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Edgar Lee Masters' "Daniel M'Cumber"

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, Esq.

Introduction and Text of "Daniel M’Cumber"

From Edgar Lee Masters' American classic, Spoon River Anthology, addressing Mary McNeely, Daniel M'Cumber apparently needs to unburden himself after living a painful, pathetic life. If only Mary had known! Perhaps her own life would have taken a very different direction.

Part of the drama of many of these epitaphs invokes the notion that had things been different, things would have been different, and that is what gives them the realism that strikes a chord with readers of these dramatic reports.

Daniel M’Cumber

When I went to the city, Mary McNeely,
I meant to return for you, yes I did.
But Laura, my landlady’s daughter,
Stole into my life somehow, and won me away.
Then after some years whom should I meet
But Georgine Miner from Niles—a sprout
Of the free love, Fourierist gardens that flourished
Before the war all over Ohio.
Her dilettante lover had tired of her,
And she turned to me for strength and solace.
She was some kind of a crying thing
One takes in one’s arms, and all at once
It slimes your face with its running nose,
And voids its essence all over you;
Then bites your hand and springs away.
And there you stand bleeding and smelling to heaven!
Why, Mary McNeely, I was not worthy
To kiss the hem of your robe!

Reading of "Daniel M’Cumber"

Commentary

Daniel M'Cumber's epitaph, while offering a number of cringe-worthy images, motivates readers to again feel sympathy for Mary McNeely, the woman he abandoned.

First Movement: He Intended to Come Back to Mary

WhenI went to the city, Mary McNeely,
I meant to return for you, yes I did.
But Laura, my landlady’s daughter,
Stole into my life somehow, and won me away.

Daniel M'Cumber begins by addressing Mary McNeely, the pining daughter of Washington McNeely. Daniel is Mary's lost love, the one the McNeelys blame for Mary's leading a a love-sick, homebound non-productive life. Mary reckoned she had lost her very soul when M'Cumber abandoned her. But hearing M'Cumber explain his absence just demonstrates that by losing this lout, Mary McNeely dodged a bullet—as lousy as her life was, it could have been worse with M'Cumber holding the central role in it.

Daniel tells Mary that he had intended to come back to her, and he emphasizes it by adding, "yes, I did." But sadly, his landlady's daughter swooped in and gobbled him up, winning his heart away from poor Mary.

Daniel shows immediately his weakness and gullibility and likely puts his tale of woe in serious doubt. Likely, he is attempting to salvage his own reputation to himself and assuage the guilt he has been left with after his lovers have all proved to be more depraved then he is.

Second Movement: Love Is Never Free

Then after some years whom should I meet
But Georgine Miner from Niles—a sprout
Of the free love, Fourierist gardens that flourished
Before the war all over Ohio.

Piling on to his pathetic story, Daniel, after leaving it unclear how his break with Laura might have occurred, reports that he encounters Georgine Miner, who had been associated with the "Fourier" movement in Ohio. He calls her a "sprout" from the metaphorical garden he uses to describe this utopian socialist movement.

Before the Civil War in the United States, a ludicrous movement emerged based on the thinking of the French communist, Charles Fourier. Albert Brisbane and Horace Greeley popularized the utopian ideas of creating communes or "phalanxes" in which members would live idyllic lives based on the typical Marxist ideology that has been tried again and again and always ends in failure.

This movement included the notion of "free love," that is, "free lust/sex." Apparently, Daniel was unfortunate enough to run into one of the disciples of this insane movement, and he suffered mightily for engaging in that relationship.

Third Movement: The Pathos of Stench

Her dilettante lover had tired of her,
And she turned to me for strength and solace.
She was some kind of a crying thing
One takes in one’s arms, and all at once
It slimes your face with its running nose,
And voids its essence all over you;

After former Fourierist Georgine's lover had grown "tired of her," she latched onto Daniel for comfort. Of course, Daniel, moral midget that he is, could not turn her away. Daniel describes this vile human as a "crying thing." She sports a "running nose," with which she "slimes" the victim. She then slathers her "essence" all over Daniel. His particularly nasty description leaves the image in the mind of his having been urinated upon by this vile creature. He thus remains stinking of her piss which seems an apt image to portray her "essence."

Again, Daniel has shown a lack of moral clarity and a weakness that he can only begin to understand after he has suffered its consequences. Failure to hold a set of moral standards often leads the human mind and heart astray, and often one's peers can only stand and aver, "there but for the grace of God . . . . "

Fourth Movement: Unburdening After Death

Then bites your hand and springs away.
And there you stand bleeding and smelling to heaven!
Why, Mary McNeely, I was not worthy
To kiss the hem of your robe!

Daniel's final image of the damaged Georgine includes an animalistic act of biting his hand and springing away. She used him, abused him, and left him to rot in her stench. He describes himself as standing and "bleeding and smelling to heaven!" He finally realizes the wages of sin, the utter stink that sense engagement can leave on the heart, mind, and soul.

Daniel's final remark telling Mary McNeely that he was "not worthy / To kiss the hem of your robe!" rings oh so true. But readers cannot escape the thought that if Mary had only know this, her life would have taken a different direction.

As readers and listeners remember that this report is being spoken by the speaker after he has died, they realize that this report could have offered Mary some consolation had she heard it early on in her own life. She could have at least known that Daniel's final thought of her was that she was too good for him after the indulgent life he had lived.

Perhaps Mary could have realized that she would not have shared soul qualities with this man and thus did not in fact lose her own soul after he departed. Her philosophical thinking would possibly have moved in a different direction, perhaps, though one can never know for sure, allowing her to find a new love and live a more productive life.

Surely, the Mary would not have wasted her life pining away for a man whom she knew to be not worth her time and effort. Because Daniel waited until after his death to report his miserable life to Mary, she remained ignorant of his true nature and continued to wallow in sadness at the loss of a man she had thought deserved her love.

On the other hand, had Daniel returned to Mary and spilled his guts and begged forgiveness, all would have been forgiven and they might have lived happily ever after. One can only imagine!

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.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes