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Edgar Lee Masters’ "Sarah Brown"

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, "Sarah Brown"

The speaker in Edgar Lee Masters’ "Sarah Brown" from Spoon River Anthology is one of the most positive characters of the lot; although it is hinted that she committed adultery, she emphasizes "love" over sex.

It was Sarah's husband who called her love for Maurice "guilty love," but since her marriage apparently remained intact, it is not clear that she actually experienced a sexual liaison with the grieving Maurice.

Sarah Brown

Maurice, weep not, I am not here under this pine tree.
The balmy air of spring whispers through the sweet grass,
The stars sparkle, the whippoorwill calls,
But thou grievest, while my soul lies rapturous
In the blest Nirvana of eternal light!
Go to the good heart that is my husband,
Who broods upon what he calls our guilty love:—
Tell him that my love for you, no less than my love for him
Wrought out my destiny—that through the flesh
I won spirit, and through spirit, peace.
There is no marriage in heaven,
But there is love.

Reading of "Sarah Brown"

Commentary

First Movement: Dust to Dust, Not Spoken of the Soul

Maurice, weep not, I am not here under this pine tree.

Sarah Brown addresses Maurice, as he mourns at her grave side. She reveals to him that she is not in the grave "under this pine tree."

Second Movement: As the Soul Sees

The balmy air of spring whispers through the sweet grass,
The stars sparkle, the whippoorwill calls,
But thou grievest, while my soul lies rapturous
In the blest Nirvana of eternal light!

To prove to Maurice that she, that is, her soul, is not confined to the dark, dank hole in the ground, she describes the setting above ground: the stars are out and a bird is singing. She asserts that Maurice is mourning "while [her] soul lies rapturous / In the blest Nirvana of eternal light!"

Sarah Brown exemplifies a Spoon River resident whose soul has evolved to a higher realm than most of the other complaining deceased of the town.

Instead of railing against the unfairness of the small minded folks among whom she lived, as so many others do, she reveals a very positive, even minded attitude, and she tries only to console those left behind, especially Maurice who has come to her grave to mourn.

Third Movement: Winds From the East

Go to the good heart that is my husband,
Who broods upon what he calls our guilty love:—

After attempting to relieve Maurice’s grief, Sarah Brown commands him to go to her husband "who broods upon what he calls our guilty love."

Sarah describes her husband as "the good heart" and continues to think of him as her husband still, even though she has departed earth, and despite the claim she later makes in the final movement.

Another indication that Sarah Brown is influenced by Eastern philosophical thought is that she focuses primarily on action in the present tense, the "eternal now," as referred to in Buddhism.

Fourth Movement: Heightened Awareness

Tell him that my love for you, no less than my love for him
Wrought out my destiny—that through the flesh
I won spirit, and through spirit, peace.

Sarah Brown then reveals the message she wishes Maurice to deliver to her husband. She wants her husband to know that her love for both men has been instrumental in shaping who she has become, that is, that love has "wrought out [her] destiny."

She clarifies that "through the flesh / [she] won spirit, and through spirit, peace." Her infidelity was no mere ordinary dalliance prompted by greed, but because of her heightened awareness played a rôle in leading her soul to divine awareness.

Fifth Movement: Love Cannot Be Confined

There is no marriage in heaven,
But there is love.

Finally, Sarah Brown reveals that "There is no marriage in heaven / But there is love." Sarah Brown became a free spirit while living and thus concludes from heaven that if love is supreme in the afterlife, then marriage cannot confine love while on the earth plane.

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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