Edgar Lee Masters' "Mrs. Charles Bliss"

Updated on April 18, 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 "Mrs. Charles Bliss"

Mrs. Charles Bliss exemplifies the Spoon River speakers who blame others for their own disappointing lives. She blames preachers and judges, specifically Reverend Wiley and Judge Somers, for advising her and her husband not to divorce but to remain together to raise their children.

By all sociological reckoning, unless a partner is simply incapable of participating in a marriage, remaining together and working through conflicting issues does remain the better option for a couple who have children. Because Mrs. Bliss does not indicate that her marriage involved such a partner, she remains one of those culpable complainers who merely blames others for her own failures.

Mrs. Bliss offers no example her husband's faults that would disqualify him from marriage and child-rearing. After all, two of their children took his side. And because two of the children took her side, it becomes clear that the parents could have worked together to provide a nurturing environment for everyone involved. That they did not remains the fault of the marriage partners, not the sage advice of civil authorities.

And then there is the problem that from the epitaph, readers/listeners hear only one side—nothing from the husband, nor any of the children. Interestingly, a later epitaph featuring Rev. Lemuel Wiley offers a very different view of the children, as he claims that they grew up "into moral men and women," who were happy individuals and a "credit to the village." Does that negate Mrs. Bliss' testimony? Likely, each reader/listener will have to decide from him/herself.

Mrs. Charles Bliss

Reverend Wiley advised me not to divorce him
For the sake of the children,
And Judge Somers advised him the same.
So we stuck to the end of the path.
But two of the children thought he was right,
And two of the children thought I was right.
And the two who sided with him blamed me,
And the two who sided with me blamed him,
And they grieved for the one they sided with.
And all were torn with the guilt of judging,
And tortured in soul because they could not admire
Equally him and me.
Now every gardener knows that plants grown in cellars
Or under stones are twisted and yellow and weak.
And no mother would let her baby suck
Diseased milk from her breast.
Yet preachers and judges advise the raising of souls
Where there is no sunlight, but only twilight,
No warmth, but only dampness and cold—
Preachers and judges!

Reading of "Mrs. Charles Bliss"

Commentary

Mrs. Charles Bliss is lamenting her marriage, but even more strongly she is lamenting the advice offered her and her husband early on by a clergyman and a judge.

First Stanza or Movement: Cloying Irony

Reverend Wiley advised me not to divorce him
For the sake of the children,
And Judge Somers advised him the same.
So we stuck to the end of the path.

Mrs. Charles Bliss, whose name rings cloyingly ironic and her own first name is never mentioned, found herself in a marriage that was anything but blissful. In the first movement, both she and her husband have sought counsel for their marital problems. Because the couple had been blessed with children, Mrs. Bliss' advisor, Reverend Wiley, suggested that she not break up the marriage. Thus, the woman of the marriage sought advice from a spiritual source.

Mr. Bliss, however, sought counsel from a legal source, Judge Somers, which implies that he likely wanted the divorce even more than she did. Possibly, he has tried to file legal documents initiating the marriage dissolution, but the judge intervened to quash it.

Both spiritual and legal counsel concurred that because of the children, the couple should remain together to provide a secure environment for raising those offspring.

Second Stanza or Movement: Conflicted Children

But two of the children thought he was right,
And two of the children thought I was right.
And the two who sided with him blamed me,
And the two who sided with me blamed him,
And they grieved for the one they sided with.

The couple, in fact, has four children. Those children were as conflicted as the parents, with two of them siding with their mother, while the other two sided with the father. As part of the taking-sides, the children who contend that their mother's complaint had more merit laid the blame for the problems on the father.

The children who sided with father accused the mother of causing the difficulties. This rift in the family fabric in turn causes the children to experience sorrow for the parent with which they agreed.

Third Stanza or Movement: Family Battleground

And all were torn with the guilt of judging,
And tortured in soul because they could not admire
Equally him and me.

The children suffered further in their having to defend the parent with which they sided. Mrs. Bliss claims that they were "tortured in soul" at not being able to give equal respect and admiration to each parent.

Interestingly, Mrs. Bliss' only concern lies with her children. She makes no complaint about her own problems with her husband; thus, the reader/listener never learns exactly what issues drove the couple to their unhappy, even toxic, relationship.

Fourth Stanza or Movement: Children as Plants

Now every gardener knows that plants grown in cellars
Or under stones are twisted and yellow and weak.
And no mother would let her baby suck
Diseased milk from her breast.

Mrs. Bliss now creates an analogy to reveal the environment in which the couple has had to raise the children. She likens the children to plants trying to grow under the impossible conditions of a dark and dank place, "in cellars / Or under stones."

Such plants, Mrs. Bliss contends, will emerge "twisted and yellow and weak." She apparently is offering this ugly description of her children. Then after this ugly description of her children, she is strongly suggesting that her children were severely damaged after having been raised in such a toxic environment.

Mrs. Bliss further adds that the environment in which they grew up is tantamount to having a mother allow her babies to suckle "diseased milk from her breast," an act that we must assume Mrs. Bliss would never do, as she states that "no mother" would allow such.

Fifth Stanza or Movement: Blaming Preachers and Judges

Yet preachers and judges advise the raising of souls
Where there is no sunlight, but only twilight,
No warmth, but only dampness and cold—
Preachers and judges!

Mrs. Bliss now offers her crowning conclusion: the advice of preachers and judges can ruin the lives of a family. By remaining married to a man she obviously despised and who despised her, they created a place where "no sunlight, but only twilight" existed. There was "no warmth" just "dampness and cold."

The children of such a dark, cold, and damp place could only turn out disfigured. Of course, readers/listeners are offered no examples of those disfigurements; thus we must take Mrs. Bliss' word for that judgment. And her final pronouncement is just to castigate the advisors by exclaiming their titles, "Preacher and judges!"—the equivalent of a more current exclamation might be "F**k preachers and judges!"

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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