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Edgar Lee Masters’ "Benjamin Pantier," "Mrs. Benjamin Pantier," and "Trainor, the Druggist"

Edgar Lee Masters' classic work, "Spoon River Anthology," offers a fascinating character study of the American mind in the mid-20th-century.

Introduction to the Pantier Sequence

Edgar Lee Masters’ “Benjamin Pantier” and “Mrs. Benjamin Pantier” from the American classic, Spoon River Anthology, portray the complaint of a husband against his wife and the wife’s response.

These two poems begin a short sequence that includes installments from "Reuben Pantier," the couple's son, "Emily Sparks," who was Reuben's teacher, and "Trainor, the Druggist," from whom readers learn more about the dynamic of the Reubens' marriage.

These little sequences give the entire series the feel of reading a novel. But the main emphasis continues to be on the character studies that they provide.

Text of "Benjamin Pantier"

Together in this grave lie Benjamin Pantier, attorney at law,
And Nig, his dog, constant companion, solace and friend.
Down the gray road, friends, children, men and women,
Passing one by one out of life, left me till I was alone
With Nig for partner, bed-fellow, comrade in drink.
In the morning of life I knew aspiration and saw glory.
Then she, who survives me, snared my soul
With a snare which bled me to death,
Till I, once strong of will, lay broken, indifferent,
Living with Nig in a room back of a dingy office.
Under my jaw-bone is snuggled the bony nose of Nig—
Our story is lost in silence. Go by, mad world!

Reading of "Benjamin Pantier"

Commentary on "Benjamin Pantier"

While Benjamin Pantier does garner sympathy, he also demonstrates a weakness and failure to own at least part of his pathetic life path.

First Movement: Buried with His Dog

Together in this grave lie Benjamin Pantier, attorney at law,
And Nig, his dog, constant companion, solace and friend.
Down the gray road, friends, children, men and women,
Passing one by one out of life, left me till I was alone
With Nig for partner, bed-fellow, comrade in drink.
In the morning of life I knew aspiration and saw glory.

The speaker is Benjamin Pantier, who announces that he now lies in his grave with his dog, named Nig, who became his “constant companion, solace and friend.” Benjamin had been an “attorney at law,” yet he now is filled with pity for himself as he describes his lonely lot.

Benjamin claims that early on his life showed great promise, “in the morning of life I knew aspiration and saw glory.” But now he emphasizes this lonely lot; “friends, children, men and women” all left his life “one by one” until he was left with no one but Nig “for partner.”

Second Movement: Marriage Blighted His Life

Then she, who survives me, snared my soul
With a snare which bled me to death,
Till I, once strong of will, lay broken, indifferent,
Living with Nig in a room back of a dingy office.
Under my jaw-bone is snuggled the bony nose of Nig—
Our story is lost in silence. Go by, mad world!

Benjamin’s life looked bright until he married a woman who became the bane of his existence. His hatred of his marriage partner led him to a soul-sickness that he could never overcome.

Benjamin now lies in the same grave with his trusty canine friend’s “bony nose” “snuggled under his “jaw-bone.” He complains bitterly; “our story is lost in silence. Go by, mad world!” This sentiment of Benjamin’s dramatic final command echoes W. B. Yeats’ “Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!”

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Text of "Mrs. Benjamin Pantier"

I know that he told that I snared his soul
With a snare which bled him to death.
And all the men loved him,
And most of the women pitied him.
But suppose you are really a lady, and have delicate tastes,
And loathe the smell of whiskey and onions.
And the rhythm of Wordsworth’s “Ode” runs in your ears,
While he goes about from morning till night
Repeating bits of that common thing;
“Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?”
And then, suppose:
You are a woman well endowed,
And the only man with whom the law and morality
Permit you to have the marital relation
Is the very man that fills you with disgust
Every time you think of it—while you think of it
Every time you see him?
That’s why I drove him away from home
To live with his dog in a dingy room
Back of his office.

Reading of "Mrs. Benjamin Pantier"

Commentary on "Mrs. Benjamin Pantier"

Trying to set the record straight, Mrs. Pantier further demonstrates the accuracy of her husband's complaint.

First Movement: Her Side of the Story

I know that he told that I snared his soul
With a snare which bled him to death.
And all the men loved him,
And most of the women pitied him.

Mrs. Pantier begins her rebuttal to her husband’s accusation by stating that she knows what he has said about her bleeding “him to death.” She states the issue in such a way that the reader knows immediately that she wants to share her side of the story and that it will surely not coincide with what Mr. Pantier has said.

Mrs. Pantier then states categorically, “all the men loved him / And most of the women pitied him,” a remark that does not comport with Mr. Pantier’s claim that he was left alone. At this point, the reader will probably doubt Mr. Pantier’s assertion.

Second Movement: Her Obnoxious Arrogance

But suppose you are really a lady, and have delicate tastes,
And loathe the smell of whiskey and onions.
And the rhythm of Wordsworth’s “Ode” runs in your ears,
While he goes about from morning till night
Repeating bits of that common thing;
“Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?”
And then, suppose:
You are a woman well endowed,
And the only man with whom the law and morality
Permit you to have the marital relation
Is the very man that fills you with disgust
Every time you think of it—while you think of it
Every time you see him?
That’s why I drove him away from home
To live with his dog in a dingy room
Back of his office.

However, after Mrs. Pantier begins her defense, the reader understands the self-importance of this woman. Her paltry defense for driving her husband from his home is that she fancies herself “a lady” with “delicate tastes.”

Mrs. Panatier hears strains of Wordsworth‘s “Ode” ringing in her ears, while her husband “goes about from morning till night” quoting lines from Abraham Lincoln’s favorite poem, “Mortality” by William Knox.

For Mrs. Pantier, the British Wordsworth signals gentility and the upper-class befitting a lady, while the American Knox implies low-class individualism and struggle for a living.

Even more gratingly obnoxious is that Mrs. Pantier fancies herself “well endowed,” but legally and morally, she can indulge her well-endowed body only with a man she finds disgusting. Thus, because of her vanity and arrogance, she feels justified in driving him from his home, causing him to live only with his dog in his office.

Edgar Lee Masters Stamp

Edgar Lee Masters Stamp

Introduction and Text of "Trainor, the Druggist"

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Trainor, the Druggist" from Spoon River Anthology offers a final installment covering the pitiful story of the Pantiers: Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Pantier and their son, Reuben.

Trainor, the chemist/druggist, dramatizes his take on the Pantiers' marriage as he philosophizes about how chemicals and personalities may combine to produce results unlike either of the components.

Trainor, the Druggist

Only the chemist can tell, and not always the chemist,
What will result from compounding
Fluids or solids.
And who can tell
How men and women will interact
On each other, or what children will result?
There were Benjamin Pantier and his wife,
Good in themselves, but evil toward each other:
He oxygen, she hydrogen,
Their son, a devastating fire.
I Trainor, the druggist, a mixer of chemicals,
Killed while making an experiment,
Lived unwedded.

Reading of "Trainor, the Druggist"

Commentary

Edgar Lee Masters just could not let go of the Pantiers; in "Trainor, the Druggist," yet another and final installment focusing on the couple is offered.

First Movement: Begins by Contradicting Himself

Only the chemist can tell, and not always the chemist,
What will result from compounding
Fluids or solids.

Trainor begins by remarking and somewhat contradicting himself about what a chemist can know. He first states that "only" a chemist can know the results of combining certain substances, but he quickly adds that not even a chemist can "always" know the result of "compounding / Fluids and solids."

By using the substances "fluids and solids," Trainor avoids sounding overly esoteric and confusing in his statement, although later he settles on the use of "oxygen" and "hydrogen" to express the natures of the Pantiers.

Second Movement: Who? Indeed!

And who can tell
How men and women will interact
On each other, or what children will result?

Trainor then asks a rhetorical question, wondering who can ever predict how a certain man and a certain woman might react to their relationship. He also wonders, "what children will result?"

Of course, no one can know how any given couple will eventually grow in a relationship, and the possibilities are endless, as are the possibilities of the kinds of children that might spring from any given relationship. The chemist can know how certain chemicals will react with each, but even the chemist will have to admit that many combinations have yet to be tried.

Third Movement: The Pantiers

There were Benjamin Pantier and his wife,
Good in themselves, but evil toward each other:
He oxygen, she hydrogen,
Their son, a devastating fire.

In the third movement, Trainor focuses on the Pantiers, concluding that each was "good in themselves." But when they were bound in a relationship, they were "evil toward each other."

Trainor then likens Benjamin to "oxygen," while Mrs. Benjamin was like "hydrogen." But the combination was, unfortunately, not in a useful proportion that would result, for example, in water; it was some combination that produces "fire." Trainor says, "Their son, a devastating fire."

Fourth Movement: Trainor, Somewhat Ditzy

I Trainor, the druggist, a mixer of chemicals,
Killed while making an experiment,
Lived unwedded.

In the final movement, the reader learns that Trainor was killed while "making an experiment." As a "mixer of chemicals," Trainor turns out to be incompetent, but he reports that he "lived unwedded," which, to Trainor’s way of thinking, gives him at least a measure of pride of achievement.

Of course, the reader will remember that Reuben Pantier turned his life around and was able to extinguish the "devastating fire" in himself—an eventuality that also underscores the incompetence of the druggist.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on January 10, 2019:

John,

Edgar Lee Masters is a widely known name but pretty much only for the one work, Spoon River Anthology. That likely accounts for your having never come across him before.

Spoon River displays his able craftsmanship very well. But it also puts on parade his limitations. Spiritually and politically, he remained a biased hack. He was also capable of life-long grudge-holding. Likely his own character flaws are responsible for his limitations in literary efforts.

My recommendations regarding this poet is, go ahead and take a dip into Spoon River but don't allow yourself to drown in it by accepting or expecting too much from this poet.

Thanks for your comment, John. Have a blessed day!

John Welford from Barlestone, Leicestershire on January 10, 2019:

This is not a poet I have come across before - you have inspired me to discover more.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on September 02, 2017:

Thank you, Keuka Fields, for your response. It is always interesting to learn how what I write affects others. Have a blessed day!

Keuka Fields from Syracuse, New York on September 01, 2017:

I love how you break things down even with a side of humor

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