Edgar Lee Masters' "Mrs. George Reece"

Updated on January 25, 2018
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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 Poem, "Mrs. George Reece"

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

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.

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.

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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