Irony is defined as “a figure of speech in which words are used in such a way that their intended meaning is different from the actual meaning of the words. “(literarydevices. net) In his Spoon River Anthology, realist poet Edgar Lee Masters uses irony to depict his characters, his poems divulging bizarre situations where appearance and reality may be distinct. From a graveyard and the depth of their tombs, three citizens of Spoon River, Trainor the Druggist, Doc Hill, and Margaret Fuller Slack, tell the truth about themselves, each telling what may be his or her own epitaph.
They each depict three versions of love, and give an ironic view of themselves and others. The first ironic twist of these poems is straightforward: these three characters are dead, while “I Trainor, the druggist (was) killed while making an experiment”, Doc Hill talks about “the day of (his) funeral”, and Margaret Fuller Slack”died from lock–jaw. ” Using free verse in his poems, Masters gives a diversity of way for his characters to remember their life, and straightforward, but dramatic descriptions of what and how they lived.
Although the revealed secrets can be outrageous-stories of selfishness and greed for Margaret who married “the rich druggist” for “the promise of leisure for (her) novel”, of frustration from Trainor whose knowledge of chemistry did not bring love as he “lived unwedded”, or adultery for Doc Hill who can see his lover hidden behind a tree to hide her sorrow from the town unaware of their illicit love “I saw Em Stanton (… ) Hiding herself, and her grief! “, they all tell their stories calmly and simply as death has unchained them from the reality of their lives and emotions.
Thanks to this freedom, the reader witnesses a visceral and poignant portrait of these people, how they thought, and behaved, and learn what truly motivated them. Their voices offer a rich and fascinating picture of that imaginary town. Death delivers its victims from hypocrisy, and the narrowmindedness of life in society. Here, Masters gives us a satire of life in a small American town. Anyone might recognize people seen every day, and when these people die, they may take to the grave secrets as disquieting as those revealed here.
Addressing the living, Masters’ characters are no longer members of the community where they had to pretend, please, or impress someone else than themselves. They have nothing to lose by their candor. Telling their stories succinctly, each person shares a sharp, concise, focused, cynical, and always informative and wise lesson. Even if the inhabitants of the Spoon River graveyard may not seem to exhibit deep thoughts, their epigrams make the reader reflect on their message, and become enlightened. Another ironical twist in each poem is in the varied versions of love presented.
Each poem reflects the opinion, and perspective of the person who says it. The realism of each poem is a powerful tool used to deal with many unpleasant subjects related to love, whether it is a loveless marriage like Doc Hill whose family life is sad as he admits “My wife hated me, my son went to the dogs. ” and who has to find love and acceptance though his work as he utters “I went up and down the streets (… ) caring for the poor who were sick” so “I turned to the people and poured out my love to them”.
He cannot live unloved though and we found out that as he sacrificed himself for his job, he also had a secret and committed adultery because when he sees Em Stanton “(his) soul trembled”, he is still anxious of what the others could say or do to his lover who has to mourn in secret. Loveless marriage, hatred, or maybe passion, are another version of love proposed by Trainor the druggist. As “the chemist”, he explains how he should know “What will result from compounding Fluids or solids”; comparing love to chemistry, he should be a specialist.
But he confesses to not nderstanding it because “who can tell how men and women will interact on each other”. He tries to understand how two people “Benjamin Pantier and his wife” could be a couple as they were “evil toward each other”, he compared them to chemical elements “He oxygen, she hydrogen”, both explosive gases, that predictably gave life to “their son, a devastating fire”. Ironically too, passion is often represented by flames and we may think that they do love each other as passionate lovers, but because their child is described as “devastating”, we can envision despair and pain as well here.
He, the chemist, should have been able to find the perfect element to complete him, but unfortunately, he “the druggist, a miser of chemicals” “lived unwedded. ” His vision of love is that of violence or perhaps spouse abuse, and who knows for him, a potential homosexuality? Last but not least is Margaret Fuller Slack’s reality of life at the time, the love life women had to have, bearing numerous children because “Sex is the curse of life.
Her life is painstakingly shaped by her relationship to her sexuality as her choices were “celibacy, matrimony, or unchastity. ” Finally, irony is used as each character is viewed by others and themselves. Each person emerges as a distinctive individual with a strong personality. Despite a few moments of satisfaction, happiness, and accomplishment, these monologues are rather sad. Irony for Margaret Fuller Slack as she married a rich man to have leisure time to write, but could not as being married she had to have his children.
Margaret used to be a beautiful young woman as she recalls her picture with her “chin resting on hand, and deep–set eyes–Gray, too, and far-searching”, whose life was full of promises “I would have been as great as George Eliot”, an aspiring writer whose fate, because of her beauty “the rich druggist, wooed me, Luring me” was to marry and become the mother of “eight children” and to die prematurely “from lock-jaw, an ironical death” echoing the uncontrollable suppression of her voice as she had “had no time to write” because of the choices available to her in her town and time.
Irony for Trainor the Druggist, pharmacist of Spoon River, skilled at chemistry but who died “killed while making an experiment”. Trainor unwisely attempts to explain the compatibility of a complex couple through a subject well known to him, and he then fails in his own specialty. Through “chemicals”, he tries to explain love throughout the symbols of science and fails both in science and life as he “lived unwedded” never having experienced true love outside of chemistry, which paradoxically became his unfortunate fate.
Irony too for Doc Hill, whose life was dedicated to the poor, and who focused on the good deeds he performed “through all hours of the night caring for the poor who were sick” while he had a sad home life. He may have had a better life, had he chose to leave his wife and live his love in the open as he seems to regret his secret life and the pain he leaves behind with Em “But oh, dear God, my soul trembled, scarcely able to hold to the railing of the new life”.
Having people respect and love him then and now that he is dead, does not help what his life with a loving woman could have been. The irony of these dead observing how little they know about the world and people around them puts the world into perspective, showing that it is one’s duty to try to know one’s community, to try to understand the loneliness, lies, and sadness that separate one person from another in their lifetime, as afterwards, it is too late.
Because the poems are epitaphs of dead citizens delivered by the deceased themselves, they are free to speak without lie or fear the consequences; they offer an image of life without pretense, they talk about love and people openly. The subconscious and insidious hopelessness present in Masters’ poetry fills the reader with sadness for the human condition. The emotional insight, social understanding, variety of perspective, and philosophical questioning expose human passions in a rural, small American town with irony and honesty.