Edgar Lee Masters' "Herbert Marshall"

Updated on January 5, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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 - Jack Masters Drawing
Edgar Lee Masters - Jack Masters Drawing | Source

Introduction and Text of "Herbert Marshall"

Edgar Lee Masters' again performs his magic in an American (Innovative) sonnet. While the sonnet remains without a rime scheme or a rhythm pattern, the sonnet does section itself into the Petrarchan octave and sestet.

The octave features the speaker's response to Louise's sorrow. The sestet explains the speaker's own sorrow along with his reason for abandoning the relationship with Louise. The speaker in Edgar Lee Masters’ “Herbert Marshall” from Spoon River Anthology is offering his side of the complaint, revealed by Louise Smith, the previous speaker in the series.

Herbert reflects the defects in Louise's character, or lack thereof. He then turns philosophical about life as it relates to happiness. Herbert refused to be a doormat by allowing Louise to walk all over him in life. And now in death he refuses to allow her to obfuscate the reason that he had to leave her.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Herbert Marshall

All your sorrow, Louise, and hatred of me
Sprang from your delusion that it was wantonness
Of spirit and contempt of your soul’s rights
Which made me turn to Annabelle and forsake you.
You really grew to hate me for love of me,
Because I was your soul’s happiness,
Formed and tempered
To solve your life for you, and would not.
But you were my misery. If you had been
My happiness would I not have clung to you?
This is life’s sorrow:
That one can be happy only where two are;
And that our hearts are drawn to stars
Which want us not.

Reading of "Herbert Marshall"


In this American (Innovative) sonnet, “Herbert Marshall” is responding to the report delivered by “Louise Smith,” the speaker of the preceding epitaph.

Octave: First Movement: Louise's Wrong Thinking

All your sorrow, Louise, and hatred of me
Sprang from your delusion that it was wantonness
Of spirit and contempt of your soul’s rights
Which made me turn to Annabelle and forsake you.

As Herbert addresses Louise, he lets her know that it was only her “delusion” regarding his relationship with Annabelle that made Louise end up hating Herbert. He then insists that Louise was thinking wrongly. He claims that he did not turn to Annabelle merely out of lust. It was Louise's own actions that caused Herbert to turn to another woman.

Herbert wishes to make it clear that Louise's wrong thinking caused her to hate him. He insists that it was not evil intentions on his part that is responsible for Louise's life destroying hatred.

Octave: Second Movement: Love Morphed into Hatred

You really grew to hate me for love of me,
Because I was your soul’s happiness,
Formed and tempered
To solve your life for you, and would not.

Herbert remains well aware that Louise’s love for him morphed into hatred. Yet he also understands that because she expected him to provide her “soul’s happiness,” he could never live up to such an expectation.

Like so many unlucky marriage partners, Louise wanted Herbert to supply her with that which he could not. He was simply not capable of “solv[ing] [her] life for [her].”

Many marriages end because the partners expect each other to supply them with that soul happiness. That deep, inner happiness can only attained by each individual through his or her own effort.

Marriage partners cannot supply each other with the deep, lasting happiness that only each unique soul can find. The behavior of one human being toward another can never afford soul happiness.

Herbert was aware of this situation. He realized that Louise would squeeze the life out of him if he tried to satisfy her soul longings. Thus, Herbert refused to allow himself to be used this way. Knowing he could never the fill void caused by Louise's wrongheadedness, he turned away from her and to Annabelle.

Sestet: Third Movement: Blunt and Defiant

But you were my misery. If you had been
My happiness would I not have clung to you?

Herbert addresses Louise with a blunt and defiant response: “you were my misery.” Herbert knew that Louise's neediness would smother any hopes for a happy marriage for the two of them.

Louise's delusional expectations of Herbert made it impossible for her to offer him the love he need. Her blindness to Herbert's needs precluded any happiness that they might experience as a couple. Herbert implies through a rhetorical question to Louise that if she had, in fact, been making him happy, he would have remained with her.

And Herbert wants Louise to understand that he did not turn to another woman out of lust. It was Louise's needy selfishness that causes him to spurn her and end their relationship. Louise's clinging nature that grew out of pure greed was the culprit, not simple selfishness on Herbert's part.

Sestet: Fourth Movement: Gleaning Awareness from Experience

This is life’s sorrow:
That one can be happy only where two are;
And that our hearts are drawn to stars
Which want us not.

Finally, Herbert philosophically announces what he has gleaned from his experience about life and sorrow. Herbert concludes that a conundrum exists: it seems that in order to be happy one has to become two, that is, has to have a marriage partner.

But Herbert also sees that, "our hearts are drawn to stars / Which want us not." Even though we need a partner to be happy, we can be attracted to those who do not want us. Makes the reader wonder about how Herbert's relationship with Annabelle turned out.

Edgar Lee Masters

Commemorative Stamp
Commemorative Stamp | Source

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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