people to whom he could give his love and caring. The doc's medical profession afforded him the opportunity, or perhaps excuse, to spend all of his time away from his own family in attending to others.

Third Movement: The Return of Love

Sweet it was to see the crowds about the lawns on the day of my funeral,
And hear them murmur their love and sorrow.

But the day of his funeral allowed him to revel in the return of the love he had bestowed, for "Sweet it was to see the crowds about the lawns on the day of my funeral, / And hear them murmur their love and sorrow." In death, he had achieved what he had not been able to achieve in life with his own family.

The collection of caring and affection that showed itself on the day of his funeral seemed to make up for the familial affection he had not experienced. And that lack seems to extend into death, for he mentions the presence of neither his wife nor his son at his funeral.

Fourth Movement: A Grieving Paramour

But oh, dear God, my soul trembled, scarcely able
To hold to the railing of the new life
When I saw Em Stanton behind the oak tree
At the grave,
Hiding herself, and her grief!

However, Doc reveals a very disturbing implication about himself when he describes "Em Stanton," standing "behind the oak tree / At the grave." Em is "hiding herself, and her grief," and seeing her there made his soul tremble as he was "scarcely able / To hold to the railing of the new life." The doc’s showering of affection on the townsfolk likely included a romantic relationship with one Em Stanton, a woman who is now left to grieve in hiding.

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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