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Edgar Lee Masters' "Emily Sparks"

Updated on April 4, 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, "Emily Sparks"

Edgar Lee Masters’ epigraph titled "Emily Sparks" from Spoon River Anthology portrays a very devout teacher, who behaved very motherly toward her students. She thought of them all as her own children.

Emily Sparks reports that one young student—Reuben Pantier—who suffered a dysfunctional home-life needed her prayers and care even more than many of the others.

17. Emily Sparks

Where is my boy, my boy—
In what far part of the world?
The boy I loved best of all in the school?—
I, the teacher, the old maid, the virgin heart,
Who made them all my children.
Did I know my boy aright,
Thinking of him as spirit aflame,
Active, ever aspiring?
Oh, boy, boy, for whom I prayed and prayed
In many a watchful hour at night,
Do you remember the letter I wrote you
Of the beautiful love of Christ?
And whether you ever took it or not,
My boy, wherever you are,
Work for your soul’s sake,
That all the clay of you, all of the dross of you,
May yield to the fire of you,
Till the fire is nothing but light!...
Nothing but light!

Reading of "Emily Sparks"

Commentary

First Movement: "Where is my boy, my boy"

Where is my boy, my boy—
In what far part of the world?
The boy I loved best of all in the school?—

Miss Emily speaks in a pleading tone, asking "Where is by boy, my boy—." She wonders, "in what part of the world" this sad child might be living. Her concern for him is strong, because he was "the boy I loved best of all in the school."

Although many years have passed and, of course, both individuals are dead and speaking from their graves, the strength of spiritual ties lends credence to the drama being played out in this Spoon River scenario

Second Movement: "I, the teacher, the old maid, the virgin heart"

I, the teacher, the old maid, the virgin heart,
Who made them all my children.

Miss Emily then succinctly describes herself in the second movement which is an unrimed couplet: "I, the teacher, the old maid, the virgin heart, / Who made them all my children."

The teacher’s virginal quality provides a gentle parallel to Marian love for all children, especially the lowly birthed and less fortunate. She becomes a symbol for Christian love.

Third Movement: "Did I know my boy aright"

Did I know my boy aright,
Thinking of him as spirit aflame,
Active, ever aspiring?

Emily then contemplates and questions her understanding of the young Reuben Pantier, for she chose to see in him one who aspired to "spirit aflame." She knows that she might have read more into his character, sensing him to be more spiritually advanced than he was, but she continued in her faith that Christ would touch his soul and lift him from the travails to which mortals are susceptible.

Fourth Movement: "Oh, boy, boy, for whom I prayed and prayed"

Oh, boy, boy, for whom I prayed and prayed
In many a watchful hour at night,
Do you remember the letter I wrote you
Of the beautiful love of Christ?

Exclaiming again, "Oh, boy, boy," she queries him about a letter she wrote to him. She reports having "prayed and prayed / In many a watchful hour at night." Then asks if he remembers the letter she wrote him, "Of the beautiful love of Christ."

Of course, she will not be able to receive a concrete response and has no way of knowing what, if any, effect she might have had on this young boy’s later life.

Fifth Movement: "And whether you ever took it or not"

And whether you ever took it or not,
My boy, wherever you are,
Work for your soul’s sake,
That all the clay of you, all of the dross of you,
May yield to the fire of you,
Till the fire is nothing but light!...
Nothing but light!

The speaker’s uncertainty is confirmed again as she remarks, "And whether you ever took it or not." She has never been able to know what her influence has been over the young Reuben.

She reports what the reader will understand to be the advice she had given him: "Work for your soul’s sake, / That all the clay of you, all of the dross of you, / May yield to the fire of you."

She knows that if the boy follows her spiritual admonition, his earthly "fire" or human passions will transform and transcend into the light of spirit, and his human frailties will become "nothing but light!... / Nothing but light!"

A Cheerful Note

For the reader, the sad note, on the one hand, is that Miss Emily might never know that her advice was taken to heart by her former student, but on the other hand, a cheerful note that the student did eventually become the spiritual aspirant for which the virgin-hearted teacher had "prayed and prayed."

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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