Edgar Lee Masters' "Eugenia Todd"

Updated on February 17, 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, "Eugenia Todd"

Eugenia Todd takes as her subject the issue of death relieving sufferers of the pains experienced on the "earth-sphere." She sets up an analogy between physical and psychological pain. The good news is that all that pain vanishes with death as the sufferer wakes to a special healing and that healing prompts the long-suffering vicim to be glad that morning has come at last.

Morning is a time of gladness for earth dwellers as they wake refreshed for another day. Eugenia's morning, however, represents existence beyond the dualities of the physical plane. Most thinkers can imagine that death will bring relief from physical maladies, but many of those same thinkers would not add the prospect of the dead waking to healing and glad that morning has come. Eugenia has good new for them that true healing is possible as she speaks from experience.

97. Eugenia Todd

Have any of you, passers-by,
Had an old tooth that was an unceasing discomfort?
Or a pain in the side that never quite left you?
Or a malignant growth that grew with time?
So that even in profoundest slumber
There was shadowy consciousness or the phantom of thought
Of the tooth, the side, the growth?
Even so thwarted love, or defeated ambition,
Or a blunder in life which mixed your life
Hopelessly to the end,
Will, like a tooth, or a pain in the side,
Float through your dreams in the final sleep
Till perfect freedom from the earth-sphere
Comes to you as one who wakes
Healed and glad in the morning!

Reading of "Eugenia Todd"

Commentary

After she had passed through the dark night of death into the gladness of a bright morning, Eugenia Todd found that relief from the trammels of Earth-pain was like a great healing of body and mind.

First Movement: First Set of Questions - Physical Pain

Have any of you, passers-by,
Had an old tooth that was an unceasing discomfort?
Or a pain in the side that never quite left you?
Or a malignant growth that grew with time?

Eugenia Todd begins her soliloquy with a question about physical suffering. She asks the people who may be viewing her tombstone if they have ever suffered the "unceasing discomfort" of a diseased tooth that continues to throb with annoyance. Continuing her questioning, she queries the "passers-by" regarding their acquaintance with a "pain in the side," a misery that never leaves off bothering the victim.

The speaker then adds another type of pain that might inflict the human body, the ache involved with the growing tumor or "malignant growth"—particularly a growth that continues to grow "with time."

The speaker is setting up her message with a curiously inquisitive suite of questions that suggests to her listeners that they contemplate any pain or suffering they have experienced in their lives. Her examples are quite specific, yet likely she has chosen those examples for their commonality, thinking that most humans have experienced such painful episodes.

Second Movement: Sleeping with Pain

So that even in profoundest slumber
There was shadowy consciousness or the phantom of thought
Of the tooth, the side, the growth?

The speaker then adds a further question that also contains another suggestion. She wishes to ascertain whether the pains the passers-by have described were so severe that they interfered with sleep. She suggests that her listeners contemplate and recall that even as they slept deeply that pain remained in their "shadowy consciousness"—that the pain remained as a "phantom of thought."

The tooth continues to pound ever so slightly in the background of the sufferer's awareness; the side keeps up its throb regardless of the status of the sleeping consciousness, or the pain of that malignant growth that is so prominent while awake remains just within the confines of pain awareness in the sufferer's purview and feeling.

Third Movement: Second Set of Questions - Psychological

Even so thwarted love, or defeated ambition,
Or a blunder in life which mixed your life
Hopelessly to the end,
Will, like a tooth, or a pain in the side,
Float through your dreams in the final sleep

The speaker now moves to her analogy which she has been so carefully constructing in her first two movements. As bad as those physical pains have been, as persistent as they remain dogging one even in deepest sleep, another kind of pain is equally as deplorable. The pain from a lost love or failed goals or some mistake one has made that disfigures and upsets one's life will remain "[h]opelessly to the end."

The physical pains at least have the possibility of healing: the tooth may be filled or pulled, the cause of the pain in the side may be eliminated surgically, and the growth may be removed, but that second set of pains remain for they attack the mind where no physical remedy exists.

Thus those thwarted loves, failed ambitions, and unfortunate blunders will continues to haunt one even as one sleeps and dreams for the last time. Those malignant life experiences will "float" through the "dreams" for what seems to be an eternity.

Fourth Stanza: Freedom from Pain

Till perfect freedom from the earth-sphere
Comes to you as one who wakes
Healed and glad in the morning!

However, there is a happy note on which the speaker ends: that pain experienced and suffered on the "earth-sphere" will vanish as "perfect freedom" arrives at the sufferer's door to liberate one from all pain, physical as well as psychological. In other words, the speaker is reporting that when death comes the sufferer will experience a state of wakefulness that includes the long desired healing.

The sufferers will feel as though they were simply sleeping and dreaming all those pains on the "earth-sphere." As the sufferer passes through death's door, his pain will vanish and he will feel that same gladness he used to feel as he woke up in the morning. The morning will shine for him again because he has been cured from all that pain of earth.

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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    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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