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Edgar Lee Masters' "Mrs. George Reece"

Edgar Lee Masters' classic work, "Spoon River Anthology," offers a fascinating character study of the American mind in the mid-20th-century.

Introduction and Text of "Mrs. George Reece"

From Edgar Lee Masters' American classic, Spoon River Anthology, the form of this poem is fascinating; it is an American (Innovative) Sonnet, but it innovates the Petrarchan form. It features two quatrains and two tercets, yet those units alternate, beginning with a tercet then a quatrain, followed by another tercet and then a final quatrain. The form fits well with the theme wherein the speaker alludes to poetry.

The speaker is the wife of a man sent to prison through guilt by association, if Mrs. Reece is to be believed, and she does sound credible. Interestingly, she has found that following the precept that she had read in a poem by Alexander Pope turned out to be good advice; thus, she advises "this generation" to find some good verse piece of advise and live by it.

Mrs. George Reece

To this generation I would say:
Memorize some bit of verse of truth or beauty.
It may serve a turn in your life.
My husband had nothing to do
With the fall of the bank — he was only cashier.
The wreck was due to the president, Thomas Rhodes,
And his vain, unscrupulous son.
Yet my husband was sent to prison,
And I was left with the children,
To feed and clothe and school them.
And I did it, and sent them forth
Into the world all clean and strong,
And all through the wisdom of Pope, the poet:
"Act well your part, there all the honor lies."

Reading of "Mrs. George Reece"

Commentary

This Innovative Petrarchan sonnet features the epitaph of a woman who seems to be a very decent human being, even if she has to toot her own horn.

First Movement (Tercet): Advice to Learn Some Beautiful Poetry

To this generation I would say:
Memorize some bit of verse of truth or beauty.
It may serve a turn in your life.

Mrs. George Reece begins her report by offering folks a bit of advice. She commands "the generation" to commit to memory some poetic lines that contains "truth or beauty." She states that memorizing some beautiful lines of poetry might be useful as one conducts one's behavior in life.

Such a claim coupled with this odd command will, at first, strike readers/listeners as rather odd. One has to wonder what memorizing some lovely lines of poetry has to do with actually living one's life. Mrs. Reece, however, does not disappoint, after explaining her own sad turn of events in life, she makes her command quite clear and sounds reasonable in the process.

Second Movement (Quatrain): Mr. Reece Was Innocent

My husband had nothing to do
With the fall of the bank — he was only cashier.
The wreck was due to the president, Thomas Rhodes,
And his vain, unscrupulous son.

Mrs. Reece then lays out her difficulty in no uncertain terms. First, she explains that because her husband was only a cashier at the bank, he could not have had enough power and authority to cause the bank to crash.

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The president of the bank was Thomas Rhodes, and he had an unprincipled, unethical son. Thus, these two morally-challenged, powerful men obviously caused the bank's failure. It appears that Mr. Reece, however, became collateral damage in the event.

Third Movement (Tercet): Raising her Children Alone

Yet my husband was sent to prison,
And I was left with the children,
To feed and clothe and school them.

Even though Mr. Reece was innocent of any wrong-doing, he went to prison, while the real culprits because of their ties to other powerful men in the community went free. Despite her anguish at the injustice of this situation, Mrs. Reece kept her head and reared her children, instilling in them dignity and honor.

Mrs. Reece had to raise them on her own, but she did not allow herself to become stiff and maudlin and unable to cope with her situation; she persevered for the sake of her offspring.

Fourth Movement (Quatrain): Guided by Alexander Pope

And I did it, and sent them forth
Into the world all clean and strong,
And all through the wisdom of Pope, the poet:
"Act well your part, there all the honor lies."

Now, Mrs. Reece can be proud that she guided her children to become decent human beings. She did not allow the injustice of her husband's incarceration to degrade her and her family.

In the wake of her plight, Mrs. Reece offers her bit of advice that she has found useful in her unfortunate predicament: Mrs. Reece is contending that she has been influenced in raising her children to be "clean and strong" by the 194th line in Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man," a long verse exposition with the subtitle "Of the Nature and State of Man, with Respect to Happiness."

Thus, Mrs. Reece's advice to the generation to learn some beautiful lines of truth through poetry become clear. All souls need a polestar to guide their lives, and Mrs. Reece offers what she feels has guided her situation to a fruitful outcome, especially for her children, the raising of whom became her main focus and mission in life.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What happened to Mrs. George Reece?

Answer: She had to raise her children alone after her husband was sentenced to prison for a crime he did not commit.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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