Edgar Lee Masters' "Albert Schirding" and "Jonas Keene"

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, "Albert Schirding"

"Albert Schirding" and "Jonas Keene" both focus on their children in their epitaphs. Both men committed suicide because of their children. Albert Schirding was so jealous of his successful children that he thought dying was better then living, while Jonas Keene killed himself because his children were failures.

095. Albert Schirding

Jonas Keene thought his lot a hard one
Because his children were all failures.
But I know of a fate more trying than that:
It is to be a failure while your children are successes.
For I raised a brood of eagles
Who flew away at last, leaving me
A crow on the abandoned bough.
Then, with the ambition to prefix Honorable to my name,
And thus to win my children’s admiration,
I ran for County Superintendent of Schools,
Spending my accumulations to win—and lost.
That fall my daughter received first prize in Paris
For her picture, entitled, “The Old Mill”—
(It was of the water mill before Henry Wilkin put in steam.)
The feeling that I was not worthy of her finished me.

Reading of "Albert Schirding"

Commentary

First Movement: It's Hard Having Successful Children

Jonas Keene thought his lot a hard one
Because his children were all failures.
But I know of a fate more trying than that:
It is to be a failure while your children are successes.

Albert begins by introducing another graveyard inmate, Jonas Keene, who suffered because his children were failures. But Albert now wants to explain how having successful children was "more trying." Albert deemed himself a failure and thus he compared himself in the negative regarding his children—a situation with which he could not continue to live.

Second Movement: Eagles Raised by a Crow

For I raised a brood of eagles
Who flew away at last, leaving me
A crow on the abandoned bough.

Albert then likens his successful children to eagles and himself to a crow. The "eagles" that he raised flew off leaving their crow of a father abandoned on an "abandoned bough.

Albert's stupidity is now shining through in full force. How ignorant and selfish does one have to be not to recognize and appreciate the true accomplishments the one's own children? And if his children were "eagles," they could not have been sired and nurtured by a "crow."

Third Movement: Stupid Albert

Then, with the ambition to prefix Honorable to my name,
And thus to win my children’s admiration,
I ran for County Superintendent of Schools,
Spending my accumulations to win—and lost.

So stupid Albert gets the notion that becoming the county school superintendent and placing the prefix "Honorable" with his name would garner for him his "children's admiration."

Albert offers no evidence that his children did not love and respect him. And if they were the true successes that he imagines, they would be intelligent enough to realize their debt to their parents. Albert also never mentions the children's mother.

But Albert then uses up all of his life savings to run to the position of school superintendent, and he loses. Of course, this travesty would have devastated an already weak mind.

Fourth Movement: His Unworthiness Finished Him Off

That fall my daughter received first prize in Paris
For her picture, entitled, “The Old Mill”—
(It was of the water mill before Henry Wilkin put in steam.)
The feeling that I was not worthy of her finished me.

Then the worst of all worst happens: his daughter wins a major prize in Paris "for her picture" of "The Old Mill." Albert parenthetically explains that the "picture"—one wonders if it was actually a photograph or a painting—featured the mill "before Henry Wilkins put in steam." He means that his daughter's "picture" featured the mill while it was still in operation.

But does Albert feel pride and pleasure for his daughter's accomplishment? No, he felt unworthy and that finished him off. He does not reveal how he died; he just makes it known that he could not continue living, feeling he was a failure and of no value to his successful children.

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Jonas Keene"

Jonas Keene's epitaph splits itself into two equal parts: the first part features a question about Albert Schirding killing himself despite have successful children, and in the second part, he reveals his own situation with his own children who were failures.

096. Jonas Keene

Why did Albert Schirding kill himself
Trying to be County Superintendent of Schools,
Blest as he was with the means of life
And wonderful children, bringing him honor
Ere he was sixty?
If even one of my boys could have run a news-stand,
Or one of my girls could have married a decent man,
I should not have walked in the rain
And jumped into bed with clothes all wet,
Refusing medical aid.

Reading of "Jonas Keene"

Commentary

First Movement: Blessed Albert

Why did Albert Schirding kill himself
Trying to be County Superintendent of Schools,
Blest as he was with the means of life
And wonderful children, bringing him honor
Ere he was sixty?

Jonas wants to know why Albert Schirding killed himself, but he implies that Albert's failure to become school superintendent is what killed Albert. Jonas thinks Albert had every reason to live, and Jonas reports that Albert was blessed with not only with a good income and station in life, but also with "wonderful children" who brought Albert "honor" even before his turned sixty years old.

Jonas is obviously implying he will be revealing a situation in his life that contrasts with that of Albert. Both Jonas Keene and Albert Schirding may be the most ignorant men in all of Spoon River, but they do have lots of competition.

Second Movement: Stupid Jonas

If even one of my boys could have run a news-stand,
Or one of my girls could have married a decent man,
I should not have walked in the rain
And jumped into bed with clothes all wet,
Refusing medical aid.

Jonas then reveals his own problem: his children were failures. None of his boys even had the gumption to "run a news-stand." And none of his girls had to the wherewithal to attract a "decent man."

So Jonas complains that even if one of boys or girls had the ability to accomplish either of two low-level activities, he would not have killed himself. Unlike Albert, who does not reveal how he killed himself, Jonas reports that went walking in the rain and then hopped into bed with wet clothes, and then he refused "medical aid."

Apparently, both men had equally weak bodies as well as minds. While they both leave out many details about their lives—neither mentions the mother of their children, for example—they simply reveal that each died over their children but for exactly opposite reasons. Albert couldn't take having successful children, and Jonas couldn't bear having failures.

Biographical 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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
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      Linda Sue Grimes 4 months ago from U.S.A.

      Yes, Louise, Masters was a master craftsman and had a fascinating personality. It is always intriguing to discover lawyers, physicians, and businessmen who can write such insightful poetry. He had a flock of demons that he fought his entire life, but his poetry is always worth perusing.

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      Louise Powles 4 months ago from Norfolk, England

      I love his poetry. Thanks for the short biography about his life, I don't know about his personal life, so that was interesting to read.

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