Edgar Lee Masters' "Charlie French"

Updated on April 4, 2018
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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 Poem, "Charlie French"

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Charlie French" from Spoon River Anthology features its character musing about who might have been responsible for his contracting lockjaw which lead to his death.

The little drama creates a speaker in Charlie who finds himself obsessed with a specific detail. After dying from this dreadful disease, he has his mind fixed upon who did it, who "snapped the toy pistol against" his hand.

Charlie French

Did you ever find out
Which one of the O’Brien boys it was
Who snapped the toy pistol against my hand?
There when the flags were red and white
In the breeze and "Bucky" Estil
Was firing the cannon brought to Spoon River
From Vicksburg by Captain Harris;
And the lemonade stands were running
And the band was playing,
To have it all spoiled
By a piece of a cap shot under the skin of my hand,
And the boys all crowding about me saying:
"You’ll die of lock-jaw, Charlie, sure."
Oh, dear! oh, dear!
What chum of mine could have done it?

Reading of Masters' "Charlie French"

Commentary

Charlie French died of lockjaw, wondering which of his friends had shot off the cap pistol that delivered the fatal blow.

First Movement: Unidentified Listener

Did you ever find out
Which one of the O’Brien boys it was
Who snapped the toy pistol against my hand?

Charlie is addressing an eclipsed listener, that is, a listener who cannot be identified. Traditionally, when a poet’s speaker seems to be addressing no one, the context usually reveals that the speaker is, in fact, musing to him/herself. But this is not the case with Charlie.

Charlie French wants to know who the culprit is who shot off a cap gun against his hand. He asks the question at the beginning of his discourse and then concludes the discourse with the same question. After his musing, he remains in the dark about who the cap-gun shooter was; thus he repeats the question.

Second Movement: A Civil War Enactment

There when the flags were red and white
In the breeze and "Bucky" Estil
Was firing the cannon brought to Spoon River
From Vicksburg by Captain Harris;

Charlie describes the event at which his fatality occurred. The description reveals a Civil War enactment or some other military observance. There were "red and white" flags flapping in the breeze, while "Bucky" Estil was firing up the cannon.

The cannon had been transported to Spoon River by "Captain Harris," who brought it all the way from Vicksburg. The Civil War era relic suggests that the celebration might have been a commemoration of the war.

Third Movement: The Cap-Gun Mishap

And the lemonade stands were running
And the band was playing,
To have it all spoiled
By a piece of a cap shot under the skin of my hand,

In addition to the cannon fire and flags, there were lemonade stands and a "band was playing." Then upon this jubilant scene intrudes Charlie’s unfortunate and ultimately fatal cap-gun shooting. The day was moving along splendidly, "To have it all spoiled / By a piece of a cap shot under the skin of my hand."

Fourth Movement: Strong Suggestibility

And the boys all crowding about me saying:
"You’ll die of lock-jaw, Charlie, sure."

Seeing the cap-shot stain under Charlie’s skin, the other boys gathered around him and started making comments: "You’ll die of lock-jaw, Charlie, sure." The suggestion frightened Charlie so severely that he actually did contract the disease, and then he expired, leaving the reader little knowledge about this character other than his strong suggestibility.

Fifth Movement: It's a Who Dunnit

Oh, dear! oh, dear!
What chum of mine could have done it?

The exclamation, "Oh, dear! oh, dear!," connects two strands of thought and activity: First, the boys who were observing Charlie’s cap-gun shot hand are thinking thus, if, in fact they are not the ones projecting this utterance, and second, Charlie himself definitely engages this "oh dear" sentiment about his own health’s prospects; therefore, the implication is that Charlie let out this cry.

Charlie’s main reason for carrying on this discourse is further emphasized as he continues to wonder, "What chum of mine could have done it?"

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.

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    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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