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Edgar Lee Masters' "Robert Davidson"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Edgar Lee Masters

Introduction and Text of "Robert Davidson"

The speaker of Edgar Lee Masters' "Robert Davidson" from the American classic, Spoon River Anthology, is describing himself as a bizarre cannibal; instead of eating flesh, however, he gobbled up "souls." However, "soul" in the poem does not refer to the spiritual definition of the word but rather must be interpreted as "individual vitality/psyche."

Even though the speaker seems somewhat boastful of what he did, he has nothing useful to show for it. And fortunately, he comes to the conclusion that he would have been stronger, if he had not engaged in such egregious behavior.

Robert Davidson

I grew spiritually fat living off the souls of men.
If I saw a soul that was strong
I wounded its pride and devoured its strength.
The shelters of friendship knew my cunning,
For where I could steal a friend I did so.
And wherever I could enlarge my power
By undermining ambition, I did so,
Thus to make smooth my own.
And to triumph over other souls,
Just to assert and prove my superior strength,
Was with me a delight,
The keen exhilaration of soul gymnastics.
Devouring souls, I should have lived forever.
But their undigested remains bred in me a deadly nephritis,
With fear, restlessness, sinking spirits,
Hatred, suspicion, vision disturbed.
I collapsed at last with a shriek.
Remember the acorn;
It does not devour other acorns.

Reading of "Robert Davidson"

Commentary

What happens when a spiritually dead individual grows "spiritually fat"? The answer depends upon how he employs his metaphor, in light of his atheistic premise.

First Movement: Cannibalizing "Souls"

I grew spiritually fat living off the souls of men.
If I saw a soul that was strong
I wounded its pride and devoured its strength.
The shelters of friendship knew my cunning,
For where I could steal a friend I did so.

The speaker, Robert Davidson, employs a metaphor to describe his depravity in deliberately trying to damage the lives of people he knew. He claims to be a cannibal who ate souls, and he ingested so many of them that he grew fat "spiritually." Thus the ignorant speaker thinks he is employing a useful metaphor, but in fact he is merely demonstrating that he himself is soulless and remains soulless for his entire life.

Instead of gobbling up "souls," what he did was humiliate his fellows, trying to bring them to the same low status at which he lived. He mentally diminished his acquaintances and "friends." The spirit or soul never really had anything to do with what this speaker did.

Second Movement: Cutting off the Heads of Others

And wherever I could enlarge my power
By undermining ambition, I did so,
Thus to make smooth my own.
And to triumph over other souls,
Just to assert and prove my superior strength,
Was with me a delight,
The keen exhilaration of soul gymnastics.

Robert Davidson claims that he "could enlarge [his] power" by the shameful act of lessening the "ambition" of others. He lamely claims that he would "smooth" his own way and then "triumph over" those other folks. His only interest was to show off his own "superior strength" as he asserted his own power.

He took "delight" at showing off his own power while belittling others, and again he calls what he did "soul gymnastics," when it was only "mind games" that he was playing. He claims to have been enlivened and exhilarated by such nonsense as he played with others' minds.

Third Movement: To Make Himself Look Taller

Devouring souls, I should have lived forever.
But their undigested remains bred in me a deadly nephritis,
With fear, restlessness, sinking spirits,
Hatred, suspicion, vision disturbed.
I collapsed at last with a shriek.
Remember the acorn;
It does not devour other acorns.

Continuing with "soul" claim, the speaker asserts that because he was "devouring" those souls, his own life should have been extended to eternity. But then he turns utterly physical when he says, "their undigested remains bred in me a deadly nephritis."

The confusion of body, mind, and soul in this statement is mind-boggling. He gobbled up these "souls" which are ethereal, eternal, and unable to be damaged, but yet they left "remains," and those remains were so poisonous that they brought about him the kidney disease known as "nephritis." Physical remains could, in fact, emit some dangerous poisonous substance, but a soul could not.

Robert Davidson is merely saying, in his confused, awkward way, that having messed with people's psyches and thwarted the ambitions of others and having gaslighted his fellows into their own fear and loathing, he became a fearful mess himself, as he wrought in himself "fear, restlessness, sinking spirits, / Hatred, suspicion, vision disturbed." It is hardly a wonder that he finished off, as he "collapsed . . . with a shriek."

Fortunately, Robert's final two line demonstrate that he has learned a valuable lesson: he points to the "acorn" and avers that the acorn do not "devour other acorns." The acorn itself is small and yet it grows into a large oak tree. And it does so without harming the lives of its fellow acorns. In his next life, Robert will become aware of this valuable lesson he learned, and he will be saved from the damage of gobbling up others in order to make himself seem bigger.

Edgar Lee Masters - Commemorative Stamp

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.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on January 01, 2019:

Thank you, Leland, for your kind words. Interesting stat about the birthdays. Yes, it is funny how the human mind picks up on numerically fascinating tidbits of information.

Masters was an atheist, and his fulminations against religion are unfortunate. Even though his mind was utterly drenched in the putrid waters of atheism, he could still create interesting and well developed characters that appear in the Spoon River Anthology. While his bias can certainly be found in many of the epitaphs, others such that of "Emily Sparks" are quite well balanced.

I am considering abandoning my commentaries on Spoon River. There are 246 of them--not counting his second publication of further epitaphs--and I've written on 108 of them. They start to grate on the nerves because of the unsavory characters. I think Edgar Lee Masters was as a good poet, but I'm not sure he's good enough to continue any long term dedication.

Leland Johnson from Midland MI on January 01, 2019:

Mr. Masters was born only one day shy of exactly 100 years before my birth. Why do weird detail like that interest us? Anyway, another fascinating article. I couldn't really tell if Masters was a man of faith, but i'd lean to saying he was not? Am I correct? I enjoyed this article very much. Extremely well written.

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