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Edgar Lee Masters’ "Griffy the Cooper" and "Hon. Henry Bennett"

Edgar Lee Masters' classic work, "Spoon River Anthology," offers a fascinating character study of the American mind in the mid-20th-century.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Introduction and Text of "Griffy the Cooper"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Griffy the Cooper" from the American classic, Spoon River Anthology, the speaker, known only as Griffy, is expounding on his expertise as a maker of tubs, extending his knowledge to a profound conclusion that because of societal moral restraints, living life is like living in a tub.

While the speaker's metaphor is somewhat clever, it eventually falls flat because his attempt to give advice remains weak and ineffectual. Griffy's premise that to escape the "tub" citizens should break societal "[t]aboos and rules" remains dangerously faulty. Such nonsense would ultimately lead to the penitentiary, the biggest "tub" of all.

This speaker apparently is unaware that to break out the societal prison, one must look within, not try to interfere with the very laws and rules that allow society to function.

Griffy is simply a name-calling lout, among the many others like him, trying to elevate his own worth by lessening that of others, as he spouts his pedestrian view of behavior.

Griffy the Cooper

The cooper should know about tubs.
But I learned about life as well,
And you who loiter around these graves
Think you know life.
You think your eye sweeps about a wide horizon, perhaps,
In truth you are only looking around the interior of your tub.
You cannot lift yourself to its rim
And see the outer world of things,
And at the same time see yourself.
You are submerged in the tub of yourself—
Taboos and rules and appearances,
Are the staves of your tub.
Break them and dispel the witchcraft
Of thinking your tub is life!
And that you know life!

Reading of "Griffy the Cooper"

Commentary on "Griffy the Cooper"

Griffy waxes philosophical about life from a copper’s rather pedestrian point of view.

First Movement: What He Should Know About

The cooper should know about tubs.
But I learned about life as well,
And you who loiter around these graves
Think you know life.

Griffy begins by touting his own knowledge about what he should know and that is, of course, "about tubs." But he then begins his discourse on learning about life in addition to his expertise in tub-making.

Griffy then insults the folks who would come around "these graves" by calling them loiterers who think they know about life. But Griffy has some news for them, and he will show them that they do not know about life, but he does.

Second Movement: Inside Their Own Tub

You think your eye sweeps about a wide horizon, perhaps,
In truth you are only looking around the interior of your tub.

Griffy says to those who loiter about the graves that they think they see so widely "about a wide horizon," but in fact they are really only seeing the "interior of [their] tub."

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A useful example would have added to Griffy's discourse, but then his offering such an example likely would have detracted from Griffy's intellectual bankruptcy. Thus, Griffy's diatribe remains vague and hollow.

Third Movement: No True Frame of Reference

You cannot lift yourself to its rim
And see the outer world of things,
And at the same time see yourself.

So, with the metaphor established that all of the grave-loiterers are firmly ensconced in their own tub, Griffy explains that from that tub they cannot lift "[themselves] to its rim."

Because they cannot lift themselves, they cannot see what is actually happening outside of their tubs. He says they have no true frame of reference, because they cannot see "the outer world of things" and "at the same time see [themselves]."

At this point, Griffy has begun a useful analogy, but can he make it work for a useful conclusion?

Fourth Movement: A Tub of Rules

You are submerged in the tub of yourself—
Taboos and rules and appearances,
Are the staves of your tub.

According to Griffy, the people are "submerged in the tub of [themselves]." And societal rules, taboos, and outward appearances form the "staves of [their] tub." In other words, people are imprisoned by the very schema that allows a civilized society to function.

Maybe Griffy should have tried a little harder to see over the lip of his own tub before drawing conclusions that would hold less water than his tubs.

Fifth Movement: The Efficacy of Breaking Rules

Break them and dispel the witchcraft
Of thinking your tub is life!
And that you know life!

The bankruptcy of Griffy’s philosophy is conclusively revealed by his last proclamation. He simply commands his audience, that is, those loitering around the graves, to break those annoying "staves" and just stop thinking "your tub is life!"

That is Griffy's advice: "Break them and dispel the witchcraft / Of thinking your tub is life!" "Them" invariably includes all the laws that keep society functioning.

And. no doubt, while Griffy is referring to religious law as "witchcraft," he has no substantial knowledge about the history and purpose of the great world religions.

Griffy implores his listeners to stop thinking "that you know life!" Then what? He then puts a hold on his diatribe before he could fill out his philosophy and explain the consequences of his demands.

This state of affairs remains rather typical for the Spoon River inmates who are big on hot-air inflated rhetoric and small on truth and logic. The reader will assign Griffy to the category of pathetic blow-hards whose epitaphs reek of a pompous nihilism.

Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters' "Hon. Henry Bennett"

Henry Bennett is a pathetic character, who realizes too late that he has been played for fool by his wife.

Introduction and Text of "Hon. Henry Bennett"

Edgar Lee Masters' again allows his Spoon River lamenter to fashion his lament in an American or Innovative sonnet. Featuring the traditional fourteen lines, the sonnet remain timeless and without a definite rhythm patters.

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Hon. Henry Bennett" from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker laments his rapacious wife’s treachery: she effectively "loved" him to death, but not out of love. His wife had in mind to inherit Henry’s fortune and then marry the man of her dreams, the one with big muscles and a small brain.

The Honorable Henry Bennett is one of Spoon River's more pathetic characters. His wife, who was much younger than the judge, literally screwed the man to death. By the time he realized what was happening, he was on his deathbed. The wife's treachery rendered the poor man a fool.

Hon. Henry Bennett

It never came into my mind
Until I was ready to die
That Jenny had loved me to death, with malice of heart.
For I was seventy, she was thirty-five,
And I wore myself to a shadow trying to husband
Jenny, rosy Jenny full of the ardor of life.
For all my wisdom and grace of mind
Gave her no delight at all, in very truth,
But ever and anon she spoke of the giant strength
Of Willard Shafer, and of his wonderful feat
Of lifting a traction engine out of the ditch
One time at Georgie Kirby’s.
So Jenny inherited my fortune and married Willard—
That mount of brawn! That clownish soul!

Reading of "Hon. Henry Bennett"

Commentary on "Hon. Henry Bennett"

Henry Bennett is a pathetic character, who realizes too late that he has been played for fool by his wife.

First Movement: "Loved" to Death

It never came into my mind
Until I was ready to die
That Jenny had loved me to death, with malice of heart.

Judge Bennett confesses that it had not occurred to him until he was on his death bed that his young wife, Jenny, had deliberately tried to kill him by engaging him in too much sexual activity.

The young Jenny literally "loved him to death." Euphemizing lascivious marital relations as "love," the judge, nevertheless, now realizes that her intention had nothing to do with love and affection but with "with malice of heart."

Second Movement: Twice Her Age

For I was seventy, she was thirty-five,
And I wore myself to a shadow trying to husband
Jenny, rosy Jenny full of the ardor of life.

The Honorable Henry Bennett was seventy years old when he married the woman, Jenny, who was half his age. She was "full of the ardor of life"—another veiled reference to her oversexualized comportment.

In the judge's supposed husbandly duties, the poor Henry "wore [himself] to a shadow" attempting to keep Jenny satisfied. He also describes Jenny as "rosy," indicating the rush of blood that appears on the skin after a sexual encounter.

Third Movement: No Interest in His Mind

For all my wisdom and grace of mind
Gave her no delight at all, in very truth,
But ever and anon she spoke of the giant strength
Of Willard Shafer, and of his wonderful feat
Of lifting a traction engine out of the ditch
One time at Georgie Kirby’s.

Jenny demonstrated no interest in the judge’s "wisdom and grace of mind." We have to take Henry’s word for it that he possessed such praiseworthy qualities, but whatever his redeeming qualities might have been, his wife showed no interest in them.

Instead, the wife admired physical strength. She was always taunting Henry by repeating the story that Willard Shafer had "lift[ed] a traction engine out of the ditch / One time at Geogrie Kirby’s."

His wife likely used this story repeatedly to entice Henry to service her sexually in order weaken Henry’s health. But of course, as Henry said, he did not realize the nasty game Jenny was playing until it was too late.

Fourth Movement: Rich Enough to Marry Her Stud

So Jenny inherited my fortune and married Willard—
That mount of brawn! That clownish soul!

To make a long story short, Henry quickly sums up his lament by reporting that after his death, Jenny married the man of the "giant strength," Willard Shafer, after inheriting Henry’s fortune. Jenny’s scheme succeeded, and Henry is left to name-call Jenny’s new husband, "That mount of brawn! That clownish soul!"

Lacking the "wisdom and grace of mind" of the Honorable Henry Bennett, the strongman Willard Shafer wins the woman and the judge’s money. And the Hon. Henry Bennett is not at all happy, definitely not resting in peace.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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