I was just turned twenty-one,
And Henry Phipps, the Sunday-school superintendent,
Made a speech in Bindle’s Opera House.
“The honor of the flag must be upheld,” he said,
“Whether it be assailed by a barbarous tribe of Tagalogs
Or the greatest power in Europe.”
And we cheered and cheered the speech and the flag he waved
As he spoke.
And I went to the war in spite of my father,
And followed the flag till I saw it raised
By our camp in a rice field near Manila,
And all of us cheered and cheered it.
But there were flies and poisonous things;
And there was deadly water,
And the cruel heat,
And the sickening putrid food;
And the smell of the trench just back of the tents
Where the soldiers went to empty themselves;
And there were the whores who followed us, full of syphilis;
And beastly acts between ourselves or alone,
With bullying, hatred, degradation among us,
And days of loathing and nights of fear
To the hour of the charge through the steaming swamp,
Following the flag,
Till I fell with a scream, shot through the guts.
Now there’s a flag over me in Spoon River!
A flag! A flag!
Edgar Lee Masters (1869–1950) was an American poet whose collection of brief and direct dramatic monologues, Spoon River Anthology, was a huge success when it was first published in 1915. Ninety-five years later, his poetry maintains an honored place in the canon of 20th-century American verse. A man of progressive and insightful political views, Masters understood that the American war against the Philippines would usher in for the United States an era of imperial wars and conquests. He spent most of his life as a distinguished lawyer in Chicago and New York.