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Edgar Lee Masters' "George Gray"

Updated on January 26, 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 Master Stamp

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "George Gray"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "George Gray" from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker philosophizes about his lost opportunities to infuse some meaning into his life. The speaker's tombstone features a boat "with a furled sail at rest in a harbor." This carving motivates George to dramatize his speculation that like the still boat his own life seemed to go nowhere.

George Gray

I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

Dramatic Reading of "George Gray"

Commentary

First Movement: A Twisted Symbolism

I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.

A boat with a furled sail resting peacefully in a harbor symbolizes a life well lived and a soul resting comfortably in the arms of the divine after that life has accomplished its finish—an appropriate and beautiful image for a tombstone monument. However, in the case of George Gray, the symbolism takes a very different twist.

George begins by stating that he has contemplated that boat image "many times," and he has concluded that it does not represent his life’s "destination" but the course of his life itself.

Second Movement: Fear of Taking a Chance

For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.

George then offers the reasons that the boat image designates his course through life rather than his life’s destination. George says that he was offered "love," but he "shrank from its disillusionment." He would not have believed the old adage that is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

George then claims that he had the opportunity to experience "sorrow," but he would not allow himself the luxury of that experience simply because he was "afraid." Quite likely, the "sorrow" arose as he declined the offer of love. A part of George wanted to return the love, but his brittle nature rejected it and along with the sorrow caused by the rejection of love.

George also did not allow himself to engage in "ambition" because of dreading the "chances." He failed to play the game because he might lose—which made it a forgone conclusion that he would not win.

Third Movement: A Hunger for Meaning in Life

Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.

Even as George was allowing love, ambition, and other emotions to slip through his fingers, he felt a "hunger[ ] for meaning in [his] life." He could not foretell that meaning resided in the unknown.

But now George understands that to achieve meaning one must take chances; one must "lift the sail," "catch the winds of destiny," and be willing to go "[w]herever they drive the boat."

Fourth Movement: Torture Every Which Way

To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

George admits that "putt[ing] meaning in one’ life may end in madness." The loss of love, the despair brought on by sorrow, the dreaded dashing of ambitious hopes all could lead to "madness." But on the other hand, George now believes that "a life without meaning is the torture / Of restlessness and vague desire."

Such a life of torture, he assumes, must be worse than the madness of unrequited love and failed ambitions. George metaphorically likens such a passionless life as his own to a "boat longing for the sea yet afraid." Thus, the only emotion he actually lived with was fear and that emotion proved to be torture.

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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