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Edgar Lee Masters’ "Willard Fluke"

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, Esq. - Clarence Darrow Law Library

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq. - Clarence Darrow Law Library

Introduction and Text of "Willard Fluke"

Edgar Lee Masters’ “Willard Fluke” from the American classic, Spoon River Anthology, is the name of the father of “Lois Spears,” the blind woman whose simple purity serves as a welcome cleansing after interacting with the many unsavory speakers the reader meets in this anthology.

Willard Fluke

My wife lost her health,
And dwindled until she weighed scarce ninety pounds.
Then that woman, whom the men
Styled Cleopatra, came along.
And we—we married ones
All broke our vows, myself among the rest.
Years passed and one by one
Death claimed them all in some hideous form,
And I was borne along by dreams
Of God’s particular grace for me,
And I began to write, write, write, reams on reams
Of the second coming of Christ.
Then Christ came to me and said,
“Go into the church and stand before the congregation
And confess your sin.”
But just as I stood up and began to speak
I saw my little girl, who was sitting in the front seat—
My little girl who was born blind!
After that, all is blackness!

Reading of "Willard Fluke"

Commentary

The character, Willard Fluke, is spared an ignominious confession but at a great price.

First Movement: The Sick Wife

My wife lost her health,
And dwindled until she weighed scarce ninety pounds.
Then that woman, whom the men
Styled Cleopatra, came along.
And we—we married ones
All broke our vows, myself among the rest.

Willard begins by reporting about his wife, who “lost her health.” His wife lost so much weight that she “weighed scare ninety pounds.” Willard does not reveal the nature of his wife’s affliction—just that this loss of her health apparently triggered breaking of his marital vows, after “that woman, whom the men / Styled Cleopatra, came along.” Along with the other men, Willard succumbs to temptation with the woman they “styled Cleopatra.” He allows the reader to draw the appropriate conclusions about the temptress because his only point is that he sinned through his weakness.

Second Movement: Time Flies

Years passed and one by one
Death claimed them all in some hideous form,
And I was borne along by dreams
Of God’s particular grace for me,
And I began to write, write, write, reams on reams
Of the second coming of Christ.

Time fled by as it is wont to do, and all the men involved with the cleopatrian temptress died one by one in “some hideous form.” Willard was strangely motivated to write about “the second coming of Christ.” He wrote “reams on reams.” Spurred on by guilt, trying desperately to save his soul, he used his writing is an alternative to meditation.

Willard stresses that he was “borne along by dreams / Of God’s particular grace for [him].” Because he placed his mind so squarely on God, he was motivated to write those reams. His dreaming and writing served him as a form of worship.

Third Movement: A Visitation

Then Christ came to me and said,
“Go into the church and stand before the congregation
And confess your sin.”

Through Willard’s concentration on God’s grace and intense relationship with Christ in writing about the second coming, Willard so prepared his soul for a visit from the Savior. When Christ did honor Willard with a visitation, the Savior advised Willard to “confess [his] sin” “before the congregation.” Willard was admonished to stand before the entire church and admit his sin.

The reader will note that Willard says “sin”—not sins. This designation indicates that it is only the one adulterous sin that has rifled his life—only that one sin that motivated him to concentrate on God and write reams for Jesus. It, of course, was a great sin, and Willard has taken it very seriously as tries to wipe it from his karma.

Fourth Movement: Delivered by Death?

But just as I stood up and began to speak
I saw my little girl, who was sitting in the front seat—
My little girl who was born blind!
After that, all is blackness!

Willard attempts to obey Christ’s demand that he confess before the church; however, as Willard stands and begins to speak, he sees Lois, his little girl, “who was born blind!” At that point, we lose Willard, who simply reports, “After that, all is blackness!” The reader may understand only that Willard fainted before he was able to confess. But then the reader is left wondering if Willard also died at this point. The possibility is great because Willard obviously has taken on guilt for Lois’ blindness. He has suffered for a lifetime, and quite possibly his heart just gave out before he could confess.

If Willard did die at this point, the reader may interpret his death as God’s mercy because Willard did not have to endure the ignominy of confessing his sin to the church but was spared just as Abraham was spared of sacrificing his son, Isaac; that confession would have hurt his little blind daughter, but she, too, was spared.

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on April 20, 2017:

Masters' Spoon River is an American classic, well worth time and attention to its offerings. Each epitaph dramatizes a unique perspective on how people live their lives. The attitudes revealed by the individuals are both fascinating and instructive.

Undoubtedly, Masters had a merry time creating these characters; it allowed him space to do his own complaining and bemoaning over his own lot in life.

Thanks for your comment, Mark. Have a great day!

Mark Tulin from Santa Barbara, California on April 20, 2017:

This poem is a little gem. Beautiful in its explanation of guilt and how some people manage it. And how powerful sin is in that it can destroy lives. Thanks for introducing me to this poem.

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