Edgar Lee Masters' "Russian Sonia"
Edgar Lee Masters
Introduction and Text of Poem, "Russian Sonia"
While many of the characters who hold forth from their graves on the hill in Spoon River are despicable personalities, now and then we encounter one that is simply silly. They give us very little information about themselves even as they offer a number of details.
"Russian Sonia" makes listeners/readers want to hunt for the possible lies she is telling. She is called "Russian Sonia," yet her parentage is French and German, and she was born in Germany. Obviously, as a dancer, her stage name became "Russian Sonia," but she never reveals why or how. It is likely she chose "Russian" over "German" or French" because she thinks it sounds more exotic to Parisian and later American ears.
Russian Sonia seems to think she pulled a fast one on the citizens of Spoon River, simply because she cohabited with a man for twenty years without the benefit of law/clergy. But ultimately having her dust laugh all day long rings hollow if not downright silly. Too bad Masters did not see fit to compose an epitaph for Patrick Hummer; it might help elucidate the personality of "Russian Sonia."
I, born in Weimar
Of a mother who was French
And German father, a most learned professor,
Orphaned at fourteen years,
Became a dancer, known as Russian Sonia,
All up and down the boulevards of Paris,
Mistress betimes of sundry dukes and counts,
And later of poor artists and of poets.
At forty years, passée, I sought New York
And met old Patrick Hummer on the boat,
Red-faced and hale, though turned his sixtieth year,
Returning after having sold a ship-load
Of cattle in the German city, Hamburg.
He brought me to Spoon River and we lived here
For twenty years—they thought that we were married!
This oak tree near me is the favorite haunt
Of blue jays chattering, chattering all the day.
And why not? for my very dust is laughing
For thinking of the humorous thing called life.
Reading of "Russian Sonia"
First Movement: "I, born in Weimar"
Russian Sonia begins her soliloquy by reporting that she was born in Weimar, Germany. Her mother was French and her father was German. She offers no other detail about her mother, but her father was "a most learned professor." Unfortunately, she does not say what subject the father professed.
Sonia was left without parents at the tender age of fourteen. Then she apparently skips a number of years, not revealing who raised her from age fourteen. And suddenly she has become a "dancer, known as Russian Sonia." Again, she skips over details about why she is known as "Russian," when her parents were French and German.
She reports that she danced up and down the streets of Paris. Again, she leaves out a great chunk of information: did she grow up in Paris? how did she get to Paris? Perhaps her German father met her French mother while residing and serving as a "most learned professor" in Paris. Perhaps. She does not even hint that that is the case, so readers/listeners are left to guess the details she leaves out.
It does finally become clear where the silly Sonia's self-pride lies. She now reports that she was the mistress off and on of "sundry dukes and counts." She suggests that she is proud of her position as a whore. For later, after getting some age on her, she had to settle for being the "mistress" of "poor artists and poets." But she seems content with that.
Second Movement: "At forty years, passée, I sought New York"
Sonia, at forty years of age and "passée" or over the hill as expressed in the English slang-vernacular, now travels to New York. On the voyage across the sea, she meets Patrick Hummer, who is a sixty-year-old man with a red face but who is healthy despite his age. Patrick is returning to American after selling off a load of cattle in Hamburg, which indicates that Patrick Hummer is a man of fairly decent means.
Third Movement: "He brought me to Spoon River and we lived here"
After Sonia and Patrick Hummer hook up on the ship, Patrick takes Sonia to Spoon River, and the two spend the next twenty years together. Sonia seems to find it amusing that Spoon River citizens just assumed Sonia and Patrick were married. The manner in which she expresses this tidbit makes it quite clear that they were not married, a fact seems to satisfy Sonia's penchant for debauchery.
Again, Sonia skips over a great deal of her life, now Patrick and Sonia's life together. Twenty years later would make Sonia only sixty years old, but Patrick would be eighty. Has he already died? What caused Sonia's death?
Sonia winds up her report by offering a disparate image of blue jays that chatter constantly during the day near an oak tree where Sonia's grave lies. She concludes with a question, why should the birds not chatter all day long? Her answer is as unrelated to the birds chattering all day long as her entire story is related to honesty and reality. It is appropriate for the birds to be chattering because Sonia's "very dust is laughing" as she thinks, "of the humorous thing called life."
What a nonsensical notion? She has given no indication that she is a thinker. She has never mused on anything before, but then again, perhaps that answers the question of why she would make such a vacuous statement. She is just a silly woman who had no direction in life, except attaching herself to men, likely using then as meal-tickets.
And thus listeners/readers must wonder about "Russian Sonia": was she happy? But then maybe the question is absurd? If anything truly had been out of whack in her life, she would have complained, groused, or blamed others for something. So at least she seems mollified in her existence, a status that contrast with many, if not most, of the Spoon River speakers.
Biographical 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.
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© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes