Edgar Lee Masters' "Cassius Hueffer" - Owlcation - Education
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Edgar Lee Masters' "Cassius Hueffer"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Edgar Lee Masters

Introduction and Text of Poem

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Cassius Hueffer” from the Spoon River Anthology offers up the acerbic belly-aching of a man who hated life so completely that even after his death, he continues his belly-aching about the epitaph chiseled on his tombstone.

Cassius Hueffer

They have chiseled on my stone the words:
"His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him
That nature might stand up and say to all the world,
This was a man."
Those who knew me smile
As they read this empty rhetoric.

My epitaph should have been:
"Life was not gentle to him,
And the elements so mixed in him
That he made warfare on life,
In the which he was slain."
While I lived I could not cope with slanderous tongues,
Now that I am dead I must submit to an epitaph
Graven by a fool!

Reading of "Cassius Hueffer"

Commentary

From Spoon River Anthology, Masters' "Cassius Huffier" is written in the American sonnet tradition: reversing the Petrarchan octave and sestet, while revealing the depravity of the speaker.

The Sestet: Empty Words

They have chiseled on my stone the words:
"His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him
That nature might stand up and say to all the world,
This was a man."
Those who knew me smile
As they read this empty rhetoric.

The speaker, Cassius Hueffer, lays out the epitaph that is carved into his grave marker: "His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him / That nature might stand up and say to all the world, / This was a man."

In order to refute the truth of such a claim, Huffier reports that the statement will make the people who were well acquainted with him "smile" because those folks would know well that those kind words are merely, "empty rhetoric.

The epitaph states that Hueffer had been a gentle, loving man in whom "the elements" stacked themselves up to render him a genuine "man." The epitaph leads people to believe that Cassius Huffer was a warm man, who always had a kind greeting for those he encountered, and he behaved as a caring soul who was loved and admired by everyone he met.

Of course, Hueffer knows otherwise; therefore, he declares that those words are merely "empty rhetoric." Huffier is also aware that the people who chafed under his abusive character flaws would comprehend immediately the emptiness of that rhetoric.

The Octave: Words of a Fool

My epitaph should have been:
"Life was not gentle to him,
And the elements so mixed in him
That he made warfare on life,
In the which he was slain."
While I lived I could not cope with slanderous tongues,
Now that I am dead I must submit to an epitaph
Graven by a fool!

After striking down such a beautiful yet vacuous epitaph as it is written, Hueffer suggests his own version, the one that he knows ought to be chiseled on his grave marker: "Life was not gentle to him, / And the elements so mixed in him / That he made warfare on life, / In the which he was slain."

Hueffer contests the idea that his life was "gentle," but he does not actually dispute the accuracy of the claim that his own life was gentle, just the "idea" that life was gentle "to him."

Hueffer contends that life did not deal gently with him. He then employs the same form to assert, "the elements" were "mixed in him" in such a way as to urge him always to be at "warfare on life." Thus, he battled in life like a warrior, but finally, he "was slain."

The speaker does not elaborate about the manner in which he was "slain," but he does contend that he was not able to abide "with slanderous tongues." He continues in his vagueness, however; thus, the reader remains without any information about either the nature of the slander, or how Hueffer left this earth.

But his last dig at life and society and particularly the person who is responsible for the inaccurately carved epitaph is especially focused as it points an accusing finger: "Now that I am dead I must submit to an epitaph / Graven by a fool!"

Resentful in Life, Resentful in Death

Although readers of this poem will remain puzzled by the specifics of Hueffer’s life—why he carried on as such a misanthrope? what was the nature of the slander he actually suffered? how did he finally die?—such issues, in the long run, are not vital to the message of the poem, which is simply the grievance of a man who lived a resentful life and now undergoes a resentful death.

Edgar Lee Masters - Commemorative Stamp

Life Sketch of the Poet

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.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 14, 2015:

Yes, you should read it; it's great--an American classic.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on November 14, 2015:

This was interesting. Cassius Hueffer obviously didn't regret how he had lived his life and didn't appreciate hypocrites. I had never heard of Edgar Lee Masters or "the Spoon River Anthology", but this makes me want to read it.