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Masters on Ambition

Many of Edgar Lee Masters' poems in Spoon River Anthology (nearly all of them self-elegies delivered by the denizens of a small town cemetary) deal with various forms of ambition - ambition which successfully produces material wealth and societal prestige but not happiness, ambition thwarted and ambition avoided with either satisfaction or regret. Two great examples of the latter are "Fiddler Jones" and "George Gray":

Fiddler Jones
The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.
To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust
Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;
They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy
Stepping it off, to “Toor-a-Loor.”
How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill—only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

"Fiddler Jones" speaks beautifully to the worthiness of pursuing one's artistic inclinations, even at the expense of material gains. Jones suggests that he had only forty acres of land to farm, with no time (someone is always dragging him off to fiddle somewhere) nor presumably the inclination to increase his acreage and thus raise his social standing amongst the sort of people who value such things. Jones clearly wasn't one of those people, and preferred to spend his time in fiddling and celebration, with "not a single regret" for what might have been. Charming.

This positive message sharply contrasts with that of "George Gray", in which the narrator rues having never pursued any opportunity during his life, instead pulling back from love and sorrow and ambition, sacrificing the meaning and significance each experience would have otherwise brought to him.

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.

The image of the boat sitting in a harbor - not only not sailing away for distant shores, but also not even docking at the pier and experiencing whatever the port had to offer - is particularly lovely, and fits perfectly as a metaphor for a life wasted in timid inaction and indecisiveness. I'm taking the messages of both poems very much to heart.

August 21, 2007 in Books | Permalink