Edgar Lee Masters' "Petit, the Poet"

Updated on July 3, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edgar Lee Masters

Source

Introduction and Text of "Petit, the Poet"

Because Edgar Lee Masters died in 1950, he missed the heavy onslaught of the postmodernist movement by about ten years. But the seeds of that movement had been planted decades before and when a poem like "Petit, the Poet," comes along, it demonstrates that ideas do, in fact, tend to germinate until they explode with a force.

Petit, the Poet, remains a bland character, likely because readers have come to expect so much more regarding poetry. A little truth, beauty, and love handled with skillful creativity, one would hope, would grace the works of anyone who calls himself a "poet."

However, Petit is aptly named: "petit" in French means "small." And this small minded "poet" has taken up the French poetry styles and apparently made them tick. His performance will leave readers forgetting that he ever existed. He would likely agree, and then get on with listening to that ticking, ticking, ticking.

86. Petit, the Poet

Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick,
Tick, tick, tick, like mites in a quarrel—
Faint iambics that the full breeze wakens—
But the pine tree makes a symphony thereof.
Triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus,
Ballades by the score with the same old thought:
The snows and the roses of yesterday are vanished;
And what is love but a rose that fades?
Life all around me here in the village:
Tragedy, comedy, valor and truth,
Courage, constancy, heroism, failure—
All in the loom, and oh what patterns!
Woodlands, meadows, streams and rivers—
Blind to all of it all my life long.
Triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus,
Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick,
Tick, tick, tick, what little iambics,
While Homer and Whitman roared in the pines?

Reading of "Petit, the Poet"

Commentary

Petit, the Poet, muses on missing out on the life around him, as he fashions a poem that presages the postmoderns, pressing to absurdity the sound of ticking.

First Movement: Senselessness That Ticks

Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick,
Tick, tick, tick, like mites in a quarrel—
Faint iambics that the full breeze wakens—
But the pine tree makes a symphony thereof.

Petit, the Poet, begins his soliloquy with a bizarre representation of sound, "tick, tick, tick," ending the first line, and then repeated in the beginning of the second line, "Tick, tick, tick." The sound, he seems to be saying, is what he is hearing from the "seeds in a dry pod." But then he likens those ticking seeds to "mites" that are quarreling.

A mite is very small spider, related to the tick, its bloodsucking, slightly larger arachnid family member. Petit seems to be hearing an argument occurring in "faint iambics" between the seeds in the dry pod and is reminded of ticks and mites. The poet claims that the breeze has awakened those seeds and seems to be urging them to quarrel. Concluding the first movement of his repartee, the poet reports that a symphony has been created by the pine tree.

Not making much sense here? Petit, the Poet, apparently has become one of those postmoderns who would affirm that poetry does not make sense, so he does not have to make sense either.

Second Movement: Name-Dropping into the Abyss

Triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus,
Ballades by the score with the same old thought:
The snows and the roses of yesterday are vanished;
And what is love but a rose that fades?

However, to prove he is, indeed a poet, Petit then throws out a list of poetry styles: triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus, ballades. He is implying that these forms have claimed his attention though he has always placed in these forms, "the same old thought."

Petit then remarks that yesterday's snows and roses have vanished. He then inserts a rhetorical question regarding love: of course, "what is love but a rose that fades?" Who knows? Does Petit know? Will he fill us in on what love is? Or how, exactly, it is like a rose that fades? Don't hold your breath!

Third Movement: Things He Missed

Life all around me here in the village:
Tragedy, comedy, valor and truth,
Courage, constancy, heroism, failure—
All in the loom, and oh what patterns!
Woodlands, meadows, streams and rivers—
Blind to all of it all my life long.

Now, finally, Petit seems to have arrived at his message, which seems to be: "While life was going in the village around me, I missed it." He then spews forth another list; this time it consists of the things he has missed: tragedy, comedy, valor, truth, courage, constancy, heroism, failure, woodlands, meadows, streams, and rivers. He states that all of these qualities were in the "loom," and they formed quite a bunch of patterns. His "loom" metaphor sounds forced and ultimately ridiculous, but hey! he's a poet and by God, he has to throw out a metaphor, or what's a poet for?

Poor Petit, however, remained blind to all those village qualities his whole life. Bizarre thing for a poet to be complaining about. But nothing is too bizarre for the postmodern.

Fourth Movement: Repeating That Does Not Count

Triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus,
Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick,
Tick, tick, tick, what little iambics,
While Homer and Whitman roared in the pines?

OK, now Petit has made his profound statement; when a poet admits that he has remained blind to his surrounding, you cannot get any more profound than that. So now he is free to repeat a line or two and call it a day.

Petit has been concentrating on the little styles of all those poem that now tick in dry pods in little iambics. Homer and Whitman were roaring in the pines, but no, he had to listen to all that ticking, ticking, ticking in dry pods. He has missed out.

The triolets, the villanelles, the rondels, the rondeaus have all dried up and blown away. Or maybe they just sit and tick, tick, tick. Maybe a tick and mite are fighting, but Petit will not notice. If he missed out on Homer and Whitman roaring in the pines, what kind of poet is he? It seems that he will be musing on that thought throughout eternity.

Life Sketch of Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters, (August 23, 1868 - March 5, 1950), authored some 39 books in addition to Spoon River Anthology, yet nothing in his canon ever gained the wide fame that the 243 reports of people speaking from the beyond the grave brought him. In addition to the individual reports, or "epitaphs," as Masters called them, the Anthology includes three other long poems that offer summaries or other material pertinent to the cemetery inmates or the atmosphere of the fictional town of Spoon River, #1 "The Hill,"#245 "The Spooniad," and #246 "Epilogue."

Edgar Lee Masters was born on August 23, 1868, in Garnett, Kansas; the Masters family soon relocated to Lewistown, Illinois. The fictional town of Spoon River constitutes a composite of Lewistown, where Masters grew up and Petersburg, IL, where his grandparents resided. While the town of Spoon River was a creation of Masters' doing, there is an Illinois river named "Spoon River," which is a tributary of the Illinois River in the west-central part of the state, running a 148-mile-long stretch between Peoria and Galesburg.

Masters briefly attended Knox College but had to drop out because of the family's finances. He went on to study law and later had a rather successful law practice, after being admitted to the bar in 1891. He later became a partner in the law office of Clarence Darrow, whose name spread far and wide because of the Scopes Trial—The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes—also jeeringly known as the "Monkey Trial."

Masters married Helen Jenkins in 1898, and the marriage brought Master nothing but heartache. In his memoir, Across Spoon River, the woman features heavily in his narrative without his ever mentioning her name; he refers to her only as the "Golden Aura," and he does not mean it in a good way.

Masters and the "Golden Aura" produced three children, but they divorced in 1923. He married Ellen Coyne in 1926, after having relocated to New York City. He stopped practicing law in order to devote more time to writing.

Masters was awarded the Poetry Society of America Award, the Academy Fellowship, the Shelley Memorial Award, and he was also the recipient of a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

On March 5, 1950, just five months shy of his 82 birthday, the poet died in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, in a nursing facility. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Petersburg, Illinois.

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    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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