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Edgar Lee Masters' "Ernest Hyde"

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 "Ernest Hyde"

The concept of likening the mind to a mirror renders a fascinating and potentially useful metaphor, and Ernest Hyde begins his report with some acceptable remarks: his mind was like a mirror, it accepted what it saw, and in youth, it accepted only certain things because it was like a mirror in a speeding car.

The mirror metaphor goes off the rails by placing it in a speeding car, but readers will want to give Ernest the benefit of the doubt as he takes that mirror/mind through its paces. As usual with these Spoon River characters, readers will come away either liking or disliking him, understanding him better or remaining a bit confused by what he has said.

Ernest Hyde

My mind was a mirror:
It saw what it saw, it knew what it knew.
In youth my mind was just a mirror
In a rapidly flying car,
Which catches and loses bits of the landscape.
Then in time
Great scratches were made on the mirror,
Letting the outside world come in,
And letting my inner self look out.
For this is the birth of the soul in sorrow,
A birth with gains and losses.
The mind sees the world as a thing apart,
And the soul makes the world at one with itself.
A mirror scratched reflects no image—
And this is the silence of wisdom.

Reading of "Ernest Hyde"

Commentary

Hyde's mirror/mind becomes scratched. What exactly scratched it, he never divulges. He thinks himself as a retainer of wisdom, when, in fact, he remains a vague, unrealized character, unworthy of much admiration.

First Movement: The Mirror Mind

My mind was a mirror:
It saw what it saw, it knew what it knew.
In youth my mind was just a mirror
In a rapidly flying car,
Which catches and loses bits of the landscape.

The speaker begins metaphorically comparing his mind to a mirror. He then states that what the mirror saw, it knew. He is making the mundane claim that whatever the mind sees, it then knows. Hyde then reports that his mirror/mind in "youth" saw the world as if it were in a speeding car, catching certain glimpses and missing others.

The metaphor fails here. The only "mirror" in a car is the rear-view mirror which catches glimpses of the landscape in a mere tunnel vision sort of way, as it reflects only the landscape in reverse. The speaker obviously is not referring to a rear-view mirror; he is referring to his mind fed by his eyes looking out of the window seeing the landscape flit by in the speeding car.

Second Movement: The Scratched/Damaged Mirror/Mind

Then in time
Great scratches were made on the mirror,
Letting the outside world come in,
And letting my inner self look out.

After a youth spent catching some scenes and missing others, "great scratches" appeared on his mirror/mind. Those scratches appeared as he allowed the world to come into his mind and as he allowed his inner being to peer out.

It will become apparent that Hyde does have a reason for likening his mind to a mirror; even if he has spouted rather mundane observations thus far and allowed his metaphor to go off rails, his purpose becomes apparent as he continues his metaphor.

Third Movement: The Soul's Late Appearance

For this is the birth of the soul in sorrow,
A birth with gains and losses.

Hyde seems to fancy himself a philosopher; thus, he now turns his attention to the "soul," claiming that this mirror/mind activity of looking out seeing some things missing others and allowing one's inner being to continue to look out—all this looking causes the soul to be birthed "in sorrow."

The birth of the soul results from all those "gains and losses." His notion that the soul has been given birth sometime in adulthood after experiences of "gain and losses" renders him a dull philosophical fool at best. Likely instead of "soul" he means inflated ego or deranged psyche.

Fourth Movement: The Wisdom of the Scratched Mirror

The mind sees the world as a thing apart,
And the soul makes the world at one with itself.
A mirror scratched reflects no image—
And this is the silence of wisdom.

Philosopher Hyde summarizes his knowledge gained from observing this mirror/mind of his. First, he reports the fact that the mind experiences through the sense of sight that it and the world are two separate beings. But then the "soul" reunites that world with "itself." In fact, he is going in the right direction philosophically speaking.

But then he blows it, claiming that a scratched mirror does not reflect any "image," and that that non-reflecting mirror is the "silence of wisdom." Actually, scratched mirrors do continue to reflect images, even though they may reflect them inexactly or poorly, depending on just how many scratches are involved. Even if that mirror/mind could no longer reflect images, it would still not become "the silence of wisdom."

"Silence of wisdom" is a soul quality and how the mind engages is irrelevant. A quiet mind is necessary for the soul to engage wisdom, but getting to that place cannot be achieved with a scratched mirror/mind. It must be a simple, humble, tranquil mind, and a mind damaged, as is implied by scratched, would impede both "silence" and "wisdom."

Ernest Hyde's philosophical conclusion is meant to elevate his own status. Claiming that he achieved the "silence of wisdom" because of his damaged mind, i.e. "mirror scratched," is ludicrous. Thus again we have another scuzzball Spoon River inmate trying to make himself look good despite his possession of mere selfishness.

Edgar Lee Masters - Commemorative Stamp

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

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