Edgar Lee Masters’ "Doctor Meyers"

Updated on July 26, 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 Stamp

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Introduction and Text of "Doctor Meyers"

Edgar Lee Masters’ “Doctor Meyers” from Spoon River Anthology is an American sonnet that innovatively begins with a couplet and then moves through the poem in four tercets. The doctor's involvement in Minerva's situation deepens the drama and helps to fill out the characterization of the participants in this sordid event.

23. Doctor Meyers

No other man, unless it was Doc Hill,
Did more for people in this town than I.
And all the weak, the halt, the improvident
And those who could not pay flocked to me.
I was good-hearted, easy Doctor Meyers.
I was healthy, happy, in comfortable fortune,
Blest with a congenial mate, my children raised,
All wedded, doing well in the world.
And then one night, Minerva, the poetess,
Came to me in her trouble, crying.
I tried to help her out—she died—
They indicted me, the newspapers disgraced me,
My wife perished of a broken heart.
And pneumonia finished me.

Recitation of Masters' "Doctor Meyers"

Commentary

The third poem in the Minerva Jones series features "Doctor Meyers," who performed the abortion that led to the death of the unfortunate poetess.

Couplet: Braggart or Accurate and Evenhanded?

No other man, unless it was Doc Hill,
Did more for people in this town than I.

“Doctor Meyers” continues the “Minerva” series in the third installment of this mini-drama. In the opening couplet, Doctor Meyers informs his listeners that he “did more for people of this town” than anyone else, with the possible exception of “Doc Hill.”

A first impression taken from a cynical point of view might suppose that the character of Doctor Meyers resembles that of a braggart. But because he reckons that another doctor might have done more for the people, the reader is likely to conclude that Doctor Meyers’ testimony is accurate and evenhanded.

First Tercet: A Sympathetic Practice

And all the weak, the halt, the improvident
And those who could not pay flocked to me.
I was good-hearted, easy Doctor Meyers.

The speaker describes his medical practice as a sympathetic one that cared for “all the weak, the halt, the improvident.” And additionally, the sick ones “who could not pay” found Doctor Meyers helpful and accommodating as well.

The doctor says that he was “good-hearted, easy Doctor Meyers,” and he is proffering the thoughts of those he had served. Again, a cynical view could be taken, but, in fact, he must have provided helpful services to those in need; otherwise, there is no explaining why patients “flocked to” him.

Second Tercet: A Successful Life

I was healthy, happy, in comfortable fortune,
Blest with a congenial mate, my children raised,
All wedded, doing well in the world.

The doctor then reports the quality of his life, which has been “healthy, happy, in comfortable fortune.” He had been “blest with a congenial mate,” and their children were successful and all married. Doctor Meyers had achieved the success for which most people strive.

This description of his life reveals one who has done his duty without deceiving or undermining others in his zeal to thrive. Such a person deserves to live out his life in peace and tranquility—or so it would seem.

Third Tercet: Fate and the Unhealthy Turn

And then one night, Minerva, the poetess,
Came to me in her trouble, crying.
I tried to help her out—she died—

But then the doctor’s fate took an unhealthy turn, when “one night, Minerva, the poetess, / Came to [him] in her trouble, crying.” He attempted to “help her out,” but “she died.”

In the first poem of the series, the reader had learned that Minerva had gone to Doctor Meyers after becoming impregnated with “Butch” Weldy’s child; Minerva reports that she died after treatment by Doctor Meyers.

Fourth Tercet: When Abortion Was Still Murder

They indicted me, the newspapers disgraced me,
My wife perished of a broken heart.
And pneumonia finished me.

Because abortion was illegal at that time, (Roe v Wade was decided in 1973), the doctor was arrested, indicted, and faced prison. Of course, his fate was reported in the newspapers, and the turn of events adversely affected his wife. He states that he died of “pneumonia.”

The "Minerva Jones" Sequence

  1. "Minerva Jones"
  2. "'Indignation' Jones"
  3. "Doctor Meyers"
  4. "Mrs Meyers"
  5. "'Butch' Weldy"

Mrs. Meyers' Perspective

Without the next poem, “Mrs. Meyers,” number 4 in this series which offers testimony from the doctor’s wife, the reader might remain of the mind that Doctor Meyers did not deserve his fate, but Mrs. Meyers puts things in their proper perspective. Even so, the reader will continue to feel a certain amount of pity for this poor physician.

Edgar Lee Masters

Source

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

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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