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Edgar Lee Masters' "The Circuit Judge"

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 "The Circuit Judge"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "The Circuit Judge" from his American classic, Spoon River Anthology, the speaker is a circuit judge who judges himself rather harshly. While he remains indignant that the weather has etched little notches in his tombstone, in the end, he seems to deserve every indignity he might have suffered in life and now in death.

This judge sentenced the character "Hod Putt" to death, and Putt then died by hanging. But the judge's final judgment about his own character is shocking as it reveals the hell to which the judge seems to be condemning himself and his profession.

The Circuit Judge

Take note, passers-by, of the sharp erosions
Eaten in my head-stone by the wind and rain—
Almost as if an intangible Nemesis or hatred
Were marking scores against me,
But to destroy, and not preserve, my memory.
I in life was the Circuit Judge, a maker of notches,
Deciding cases on the points the lawyers scored,
Not on the right of the matter.
O wind and rain, leave my head-stone alone!
For worse than the anger of the wronged,
The curses of the poor,
Was to lie speechless, yet with vision clear,
Seeing that even Hod Putt, the murderer,
Hanged by my sentence,
Was innocent in soul compared with me.

Reading of "The Circuit Judge"

Commentary

The speaker in the Spoon River epitaph series titled "The Circuit Judge" makes a clear indictment of the legal system as symbolized by the judge as he judges his own life.

First Movement: Etchings on His Marker

Take note, passers-by, of the sharp erosions
Eaten in my head-stone by the wind and rain—

The circuit judge begins his testimony by commanding his listeners and readers to observe that his tombstone has been etched with "sharp erosions." These etchings have been colorfully "eaten" into his marker by the "wind" and "rain."

The judge immediately identifies his complaint as one that will include all of nature conspiring against him. Even the wind and rain have joined in the battle against this man by carving little "erosion" into the very stone that will give the judge his final presence.

Second Movement: Conspiracy to Destroy

Almost as if an intangible Nemesis or hatred
Were marking scores against me,
But to destroy, and not preserve, my memory.

The judge's complaint then begins to describe what he feels is the conspiracy to "destroy" his memory. While etchings in tombstones are placed to "preserve" the memory of the deceased, these eroded markings made by the elements function to obliterate the judge's memory.

The judge likens the fact of the etchings to the work of an "intangible Nemesis" which is marking "scores" against the judge. This Nemesis can also be thought of as simple "hatred" against the men.

Third Movement: Making Notches

I in life was the Circuit Judge, a maker of notches,
Deciding cases on the points the lawyers scored,
Not on the right of the matter.

The speaker then reports the while living he served as the "Circuit Judge." He states that his function was to make notches. But instead of deciding cases on their merits, he had to judge them from the presented "points" that the "lawyers scored" as they argued before this bench. The judge is beginning to pass the buck when he whines that he had to judge cases based on the argument of the lawyers instead of what was "right" in each case.

The judge is implying that he would have preferred to judge differently from what he did. He would have preferred to judge by the "right of the matter." With this complaint the judge is implying that the law and the lawyers were corrupt, and he was merely an innocent victim sucked into the quagmire of corruption.

Fourth Movement: Commanding the Wind and Rain

O wind and rain, leave my head-stone alone!

The speaker, however, remains fairly vague about his complaint, offering no example of corrupt law or lawyers who argued without merit. But then the judge yells out to the wind and rain, demanding that they cease carving their marks into his headstone.

Instead of confronting any living human being who might have been responsible for passing poor laws or addressing any of the lawyers who argued them, the judge rails at the natural elements of wind and rain. Knowing that these elements will not choose to refute his claims, the judge feels safe in demanding that the wind and rain leave his tombstone in peace.

Fifth Movement: Wronged and Cursed

For worse than the anger of the wronged,
The curses of the poor,
Was to lie speechless, yet with vision clear,
Seeing that even Hod Putt, the murderer,
Hanged by my sentence,
Was innocent in soul compared with me.

The speaker then makes his odd conclusion: he shows that because of his judicial decisions, he has suffered "the anger of the wronged." He has also had to live with "curses of the poor." But as bad as these indignities have been, it is far worse that he now has to lie in his grave where he cannot speak out against those indignities.

Yet, the judge then makes a stunning confession. He claims that even the murderer, Hod Putt, whom the judge condemned to death by hanging, was a more innocent soul than the judge himself. If the judge is more culpable then a murderer whom the judge had sentenced to hang, then it must be assumed that he caused many deaths and a multitude of other injustices from the bench.

Edgar Lee Masters

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

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