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Edgar Lee Masters

George Gray

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1916

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Summary and Study Guide


In exploring a premise as old as the philosophers of Antiquity—if the dead could speak, what would they tell us—Edgar Lee Masters’ “George Gray” gives voice to the bitterness and deep regrets, in retrospect, over a life never lived, a safe kind of un-life defined by chances never taken and desires never indulged. The poem is part of the Spoon River Anthology, Masters’ landmark 1915 volume of free verse poems in which more than 240 deceased residents of a Midwestern river town each in turn speak from the grave to assess with unnerving honesty the joys and sorrows, agonies and ironies of their lives.

Although the volume met with critical success for its plainspoken eloquence that generated, in turn, wide commercial appeal, the portrait that the cycle of poems presented of life in smalltown Midwest America disturbed many. Masters’ poems suggested that in such an apparently pleasant and quiet rural world dwelled people whose lives were lacerated by doubts, obsessions, desires, and immorality. “George Gray,” for instance, speaks to a life of cautious and deliberate dedication to routine that views risk as too risky and ambition too ambitious. In this, the poem explores the dynamics of regret, the terror of risk, and the steep price paid for a quiet and comfortable life.

Poet Biography

The son of an attorney who never quite succeeded, Edgar Lee Masters had a peripatetic childhood, born in 1868 in the small town of Garnett, Kansas, but growing up, for the most part, in the Illinois town of Lewistown about an hour north of Springfield. Early on, Masters, along with few friends, found comfort in books, particularly the dreamy emotionalism and rural celebrations of the British High Romantics and the forbidding gothic tones of Edgar Allan Poe. Over his father’s objections, Masters enrolled at Knox College, a pricey private liberal arts school in faraway Kentucky, but he stayed only a year before money issues forced him to drop out.

Within two years, in 1891, however, Masters’ regimen of self-directed study enabled him to pass the Illinois bar. He headed to Chicago where he began a law practice as a public defender and later joined the prestigious law firm of Kickham Scalan (among their partners was the charismatic defense attorney and social reformer Clarence Darrow).

Masters never stopped writing poetry, publishing his first collection in 1898. Fearing his side career might be a source of conflict, he published under the pseudonym of Webster Ford. It was Marion Reedy, an influential editor and publisher in St. Louis, who suggested that Masters, struggling to finish a sprawling realistic novel about life in a small Illinois town, consider recasting the novel as a cycle of poems. The result, Spoon River Anthology, established Masters among the foremost voices of the Chicago Renaissance: writers, journalists, and photographers committed to a realistic portrayal of Midwest America. Spoon River became an improbable best-seller, largely due to its gothic premise (the dead speaking from the grave), its reader-friendly free-verse form, and its controversial Peyton-Place-ish exposé of the scandalous lives of small-town America.

Although he would go on to publish more than 30 additional works, including a dozen plays, seven novels, and six massive biographies (most notably of Mark Twain), Masters would never again find the same level of success. During the 1920s, Masters’ life reflected a spiral into self-doubt. He left Chicago for New York, abandoned his family, married a much younger woman he barely knew, and became a recluse, holed up in a suite of rooms in the iconic Chelsea Hotel. The success of Spoon River haunted him, and his life as a poet became increasingly set in the past tense. He despaired over being awarded the 1944 Shelley Memorial Award, a lifetime achievement award from the Poetry Society of America, as it singled out only Spoon River. When Masters died in 1950 at age 81 in a hospice in Philadelphia, his New York Times obituary identified him as the lawyer-turned-poet who wrote Spoon River Anthology. He was buried in Petersburg, Illinois, near Lewiston, his memorial stone quoting one of his own poems, “I am a dream out of a blessed sleep / Let’s walk and hear the lark.”

Poem Text

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.

Masters, Edgar Lee. “George Gray.” 1915. Poets.org.


From the perspective of an unspecified limbo-like afterlife, George Gray—we learn nothing about him save his name and that he is dead—contemplates with sad bemusement the elaborate design chiseled into the marble of his own tombstone. It depicts a boat “with a furled sail at rest” (Line 3). The boat with its neatly and tightly secured sail suggests an appropriate traditional symbol for a person now at rest, done with the adventures of life, a soul now at peace, finding in the sweet repose of death the serenity that life, with all its tumultuous moments, never offered. That heart, surfeited with the loves and losses, happiness and tragedies of life, is happily done with the wind and the waves, glad now to be in port.

But the poem immediately unsettles that assumption. The adventurous life suggests a life George Gray never got around to living. “I have studied [the engraving] many times” (Line 1), which suggests now in death George has found the time to study his own life. The boat on his tombstone becomes cruelly ironic. The image, he admits, suggests more his life than his death. From the perspective of death, he sees now that his quiet life of small risks and easy contentment measure his reluctance even to explore the tantalizing possibilities of love and ambition, the complex realities of heartache and sorrow, all traditional measures of a life lived. By embracing security and comfort, George now sees that he turned away from the enticing opportunities of risk. “I dreaded the chances” (Line 8), he admits. He admits he was offered the chance at love but declined; that he was tempted by the siren call of ambition but deferred; that he was intrigued as well by the dark experience of pain but shrank from it.

Ironically, George sees now that in his lifelong dedication to risk-assessment—and in turn measuring risk itself as a reason not to do something—he never technically lived. He lived small, “all the while [he] hungered for meaning in [his] life” (Line 9) when his reluctance to take any chances inevitably denied his life such depth. But that insight he earns now is too late, an epiphany cased in the cool irony of uselessness. If only, he sees, I knew then what I know now.

From the grave, however, he is eager to share his life of throttled expectations and smothered ambitions, to tell whoever should be passing by his gravestone to understand the irony of the boat chiseled on it. His own life becomes a cautionary tale. Live, he says voicelessly from the grave, as I did not: “[L]ift the sail / And catch the winds of destiny/ Wherever they drive the boat” (Lines 10-12). Get ready, he says, to stay dead for a long time, earn the rest of eternity. In every moment, in every opportunity, embrace the potential for experience, whatever the outcomes.

He sees now that his life, lived so carefully, so predictably, so quietly, was not much of a life at all. “Life without meaning is the torture / of restlessness and vague desires” (Lines 14-15). That is the sorrow of his afterlife, able to see what he should have seen when he was alive: Life needs to be lived. Do not be one of those smothered and dry lives content to stay safe and dismissing as foolishness the experience of risk. Do not live like a trim and ready boat longing for the sea. Do not, he says with the bitter irony of hindsight in the closing line, be afraid to unfurl the sails and see where the crazy winds might go—because death is permanent and ever-approaching, and always premature.

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