Edgar Lee Masters' "Pauline Barrett"

Updated on April 18, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Source

Introduction and Text of "Pauline Barrett"

Pauline Barrett is one of the more pathetic characters speaking from the Spoon River graveyard. She commits suicide for the saddest of reasons and then questions if her poor, loving husband could understand her act.

Like many other epitaphs, much remains quite vague about Pauline's report. For example, it is not at all clear how she managed to commit suicide. She just claims that while looking in the mirror and hearing something give her a patently empty piece of drivel masquerading as advice about life philosophy, she "did it." What she "did" will remain a mystery!

Pauline's personality as a confused woman does come through her report, despite the gaps in her revelations. Before the ultimate drama of suicide, she seemed to be asserting that she was, in fact, on the mend, but later backtracks into her pathetic description of herself as a "shell of a woman."

Pauline Barrett

Almost the shell of a woman after the surgeon’s knife!
And almost a year to creep back into strength,
Till the dawn of our wedding decennial
Found me my seeming self again.
We walked the forest together,
By a path of soundless moss and turf.
But I could not look in your eyes,
And you could not look in my eyes,
For such sorrow was ours—the beginning of gray in your hair,
And I but a shell of myself.
And what did we talk of?—sky and water,
Anything, ’most, to hide our thoughts.
And then your gift of wild roses,
Set on the table to grace our dinner.
Poor heart, how bravely you struggled
To imagine and live a remembered rapture!
Then my spirit drooped as the night came on,
And you left me alone in my room for a while,
As you did when I was a bride, poor heart.
And I looked in the mirror and something said:
“One should be all dead when one is half-dead—”
Nor ever mock life, nor ever cheat love.”
And I did it looking there in the mirror—
Dear, have you ever understood?

Reading of "Pauline Barrett"

Commentary

First Movement: Illness and Surgery

Almost the shell of a woman after the surgeon’s knife!
And almost a year to creep back into strength,
Till the dawn of our wedding decennial
Found me my seeming self again.

Pauline Barrett begins by revealing that she has been ill and has had surgery. It has taken nearly a year for her to begin to get her health back. She says by the day of her tenth wedding anniversary though, she was her "seeming self again."

Pauline Barrett appears to be announcing the plight of a woman who has recovered from a serious illness; although she does not reveal what that illness was, or what the surgery entailed. As many of the Spoon River deceased reports have done, Pauline remains vague in her pronouncements. However, the beginning of her epigraph sound quite optimistic, even hopeful.

Second Movement: Walking in a Forest

We walked the forest together,
By a path of soundless moss and turf.
But I could not look in your eyes,
And you could not look in my eyes,
For such sorrow was ours—the beginning of gray in your hair,
And I but a shell of myself.

The second movement finds Pauline and her husband walking together in a forest. She describes the path as "soundless moss and turf." The quietness of the walk should be indicative of the serenity that the couple feels, but then Pauline adds the odd disclosure that the couple could not look into each others' eyes.

Pauline then adds another negative detail which in any other context might not be construed a negative as she claims that her husband's hair was beginning to turn gray. She then seems to backtrack by flatly stating that was "but a shell of myself."

However, Pauline's earlier mentions of being a "shell of herself" had contained qualifiers, as in the opening line when she claims to "almost a shell of a woman." And then she also stated that she was almost her seeming self, yet now she appears to have regressed back to being a full on "shell" of herself.

Third Movement: Avoid Talking

And what did we talk of?—sky and water,
Anything, ’most, to hide our thoughts.
And then your gift of wild roses,
Set on the table to grace our dinner.

Pauline then shifts her attention to other behavior the couple experiences. They talked about the sky or water, perhaps, or maybe some other topics in order to avoid talking about what was really on their minds. She seems to be implying that it was still her illness and her puny health that was on their minds, and they continued to avoid talking about the subject.

But then Pauline reveals an important fact about this man to whom she is married. He had given her "wild roses" and placed them on their dinner table for the their enjoyment. Pauline appreciated the gesture saying they were "to grace our dinner."

Fourth Movement: Struggled Bravely

Poor heart, how bravely you struggled
To imagine and live a remembered rapture!
Then my spirit drooped as the night came on,
And you left me alone in my room for a while,
As you did when I was a bride, poor heart.

Pauline then calls her thoughtful husband, "Poor heart," and observes that he struggled bravely. But then she adds that he struggled bravely in order to attempt to retrieve the life they had before her illness. Likely, she is referring to their sex life, as she complains that her husband has to "imagine and live a remembered rapture!" But she does not report any behavior on the husband's part to imply that he had any such thoughts.

Pauline then makes it quite clear that it is she who is bummed about their loss of coital intimacy. She says she became morose as night wore on. She reveals that her husband left their bedroom and likens his departure to their wedding night, implying that their first experience of intimacy did not go that well either. She pities her husband—again calling him "poor heart"—as much as she pities herself all because of loss of their sex life together.

Fifth Movement: Suicide Over Sex

And I looked in the mirror and something said:
“One should be all dead when one is half-dead—”
Nor ever mock life, nor ever cheat love.”
And I did it looking there in the mirror—
Dear, have you ever understood?

Pauline finally creates a little drama that implies that she just could not take it any longer not being able to have sex anymore and so she commits suicide. She gives her audience no clue about how she "did it." But she "looked in the mirror" and fantastically heard "something" tell her that if one remains, "half-dead," one should actually be dead. This thing that spoke to her from her mirror told her never to mock life, and never to "cheat love."

But that is exactly what Pauline's suicide did: she belittled her own life by snuffing out the life she still enjoyed, and she cheated herself and her loving husband out the remaining years she had left. By her own admission, her health was improving. And she has the gall to ask her thoughtful and obviously appreciative husband, "Dear, have you ever understood?" It does seem likely that this man understood much more than poor Pauline did. He had stood by her giving her roses, placing them on the dinner table, taking her for a walk, and apparently caring for her during her illness.

Sometimes these Spoon River inmates defy reason and logic, make their audiences scratch their heads in disbelief, before moving on to the next. Little wonder that Edgar Lee Masters' series of epitaphs has become an American classic!

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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