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37. Edgar Lee Masters’ "Johnnie Sayre"

Updated on October 7, 2017
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Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Edgar Lee Masters Memorial Stamp

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Introduction

In Edgar Lee Masters’ “Johnnie Sayre” from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker is actually talking to God, while most of the characters address their remarks to the citizens of Spoon River or one of their relatives.

Some of the characters who speak in this remarkable sequence become admirable in the eyes of their readers/listeners, while others invite further disdain, just as they obviously did in their miserable lifetimes.

Johnnie Sayre is one the more admirable characters. He accepts responsibility for his own transgressions in life, and he humbly offers his love and appreciation to the Divine Reality for the soul guidance he understands he is being given.

Reading of Masters' "Johnnie Sayre"

First Movement: “Father, thou canst never know”

In a prayerful mode, Johnnie Sayre addresses his Maker, “Father, thou canst never know / The anguish that smote my heart.” He exaggerates the anguish by stating that God can never know its depth.

Of course, God knows such, but by exclaiming that He cannot, Johnnie implies that the depth is well beyond human comprehension.

Johnnie was stealing a ride on a train, when he finds himself losing his leg to “[t]he remorseless wheel of the engine” that “[sank] into the crying flesh of [his] leg.” Johnnie’s anguish, however, is not that his leg was being crushed.

That unhappy accident merely triggers his guilt over the act of theft. He suddenly becomes aware that he is paying a karmic debt, and his capability to understand and accept that debt causes him great “anguish.”

Second Movement: “As they carried me to the home of widow Morris”

Second Movement: “As they carried me to the home of widow Morris”

Johnnie is reminded of his transgression against one of the commandments as he is being transported to the nearby home of the widow Morris.

As the rescuers move Johnnie to the woman’s home, he could see his “school-house in the valley.” He admits that he played hooky from school “to steal rides upon the trains.”

Third Movement: “I prayed to live until I could ask your forgiveness”

Johnnie confesses that he wanted to live until he could beg God for His forgiveness. He talks to God as he would his human father.

Johnnie expects to see God shed tears for his son’s transgression, and he awaits God’s “broken words of comfort!” At this point, Johnnie shows a touching sweetness in his relationship with the Divine.

Johnnie accepts his responsibility for his own behavior; he does not blame God or the Spoon River citizens as so many others in the cemetery do, for example “Minerva Jones” and “Daisy Fraser.”

Fourth Movement: “From the solace of that hour I have gained infinite happiness”

Johnnie is amply rewarded because of his attitude. He finds “solace” and furthermore “gain[s] infinite happiness.” He credits the Divine Creator for “chisel[ing] for me” a life that he would probably have been too weak to have chosen for himself.

Johnnie realizes that God has rescued him from all the “evil to come”; he knows that the way he was living could have only brought more evil into his life, and through God’s grace, he has been spared that evil, and at the same time given succor.

The metaphorical chiseling also implies that perhaps upon Johnnie’s tombstone is chiseled the phrase, “Taken from the evil to come.”

In that case, it becomes clear that Johnnie’s exploits were well known by those close to him, which makes Johnnie’s attitude even more admirable.

Instead of cursing those who knew of his “evil,” he accepts their admonitions and rightly credits Divine Intervention that finally liberates him from further wrongs.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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