Edgar Lee Masters' "John M. Church"

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, "John M. Church"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "John M. Church" from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker sums up his life in a brief twelve-line versanelle. Once again, readers encounter in Mr. Church, a lawyer, and as usual, lawyers do not fare so well in the hands of Edgar Lee Masters, whom readers are likely to take seriously because Masters himself made his living an attorney for thirty years.

Masters had even served for a number of years as a law partner with Clarence Darrow, who later become widely known after he faced off against another famous lawyer, William Jennings Bryan, in the Scopes Trial (The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes), also known as, "The Monkey Trial."

82. John M. Church

I was attorney for the "Q"
And the Indemnity Company which insured
The owners of the mine.
I pulled the wires with judge and jury,
And the upper courts, to beat the claims
Of the crippled, the widow and orphan,
And made a fortune thereat.
The bar association sang my praises
In a high-flown resolution.
And the floral tributes were many—
But the rats devoured my heart
And a snake made a nest in my skull!

Reading of "John M. Church"


First Movement: "I was attorney for the 'Q'"

Mr. Church begins by naming the entities for which he served as a legal counselor. He mentions the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, nicknamed the "Q" by locals. This company is not a fictional construct; it actually existed and still exists as the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway, its name having been abbreviated to the BNSF Railway Company in 2005.

The attorney also worked for the insurance company that covered the mine owners. The speaker pulls at the heart strings of bellyachers who remain of the stereotyping mindset that all lawyers and financially successful companies engage in capitalistic evil.

Thus this speaker is setting himself up to be understood as belonging to that heinous crowd of the truth challenged. Still, his report will ring true on many levels even for the evenminded and well-tempered.

That this speaker/attorney would denigrate his own profession along with his own moral turpitude simply adds the degenerate nature that he, as well as so many of the Spoon River inmates, will display.

Second Movement: "I pulled the wires with judge and jury"

Mr. Church then lowers himself even further into the pits of hell by admitting that he became obscenely rich by ripping off the underprivileged, such as widows, orphans, and the crippled: that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century triumvirate of politically correct privileged victims. He managed to achieve this status by "pull[ing] the wires" of the judges and juries before which he appeared.

Because victimhood knows no clime or time, the speaker can easily gain credibility by pitting himself and his ilk against pitiful widows, orphans, and crippled folks. One might speculate that his realization of guilty scoundrelism might be coming too late, even for the in crowd well-versed on the privilege of victimhood.

Third Movement: "The bar association sang my praises"

The speaker then lobs a brick at the bar association because it praised him for his shyster ways bestowing on him a resolution that he considers "high flown," suggesting that the group had praised him and his shenanigans to the sky.

Then the lawyer moves quickly to his afterlife status when he received many flowers for his funeral. But despite all the praise and attention he garnered practicing his profession, his dead body has been assaulted: his heart has been consumed by rats, and inside his skull a snake has built a nest.

Mr. Church seems to be suggesting that such eating away at his body parts is, no doubt, final justice for one who so cravenly ate away at the lives of the widowed, the orphaned, and the crippled.

The final image of the skull housing a snake's nest offers a stark punchline for the versanelle form, in which the lawyer has made his cryptic statement about the character flaws of certain members of the human family.

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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