Edgar Lee Masters’ "Barry Holden"

Updated on April 4, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edgar Lee Masters


Introduction and Text of Poem, "Barry Holden"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Barry Holden" from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker begins by letting his listeners know that he is the brother of Nancy Knapp, who in a fit of insanity burned down her own house. By the time he is finished, the reader will cringe at the brutal act he commits.

That Holden couples his confession with what he heard at a murder trial just piles more flaws onto his already flawed character.

Barry Holden

The very fall my sister Nancy Knapp
Set fire to the house
They were trying Dr. Duval
For the murder of Zora Clemens,
And I sat in the court two weeks
Listening to every witness.
It was clear he had got her in a family way;
And to let the child be born
Would not do.
Well, how about me with eight children,
And one coming, and the farm
Mortgaged to Thomas Rhodes?
And when I got home that night,
(After listening to the story of the buggy ride,
And the finding of Zora in the ditch,)
The first thing I saw, right there by the steps,
Where the boys had hacked for angle worms,
Was the hatchet!
And just as I entered there was my wife,
Standing before me, big with child.
She started the talk of the mortgaged farm,
And I killed her.

Reading of "Barry Holden"


First Movement: "The very fall my sister Nancy Knapp"

During the same autumn season that his sister, Nancy Knapp, burned down her house, Barry Holden sat in a courtroom for two weeks listening to the witnesses give testimony in a murder trial. Dr. Duval was on trial for the murder of Zora Clemens.

Barry is attempting to make it clear that like any good juror he listened carefully to each witness. It may be that he is trying to establish his good character or perhaps he is just a crazy, addled-brain criminal just as his sister was.

Second Movement: "It was clear he had got her in a family way"

Barry then gives some terrifyingly pertinent information about the nature of the trial. After getting Zora Clemens pregnant, the doctor could not allow her to carry that baby to term. Barry expresses it that allowing the baby to be born, "Would not do."

Then Barry switches gears rapidly. Informing his listeners that he is in a similar situation, or no, worse! Barry already has eight children, and his farm is mortgaged to Thomas Rhodes (more about Rhodes in #104). Pile on top of that, his wife is pregnant with child number nine.

In order to show his lamentation over his situation, Barry forms his information into a question. That question is meant rhetorically to put the listener squarely in Barry's mind with the only answer: what else could you do?

Third Movement: "And when I got home that night"

So after hearing the details of Zora's murder, how there had been a buggy ride and Zora was found in a ditch, Barry goes home. And the first thing he sees is the hatchet lying out by the steps. His sons had been "hack[ing] for angle worms."

One might, at this point, expect that Barry would be on the warpath to upbraid his sons for leaving the hatchet lying out. But Barry's mind does not work that way. He is even more selfish and self-important than behaving as a boorish parent would indicate. So he enters his house.

Fourth Movement: "And just as I entered there was my wife"

The first thing Barry sees upon entering the house is his wife "big with child." She begins to talk about the farm being mortgaged. And Barry calmly says, "And I killed her."

Interestingly, Barry seems to imply that he killed his wife with the hatchet, but he does not state so directly. The reader, however, will be led to assume that he picked up the hatchet before entering the house, even though he does not say that he did.

Of course, it ultimately does not matter how Barry Holden killed his wife. What matters is that this despicable character existed, exists, and will continue, for all we know, throughout the existence of this physical planet Earth.

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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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