Edgar Lee Masters' "Judge Selah Lively"

Updated on January 30, 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, "Judge Selah Lively"

Judge Selah Lively structures his epitaph with four movements, the first three of which offer one or more suppositions; then, the fourth caps them with a rhetorical question. He asks his listeners/readers to suppose varying situations through which he has actually lived, and he hopes to engender in his listeners agreement that his mistreatment because of his physical smallness was sufficient to allow him to adjust his treatment of individuals under the law to fit his pique. Obviously, such unprofessional behavior places Judge Lively among the scoundrels of Spoon River.

94. Judge Selah Lively

Suppose you stood just five feet two,
And had worked your way as a grocery clerk,
Studying law by candle light
Until you became an attorney at law?
And then suppose through your diligence,
And regular church attendance,
You became attorney for Thomas Rhodes,
Collecting notes and mortgages,
And representing all the widows
In the Probate Court? And through it all
They jeered at your size, and laughed at your clothes
And your polished boots? And then suppose
You became the County Judge?
And Jefferson Howard and Kinsey Keene,
And Harmon Whitney, and all the giants
Who had sneered at you, were forced to stand
Before the bar and say "Your Honor"—
Well, don’t you think it was natural
That I made it hard for them?

Reading of "Judge Selah Lively"

Commentary

First Movement: What if You Were Only a Small Man

Suppose you stood just five feet two,
And had worked your way as a grocery clerk,
Studying law by candle light
Until you became an attorney at law?

The judge begins by asking his listeners to consider the situation of being a man who stands only sixty-two inches tall and had studied law as he served in a job as "grocery clerk"; then, after a hard day's work, he had to study his law books "by candle light." But his hard work paid off and became an "attorney at law."

Judge Lively is creating a life story and his listeners can be sure that he will base some future behavior on these life events. No doubt the image of a man who is only 5'2" tall will garner him some sympathy from the beginning. That he worked in grocery and studied law at the same time shows an appropriate dedication to improving his lot in life.

Second Movement: What if You Made for Yourself a Successful Career

And then suppose through your diligence,
And regular church attendance,
You became attorney for Thomas Rhodes,
Collecting notes and mortgages,
And representing all the widows
In the Probate Court? And through it all
They jeered at your size, and laughed at your clothes
And your polished boots? And then suppose
You became the County Judge?

The judge then asks his listeners to consider the notion that in time with persistent attention to work along with attendance in church, he lands as a client the most important and richest man of the village. As this man's attorney, he collected "notes and mortgages." Judge Lively also represented the widows of the village in probate court.

And as he was performing all these legal services, he still remained the butt of jokes. Still, people heckled him about his size, and ridiculed his clothes, even his "polished boots." He then asks his listeners to consider what would happen if "you became the County Judge?"

Third Movement: What if the Giants Had to Call You, "Your Honor"

And Jefferson Howard and Kinsey Keene,
And Harmon Whitney, and all the giants
Who had sneered at you, were forced to stand
Before the bar and say "Your Honor"—

The judge then lists a few of the men who have appeared before his bench: "Jefferson Howard, Kinsey Keene, and Harmon Whitney." He calls them "giants" ambiguously because he might be referring to their size in comparison to his, or he also might be referring the fact that they seem to be leaders in the community, thus being giants in reputation and wealth.

Nevertheless, these "giants" after having "sneered" at the judge and ridiculed the legal man over his height were required to appear before him as a judge, and because of his position as a judge, they had to refer to him as "Your Honor." He imagines that situation must have galled these ridiculing, sneering individuals.

Fourth Movement: What if You Could Bully the Bullies

Well, don’t you think it was natural
That I made it hard for them?

The judge then demonstrates that not only was he small in physical stature, but he also remained small in character. Instead of judging those individuals on the merits of their cases, he simply "made it hard for them," and now he asks his listeners to agree to the righteousness of his unprofessional behavior by calling it "natural."

No, Judge! It is not natural, it is not fair, and it is not right! You, Judge Lively, have revealed yourself as a scoundrel—one of those nasty members of the bar that gives lawyers and judges a bad name.

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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