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Edgar Lee Masters' "John M. Church"

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 "John M. Church"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "John M. Church" from the American classic, 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."

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"

Commentary

Edgar Lee Masters' character, John M. Church, a devious attorney, frames his lament in a versanelle style poem.

First Movement: A Legal Eagle

I was attorney for the "Q"
And the Indemnity Company which insured
The owners of the mine.

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: Lowering Himself

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.

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: Lobbing a Brick

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!

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.

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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