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Edgar Lee Masters' "Dorcas Gustine"

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 "Dorcas Gustine"

Edgar Lee Masters’ “Dorcas Gustine” from Spoon River Anthology is an American sonnet (innovative sonnet) which dramatizes the thoughts of a strong-willed character. Dorcas reports that she defended herself against wrongs, or perhaps perceived wrongs, and thereby was “not beloved of the villagers.”

Because Dorcas Gustine felt great pride in her behavior of not allowing any grievance go unchallenged, she now displays that post-mortem pride in her revealing report from the grave.

Dorcas Gustine

I was not beloved of the villagers,
But all because I spoke my mind,
And met those who transgressed against me
With plain remonstrance, hiding nor nurturing
Nor secret griefs nor grudges.
That act of the Spartan boy is greatly praised,
Who hid the wolf under his cloak,
Letting it devour him, uncomplainingly.
It is braver, I think, to snatch the wolf forth
And fight him openly, even in the street,
Amid dust and howls of pain.
The tongue may be an unruly member—
But silence poisons the soul.
Berate me who will—I am content.

Reading of "Dorcas Gustine"

Commentary

Dorcas Gustine did not let any grievance go unchallenged, and her post-mortem pride is displayed in her report from beyond.

First Movement: Not Well Liked

I was not beloved of the villagers,
But all because I spoke my mind,
And met those who transgressed against me
With plain remonstrance, hiding nor nurturing
Nor secret griefs nor grudges.

The speaker, Dorcas Gustine, begins her monologue by asserting that the villagers of Spoon River did not particularly care for her. She then offers her belief that they did not like her because she "spoke [her] mind." Doruas did not allow any transgression against her to go unchallenged. She calls her self-defense "plain remonstrance," which implies that she is certain that she was simply defending herself with honesty.

Because of Dorcas' habit of meeting every slight with a response, she declares that she was, therefore, able to go about without "hiding nor nurturing / Nor secret griefs nor grudges." Dorcas does not seem to realize that her failure to nurse secret griefs and grudges did not translate positively by the other villagers.

Second Movement: Allusion to Plutarch

That act of the Spartan boy is greatly praised,
Who hid the wolf under his cloak,
Letting it devour him, uncomplainingly.

Dorcas alludes to Plutarch’s tale of the Spartan boy who, to avoid detection, held a baby wolf—which is a fox in Plutarch’s telling—under his garment, and even though the wolf gnawed into the boy’s stomach, he did not grimace.

Dorcas does not realize the irony of her allusion. The Spartan boy’s act demonstrated his severe training in conquering pain, while Dorcas demonstrates a self-involved attitude that will not accept pain or any discomfort.

Third Movement: An Open Fight

It is braver, I think, to snatch the wolf forth
And fight him openly, even in the street,
Amid dust and howls of pain.

Dorcas then explains that she finds the braver act "to snatch the wolf forth / And fight him openly." But such an act for the Spartan boy would have demonstrated weakness, as the boy explained, " . . . better to die without yielding to the pain than through being detected because of weakness of spirit to gain a life to be lived in disgrace."

Dorcas’ idea of bravery differs greatly from that of the Spartan boy. Dorcas found that she had to remove the source of her consternation immediately. She had no patience and probably felt herself superior to those who would "remonstrate" against her.

Fourth Movement: Not Content

The tongue may be an unruly member—
But silence poisons the soul.
Berate me who will—I am content.

Dorcas concludes by admitting that "the tongue may be an unruly member," but despite that unruliness, she believes holding one’s tongue is poisonous, that is, "silence poisons the soul." Dorcas then calls for those who disagree with her to "berate [her]" if they choose, and concludes by stating that she is "content."

The reader never discovers how Dorcas Gustine died. That she is providing a post-mortem report, however, belies her claim that she is content. As the reader has discovered from all the other deceased reporters, none can be thought to be content. All of them display some grievance or strongly held tie to their former lives that they wish to share.

Edgar Lee Masters

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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