Edgar Lee Masters' "Elsa Wertman" / "Hamilton Greene"

Updated on May 27, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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.

Source

Introduction and Text of "Elsa Wertman"

Against her will, a poor peasant girl becomes the mother of a man who later well serves the community as "Judge, member of Congress, leader in the State." But she cannot open her pride to public scrutiny, and there lies the rub.

Long before #MeToo and abortion on demand, this pathetic tale demonstrates what happened to girls before those fulsome movements were instituted to correct the pornographic lechery of the privileged white male.

Elsa Wertman

I was a peasant girl from Germany,
Blue-eyed, rosy, happy and strong.
And the first place I worked was at Thomas Greene’s.
On a summer’s day when she was away
He stole into the kitchen and took me
Right in his arms and kissed me on my throat,
I turning my head. Then neither of us
Seemed to know what happened.
And I cried for what would become of me.
And cried and cried as my secret began to show.
One day Mrs. Greene said she understood,
And would make no trouble for me,
And, being childless, would adopt it.
(He had given her a farm to be still.)
So she hid in the house and sent out rumors,
As if it were going to happen to her.
And all went well and the child was born—They were so kind to me.
Later I married Gus Wertman, and years passed.
But—at political rallies when sitters-by thought I was crying
At the eloquence of Hamilton Greene—
That was not it.
No! I wanted to say:
That’s my son! That’s my son!

Reading of "Elsa Wertman"

Commentary

This is the tale of a poor peasant girl who gives birth to a baby, who grows up and well serves his community as "Judge, member of Congress, leader in the State."

First Movement: A Rosy-Cheeked Peasant Girl

I was a peasant girl from Germany,
Blue-eyed, rosy, happy and strong.
And the first place I worked was at Thomas Greene’s.

The speaker begins by describing herself. It might strike the reader as somewhat odd hearing a girl refer to herself as a "peasant girl," even if she is from "Germany." It is highly doubtful that individuals whom society classifies as "peasants" think of or would describe themselves in such terms.

Elsa then paints herself as a rosy-cheeked, blue-eyed gal, who is both happy and strong. She then drops the important tidbit that her first employment was with the family of Thomas Greene.

Second Movement: That Day in the Kitchen

On a summer’s day when she was away
He stole into the kitchen and took me
Right in his arms and kissed me on my throat,
I turning my head. Then neither of us
Seemed to know what happened.
And I cried for what would become of me.
And cried and cried as my secret began to show.

Elsa then delves into the meat of her tale, grizzly and pornographic and totally predictable from the first mention of the obviously white privileged name "Thomas Greene." It was a summer day, and Mrs. Greene was not at home. So of course, as the young nubile, Teutonic gal busies herself with kitchen chores, bad old Thomas Greene, master of the household and genuinely white privileged male swoops in and rapes the little peasant rosy-cheeked adolescent.

Thomas Greene grabs her, plants a kiss on her neck, and before she even knows what is happening, something happens that they both do not even know happened: " . . . neither of us / Seemed to know what happened." The poor girl—remember this way, way before the #MeToo Movement—left like a dish rag hung out to dry is driven to cry her little eyes out. So she does just that, she "cried and cried" as she watches her belly growing bigger and bigger with the results from what happened that summer day in the kitchen while the mistress of the house was away.

Third Movement: Concocting a New Birth

One day Mrs. Greene said she understood,
And would make no trouble for me,
And, being childless, would adopt it.
(He had given her a farm to be still.)
So she hid in the house and sent out rumors,
As if it were going to happen to her.

One can only speculate what went on up until the time that Mrs. Greene tells the peasant girl that she understands—(what does she understand?)—and therefore would not cause any "trouble" for the girl. In addition to this, because the Greenes had produced no offspring, Mrs. Greene is willing to go through a fabricated scenario of herself in gestation and then to adopt the baby, allowing the village to think the child belonged legitimately to the Greenes.

Elsa reveals that Thomas had bribed his wife with a farm to keep her trap shut—thus the missus' pretense that she, in fact, is having a baby. They "sent out rumors" of Mrs. Greene's pregnancy, and of course, readers will know that no one in the village would ever observe that pregnancy. Must have been a hellacious nine months, making like one lady is pregnant and not the other. Wonder if they will pull it off?

Fourth Movement: Oh, Pride!

And all went well and the child was born—They were so kind to me.
Later I married Gus Wertman, and years passed.
But—at political rallies when sitters-by thought I was crying
At the eloquence of Hamilton Greene—
That was not it.
No! I wanted to say:
That’s my son! That’s my son!

Yes, indeed, they pull it off in fine form! Elsa, that lucky girl, is treated with kindness by the Greenes, she births the child, and she hands him over to the Greenes to raise. Time flies by. Elsa marries Gus Wertman.

Now Elsa reveals that as she sits crying at "political rallies," those villagers sitting around her think she is weeping at the eloquence of the speaker, a politician named "Hamilton Greene." But Elsa lets her listeners in on her little secret: no, she is not crying because of that "eloquence"; she is weeping her sad tears because she wants to let it be known: "That's my son! That's my son!" Of course, what else could such a son become but a politician?

Introduction and Text of "Hamilton Greene"

The following brief epitaph offers a glimpse of the child that Elsa Wertman bore as a result of the adulterous incident in the kitchen involving Elsa and her employer, Thomas Greene.

Hamilton Greene

I was the only child of Frances Harris of Virginia
And Thomas Greene of Kentucky,
Of valiant and honorable blood both.
To them I owe all that I became,
Judge, member of Congress, leader in the State.
From my mother I inherited
Vivacity, fancy, language;
From my father will, judgment, logic.
All honor to them
For what service I was to the people!

Reading of "Hamilton Greene"

Commentary

Hamilton Greene symbolizes the widely accepted characterization of a "politician." Growing up believing that his parents were both of "honorable blood," and honoring them for what he considers pleasing and high-minded traits demonstrate that his life has been based on a lie from the beginning. This character does not know what the reader knows, and the situational irony renders these two epitaphs stunningly appalling, as they support the contention that all politicians are deluded souls who remain clueless even of self-knowledge.

Of course, most readers and listeners of poetry are bright enough to know that not all politicians fall into the deluded category of an Elizabeth Warren, disgraced former "American Indian," now budding socialist and Democratic 2020 presidential candidate. At least poor Hamilton Greene had remained blissfully unaware of his ancestry and did not have to concoct and fabricate it as Warren has done for some three decades.

Former "Native American" Elizabeth Warren

Source

Edgar Lee Masters - Commemorative Stamp

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.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    6 months ago from U.S.A.

    Thank you, Nithya Venkat.

    This particular pair of Spoon River installments offers an especially harrowing view of two pathetic lives. One can take these rancid characters and their perfidy only a little bit at a time.

  • Vellur profile image

    Nithya Venkat 

    6 months ago from Dubai

    I always enjoy reading your analysis of a poem. Thank you for sharing.

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