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.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Edgar Lee Masters's poem George Gray

11 Comments

  1. Jeffery Taylor C3 says:

    Edgar Lee Masters was definitely a person not afraid to express what he was thinking or experienced though life. “George Gray” has its audience explore opportunities that have come by and passed,missed opportunities. Missed because of the fear of experiencing what life can offer. Masters helps his readers explore the regret George Gray had not living life to the fullest.

  2. Megan C. Gray - Descendent of George Gray says:

    Greetings –I am a descendant of George Gray. He was my great grandpa and a very deep thinker. He lost my great grandma around the same time he lost their last born daughter. The poem is pretty accurate in the fact that George had some serious trials in his life. He is originally from Galesburg and did a variety of things for labor..one of which was working the Mighty Mississippi as a River Boat Capt. I followed in his footsteps about 150 years later. George was born and died between 1865? and 1938. His birthdate is fuzzy. He knew about the revolutionary war from his father but did not have to fight in the civil war. He loved my Grandma Elizabeth dearly..and they had a few children together…but the last daughter was born and shortly thereafter she got pneumonia from complications in pregnancy and died. My grandma already had 4 children in a short time: The five year old — who was the a daughter who passed – My Uncle Willard, Aunt Mildred and my grandpa, Ernest L. Gray. All his children moved to the Monmouth/Kirkwood, Illinois area and lived out their lives there ..not too far at all from Spoon River and The Hill where George is buried. George was a quiet but strong man..always pondering something.. But never quite the same after my great grandma passed away. I put these puzzle pieces together in 1986 in college after reading Masters for Composition I. Of course, I AM a Gray and got curious.. and found out..HOLY COW! This is my great grandfather! My grandpa Ernie (George’s son) had my mom when he was 42…My Grandpa Ernie was born in 1898. My mom is turning 69 and I am turning 41 in Feb and have no children. There are no other Grays from the Spoon river area that are living excecpt for my mom and me. There was a very large age difference between George and Elizabeth that I can tell… She was his first wife. The marble that he studied many times in the poem is going to visit Elizabeth’s grave once a week for several years. The unfurled sail refers to Elizabeth’s young life being taken at such a young age…and that she didn’t have much time on the earth to see the world. For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment…is her death personified here. Edgar Lee Masters wrote about real people that were recognizable…and he sure must have known George pretty well! Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid… George was afraid that his life would collapse as a single father with no one to help him. He would never marry again…but came to the realization that we all must lift the sail, go with destiny and have the desire to move onward and upward. He was a tortured man in the sense that she was his soulmate. George was a poet himself and wrote poetry to get his grief out… he about went mad..thus the line: To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness…

    I’ve been meaning for years and years to get this story out about my great grandfather and Edgar Lee Masters… what inspired me to do this tonight is that my brother… who is not a Gray.. bought a house on Spoon Lake..near Spoon River… Spoon River is in my blood, like the Mississippi.. the raging water, the lazy days of mosquitoes on their banks..and the people who my family called friends now and back a century and something ago. George Gray’s headstone says, “husband and loving father” and he is buried next to his wife. He is an ancestor that I remember and whose name I wear with pride.. A poem that personifies his life as a single father, a widower and a passionate man who had integrity and depth of soul …much like Masters who wrote about him… Even though they both lay sleeping, sleeping, on that hill… their memories are as alive as they were right now…as I tell all who read this the truth about George Gray..otherwise known as “My Poppy” Peace to All – Megan C. Gray Carter

  3. George says:

    I’m doing my project on Masters, im only 15, and i have to choose the most meaningful work he made i chose this one because it is something deep that everyone can relate to at one point or another and that is my philosophy of life : “live life to the fullest”

  4. Mervyn says:

    The poem was given to me about 36 years ago by a dear friend in the US.It contains the fears of every thinking person.Whether one is rich,poor,healthy or not this poem reflects the very essence of life.Yet,on the other hand,we must have order in our society,so how far does one push the concept of “doing what one wants”?
    Having said that,would’nt it be sad if we woke up one day and realised we were now too old to do whatever it is one had longed to do?

  5. Roslyn says:

    I have had various copies of this poem, both hand written and typed for around 20 years. I have always loved this poem. It had been a source of deep meaning and inspiration not to let my life just pass me by because of fear. I continue to pull courage from it. I was so delighted to do a web search for this and find it so easily. I was curious if I had kept correct coppies of this poem since it had been since High School. I am happy to find that I have. I will continue to share this poem with my friends and family as I have for many years now. I hope others share the deep connection with it that I have.

  6. John says:

    i have 2 analyse this poem also, i need 2 understand what it means!!

  7. Emanuela says:

    Last time I was in a hurry but I would like to add a few more remarks about this poem. First of all the speaker is one of the dead people buried in the small graveyard of Spoon River: I think the idea of giving voice to dead people is very unusual and original since these are people who can comment on the WHOLE of their lives, who can evaluate if these lives were spent well of badly. In the first line the spaker says he’s often studied the marble which was created for him, “a boat” at rest in a harbour. The people/person who chieseled this “marble” probably meant to symbolize Gray’s final destination, the eternal peace of death, but to Gray himself this marble means something totally different – this boat, still and quiet, appears to him the metaphor of his life. He realizes he’s always withdrawn from everything which could cause great changes in his life – love, sorrow (feelings), ambition. Now that he’s dead, Gray admits his life may have been quiet and safe, but unfortunately not satisfactory (he says “all the while I HUNGERED – longed- for meaning in my life”) because he refused to live fully , to accept the aspects of human experience that GIVE LIFE A MEANING, make it worth living, and make human beings more complete, fulfilled and richer. This poem reminds me of a statement by Henry David Thoreau which is quoted in the movie “Dead Poets’Society”( unforgettable!) and which deals more or less with the same topic (life/death): “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to put to rout all that was not life and not when i had come to die discover that I had not lived”.

  8. Emanuela says:

    I think my opinion will come too late. I love this poem very much, it was love at first sight when I first read it. It is the metaphor of an adventurous journey which unfortunately was not taken. Everybody’s life is a journey, but George Gray’s life was a journey not taken. When you travel you may have a lot of exciting experiences but you may also run risks and this was something something he refused to do. I think Gray’s life must have been very boring.

  9. Judi says:

    I think its a man reflecting on his life and comparing it to the ship moored in the harbour. He equates his life as chisled in Marble – something that we should never be. (Clay – is the best medium for the molding of a great life.) He had chances and choices in life, but he didn’t risk it. He didn’t take the road less travelled. He played it safe and didn’t risk his heart or his talents to reach out to life, to follow where taking these risks would lead him. His fear stopped him from living life FULLY and he regretted it. In the end he realized his error. His message to me is: Take a risk, live life to the fullest and go where it leads you. Don’t be afraid to love even if it ends in pain, don’t be afraid to take chances, even if there’s potential to fail. Make plans, Dream dreams and live each day like you were dying.

  10. David Glanville says:

    The Poem was written from the perspective of a man who has died and is looking back on his life with a fearfull realization that durring his life he thought he was going somewhere, only to realize that in the end he never accomplished anything, never took the risks necesary to create a meaningfull life. It is a poem that has haunted me my whole life. The fear of leading a Meaningless life scares me!

  11. Jessica says:

    I have to analyze this poem for english class…does anyone know what it means…has anyone found an analysis anywhere? Please help me!!!!!!!!! Thank you!

Leave a Reply to John Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Do you have any comments, criticism, paraphrasis or analysis of this poem that you feel would assist other visitors in understanding the meaning or the theme of this poem by Edgar Lee Masters better? If accepted, your analysis will be added to this page of American Poems. Together we can build a wealth of information, but it will take some discipline and determination.