Edgar Lee Masters' "Jefferson Howard"

Updated on January 25, 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 Poem, "Jefferson Howard"

The character, Jefferson Howard, seems to be a braggart, but what he is bragging about remains unclear. He admits to preferring the bars to the churches, but he also calls his life and its struggles "valiant," while offering nothing that demonstrates that trait. He had a wife and children, but only complains about the children deserting him; whether his wife remained with him is unclear.

Although he mentions politics, he offers nothing substantial to show just how his political stance might have impacted his life. This epitaph thus remains one of the vaguest of the lot. Its one of those that leave the reader hoping this character will show up in a later epitaph that will shed more light on the character.

Jefferson Howard

My valiant fight! For I call it valiant,
With my father’s beliefs from old Virginia:
Hating slavery, but no less war.
I, full of spirit, audacity, courage
Thrown into life here in Spoon River,
With its dominant forces drawn from New England,
Republicans, Calvinists, merchants, bankers,
Hating me, yet fearing my arm.
With wife and children heavy to carry—
Yet fruits of my very zest of life.
Stealing odd pleasures that cost me prestige,
And reaping evils I had not sown;
Foe of the church with its charnel dankness,
Friend of the human touch of the tavern;
Tangled with fates all alien to me,
Deserted by hands I called my own.
Then just as I felt my giant strength
Short of breath, behold my children
Had wound their lives in stranger gardens—
And I stood alone, as I started alone!
My valiant life! I died on my feet,
Facing the silence—facing the prospect
That no one would know of the fight I made.

Reading of "Jefferson Howard"

Commentary

First Movement: He Endured a Valiant Fight

My valiant fight! For I call it valiant,
With my father’s beliefs from old Virginia:
Hating slavery, but no less war.

Jefferson Howard addresses the issue of his life's struggle, which he labels his "valiant fight!" He states that he held the beliefs of his father, who had relocated to Spoon River, in the Mid-West from "old Virginia," a southern state. Yet he claims that he hated slavery, but he also hated war. Such views would depart from most Virginians at the time.

Virginia had joined ten other states (Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana) that seceded from the United States to join the Confederacy after the election of Abraham Lincoln. Not only did most Virginians not hate slavery; they were also willing to fight a war to preserve it.

Second Movement: He Possessed a Fearful Arm

I, full of spirit, audacity, courage
Thrown into life here in Spoon River,
With its dominant forces drawn from New England,
Republicans, Calvinists, merchants, bankers,
Hating me, yet fearing my arm.

Jefferson then describes himself as "full of spirit"; he also possessed courage and audacity. But he was against most of the "dominant forces" that controlled Spoon River. Those forces, he claims, originated in New England, and they were "Republicans, Calvinists, merchants, and bankers."

Jefferson claims that these "forces" hated him but, they also feared his strength, which he states as "fearing my arm." Proud of his ability, yet he tries to contend that his powers were overpowered by too much opposition.

Third Movement: He Preferred the Tavern to the Church

With wife and children heavy to carry—
Yet fruits of my very zest of life.
Stealing odd pleasures that cost me prestige,
And reaping evils I had not sown;
Foe of the church with its charnel dankness,
Friend of the human touch of the tavern;
Tangled with fates all alien to me,
Deserted by hands I called my own.

The speaker now admits that providing for his family was difficult, as he refers to them as "heavy to carry." On the other hand, he sees them as the "fruits" of his vitality for life. He then makes an odd confession that he leaves unexplained. His reputation was impaired because of his "stealing odd pleasures," and admitting that he had sown evils and reaped the results of those evils.

He admits that he was an enemy of the "church," which he condemn as having "charnel dankness." Such name-calling implies that he actually knew little about the church community. Then he states that he was a friend of the taverns, but he attempts to make that vileness into a virtue by calling it "the human touch of the tavern." He complains that he had to battle opposition that was "alien" to him.

Fourth Movement: He Ended up Alone

Then just as I felt my giant strength
Short of breath, behold my children
Had wound their lives in stranger gardens—
And I stood alone, as I started alone!

Jefferson then reports that as he had aged and had begun to weaken, his children were no help to him. It appears they had gone over to the other side, or as he vaguely describes it they played out "their lives in stranger gardens." Although he remains unclear again just what he means about his children winding their lives in stranger gardens, he does make it clear that he was alone.

He fails to mention he wife, but because he claims he both "stood alone" and "started alone," she likely had left his life early on. Thus we learn nothing of her personality, how she might influenced Jefferson or their children.

Fifth Movement: His Life Was Made Valiant by His Valiant Fight

My valiant life! I died on my feet,
Facing the silence—facing the prospect
That no one would know of the fight I made.

Again, remaining so uncommitted to a clear story that he again makes a bald statement without any explanation or hint at particulars, he repeats his claims to being valiant as he exclaims, "My valiant life!" which he offers as a bookend to his "My valiant fight!"

Jefferson claims he "died on his feet." Is that a simple metaphor for his belief that he died courageously? He claims he faced "the silence." But that silence seems to be that nobody would ever know about the great fight that he had fought. Unfortunately, no one still knows because he has remained so vague with his claims.

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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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
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      Linda Sue Grimes 2 months ago from Spring Hill, TN

      Thank you, Robin. Have a blessed day.

    • RobinReenters profile image

      Robin Carretti 2 months ago from Hightstown

      I enjoyed my trip on your page with Edgar Lee Masters great insight in this video thanks so much

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