Skip to main content

Edgar Lee Masters' "Ezra Bartlett,” “Franklin Jones,” "Eugenia Todd," and "Thomas Ross, Jr."

Edgar Lee Masters' classic work, "Spoon River Anthology," offers a fascinating character study of the American mind in the mid-20th-century.

Introduction and Text of "Ezra Bartlett"

The speaker in Edgar Lee Masters’ "Ezra Bartlett" from the American classic Spoon River Anthology offers, along with his confession of debauchery, his hard-won philosophy gleaned from his checkered past.

Because he served as an army and prison chaplain, Ezra seems to deem himself a religious philosopher. He strives to engage his own predilections for drunkenness and womanizing by turning those behaviors into "stimulants" that motivates the soul to seek its Heavenly Maker.

The good former chaplain had caused Eliza Johnson to experience "shame" and brought on himself "scorn and wretchedness."

Yet, he now has decided to pretend that he has gained such insight from his past degradation that he now can spew forth his pearls of wisdom regarding the attainment of the divine stature of "ecstatic vision" and viewing the "celestial outposts."

While Ezra does makes some general, accurate statements regarding the desire of the soul, he oversimplifies the soul’s ability to unite with the Divine by claiming that all the soul has to do is "rest[ ] upon itself."

It cannot be overrated that such a remark remains vague, overgeneralized, and oversimplified, but such would be expected from the junk philosophy offered by a blowhard.

Just alike so many of the inmates from the Spoon River Cemetery, Ezra is simply trying to rehabilitate his own reputation by first stating his positions as a cleric, then confessing to some vague sin, and then pontificating about finding God-union through the simple vague act of the soul "resting upon itself."

Though his bloviating, Ezra demonstrate that he remains little more than a junk philosopher.

Ezra Bartlett

A chaplain in the army,
A chaplain in the prisons,
An exhorter in Spoon River,
Drunk with divinity, Spoon River—
Yet bringing poor Eliza Johnson to shame,
And myself to scorn and wretchedness.
But why will you never see that love of women,
And even love of wine,
Are the stimulants by which the soul, hungering for divinity,
Reaches the ecstatic vision
And sees the celestial outposts?
Only after many trials for strength,
Only when all stimulants fail,
Does the aspiring soul
By its own sheer power
Find the divine
By resting upon itself.

Reading of "Ezra Bartlett"

Commentary on "Ezra Bartlett"

Ezra Bartlett seems to be offering sage advice that does little more than glorify degrading behavior and oversimplify the path to soul glory.

First Movement: Once as a Man of God

A chaplain in the army,
A chaplain in the prisons,
An exhorter in Spoon River,
Drunk with divinity, Spoon River—

Yet bringing poor Eliza Johnson to shame,
And myself to scorn and wretchedness.

Ezra Bartlett begins his report by naming off some of the posts he has held as a supposed man of the cloth, or man of God. In the army, he served as a chaplain, and then he served the same function for the prison system.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

He then calls his position "exhorter in Spoon River," leaving his audience to guess exactly what he actually did for the town. But then he admits to being intoxicated by a divine state of being, as he addresses the town by its name.

Ezra then turns his exalted position as a fervid religious on its head by confessing to causing Eliza Johnson to be shamed, an act through which he also suffered "scorn and wretchedness."

Ezra’s opening remarks seem to be heralding a hypocrite, who, despite his having served as a chaplain and "exhorter," did not follow the sacred path one would expect from an individual "[d]runk with divinity."

What readers might expect, however, is that Ezra will likely turn out to be some blowhard who is arrogant or belligerent or both.

Second Movement: Why Will You Never See a Green Dog?

But why will you never see that love of women,
And even love of wine,
Are the stimulants by which the soul, hungering for divinity,
Reaches the ecstatic vision
And sees the celestial outposts?

In the second movement of Ezra’s diatribe, he engages a rhetorical question. The question, however, like all of the rhetorical nature answers itself. By delineating the preposterous absurdity that carousing in a drunken state with women leads the soul to the state of "divinity."

That heavenly state includes the attainment of the goal of God-union, wherein the individual soul advances to "ecstatic vision" where one can see "celestial outposts"—or the gates of heaven.

According to Ezra, the "love of women" and the "love of wine" serve as "stimulants" for the soul and motivates it to reach those heavenly shores.

By "love of women," however, he means sexual lust for the female, and by "love of wine," he means intoxication. His euphemisms begin to reveal that what the man says will likely be smattered with disingenuous falderal.

Ezra has made the ludicrous claim that lust and drunkenness lead to the blessed state of God-union. He is correct that the soul does "hunger[ ] for divinity," but his farcical claim regarding the motivation for attaining that status reveals him to be nothing but a blowhard and buffoon.

That he has framed his junk philosophy as a question remains quite pertinent. He begins the question with "why will you never see" and then inserts what is never seen.

If he had addressed this question a certain individual, the response from that individual might be something like "I never see that because that is absurd nonsense; it never happens, because it cannot."

If womanizing and wine imbibing led to God-union, skid row would be populated with an abundance of mystics, seers, and other ecstatics, instead of those poor souls who can barely take care of their daily physical needs.

Third Movement: A Stimulating Oversimplification

Only after many trials for strength,
Only when all stimulants fail,
Does the aspiring soul
By its own sheer power
Find the divine
By resting upon itself.

However, Ezra, despite his ignorant prognostications about stimulants, does make a useful calm in his conclusion: the perfect soul may unite with Divine Reality after many "trials" and failures.

Finding the divine by merely "resting upon itself," however, remains a vague claim; it is an oversimplification at best and a confusion at worst. Immediately upon hearing the claim the question arises, what does it mean for the soul to rest upon itself?

The act of "resting upon itself" offers nothing upon which an individual can act. While the claim sounds easy, it furnishes no method for attaining the ability to rest upon itself.

At this point, Ezra seems to be spouting simple nonsense for sake of spouting simple nonsense.

He seems to care little about the effects of what he is saying. He has to know that each set of ears hearing such blather will take it to mean whatever first scuttles through the brain.

But the individual human being, who is a soul with a body, does find many trials and tribulation on its spiritual journey down the path to God-realization.

And Ezra is surely correct that the soul’s "sheer power" does definitely come into play along that path. But that power has to be engaged in a definite technique or method, not merely "resting upon itself."

Ezra’s insights remain feeble and even asinine, although he does make some accurate observations.

But by oversimplifying that method of attainment, he demonstrates that he has some interesting words to spew forth, but he has no clear, definite signals that would point a fellow traveler down the right path to those "celestial outposts."

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Franklin Jones"

A seemingly lofty goal propelled Franklin Jones. But oddly, he blames his most important failure on the failure to live one more year.

Introduction and Text of "Franklin Jones"

Franklin Jones offers only a very small slice of his life, just as a number of the Spoon River inmates have done.

However, he does demonstrate a penchant for thought above the waist. He is somewhat more mature in his rhetorical flourish than many of his Spoon River fellows.

But he does remain a rather light-weight character with equally shallow views. He fails to offer enough details of his life to rescue his goal from mere bluster.

Franklin Jones

If I could have lived another year
I could have finished my flying machine,
And become rich and famous.
Hence it is fitting the workman
Who tried to chisel a dove for me
Made it look more like a chicken.
For what is it all but being hatched,
And running about the yard,
To the day of the block?
Save that a man has an angel’s brain,
And sees the ax from the first!

Reading of "Franklin Jones"

Commentary on "Franklin Jones"

While Franklin Jones does demonstrate a penchant for thought above the waist, he fails to offer much of substance of his life.

First Movement: Could Have, If Only

If I could have lived another year
I could have finished my flying machine,
And become rich and famous.

Franklin Jones makes the odd claim that he could have completed his work on his "flying machine," if only he had been able to live one more year. Then he projects that he could have become "rich and famous."

Famous last words, indeed: if only something had happened or not happened, I could have done such and such, been such and such. But what happened happened, and here I am, not doing such and such, not being such and such.

This very scenario from the beginning does not bode well for a result that will feature a well-rounded, pleasant character.

Thus, Franklin joins the motley crowd of likely never-do-wells who inhabit this cemetery above Spoon River.

Many of the characters remain bland personalities as they attempt to embellish their actual accomplishments. Franklin uses the old "if only" approach to satisfy his desired belief that he could have been much more successful in life than he was.

Second Movement: The Dove-Chicken

Hence it is fitting the workman
Who tried to chisel a dove for me
Made it look more like a chicken.
For what is it all but being hatched,
And running about the yard,
To the day of the block?
Save that a man has an angel’s brain,
And sees the ax from the first!

Franklin then reveals that the workers who tried to engrave a dove on his tombstone were less than accomplished artists because the dove ends up looking "more like a chicken."

Franklin, however, does find an amused melancholy in the situation. He philosophizes that man is just like a chicken: after being "hatched," he just runs around the barnyard until the day he is hauled off to be chopped up on "the block."

He humorously compares himself to a chicken but adds a twist to his rhetorical complaint—the difference between the man and the chicken is that the man knows ahead of time that he is destined to die.

Despite the lofty sounding final sentiment, Franklin remains a rather shallow character and somewhat naïve, thinking that his untimely death prevented his true greatness. The beauty of Franklin's position is that people hearing his claim can never prove him wrong, even though they will likely assume exactly that.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Edgar Lee Masters' "Eugenia Todd"

After she had passed through the dark night of death into the gladness of a bright morning, Eugenia Todd found that relief from the trammels of Earth-pain was like a great healing of body and mind.

Introduction and Text of "Eugenia Todd"

Eugenia Todd takes as her subject the issue of death relieving sufferers of the pains experienced on the "earth-sphere." She sets up an analogy between physical and psychological pain.

The good news is that all that pain vanishes with death as the sufferer wakes to a special healing and that healing prompts the long-suffering vicim to be glad that morning has come at last.

Morning is a time of gladness for earth dwellers as they wake refreshed for another day. Eugenia's morning, however, represents existence beyond the dualities of the physical plane.

Most thinkers can imagine that death will bring relief from physical maladies, but many of those same thinkers would not add the prospect of the dead waking to healing and glad that morning has come. Eugenia has good new for them that true healing is possible as she speaks from experience.

Eugenia Todd

Have any of you, passers-by,
Had an old tooth that was an unceasing discomfort?
Or a pain in the side that never quite left you?
Or a malignant growth that grew with time?
So that even in profoundest slumber
There was shadowy consciousness or the phantom of thought
Of the tooth, the side, the growth?
Even so thwarted love, or defeated ambition,
Or a blunder in life which mixed your life
Hopelessly to the end,
Will, like a tooth, or a pain in the side,
Float through your dreams in the final sleep
Till perfect freedom from the earth-sphere
Comes to you as one who wakes
Healed and glad in the morning!

Reading of "Eugenia Todd"

Commentary on "Eugenia Todd"

After she had passed through the dark night of death into the gladness of a bright morning, Eugenia Todd found that relief from the trammels of Earth-pain was like a great healing of body and mind.

First Movement: First Set of Questions - Physical Pain

Have any of you, passers-by,
Had an old tooth that was an unceasing discomfort?
Or a pain in the side that never quite left you?
Or a malignant growth that grew with time?

Eugenia Todd begins her soliloquy with a question about physical suffering. She asks the people who may be viewing her tombstone if they have ever suffered the "unceasing discomfort" of a diseased tooth that continues to throb with annoyance.

Continuing her questioning, she queries the "passers-by" regarding their acquaintance with a "pain in the side," a misery that never leaves off bothering the victim.

The speaker then adds another type of pain that might inflict the human body, the ache involved with the growing tumor or "malignant growth"—particularly a growth that continues to grow "with time."

The speaker is setting up her message with a curiously inquisitive suite of questions that suggests to her listeners that they contemplate any pain or suffering they have experienced in their lives.

Her examples are quite specific, yet likely she has chosen those examples for their commonality, thinking that most humans have experienced such painful episodes.

Second Movement: Sleeping with Pain

So that even in profoundest slumber
There was shadowy consciousness or the phantom of thought
Of the tooth, the side, the growth?

The speaker then adds a further question that also contains another suggestion. She wishes to ascertain whether the pains the passers-by have described were so severe that they interfered with sleep.

She suggests that her listeners contemplate and recall that even as they slept deeply that pain remained in their "shadowy consciousness"—that the pain remained as a "phantom of thought."

The tooth continues to pound ever so slightly in the background of the sufferer's awareness.

The side keeps up its throb regardless of the status of the sleeping consciousness, or the pain of that malignant growth that is so prominent while awake remains just within the confines of pain awareness in the sufferer's purview and feeling.

Third Movement: Second Set of Questions - Psychological

Even so thwarted love, or defeated ambition,
Or a blunder in life which mixed your life
Hopelessly to the end,
Will, like a tooth, or a pain in the side,
Float through your dreams in the final sleep

The speaker now moves to her analogy which she has been so carefully constructing in her first two movements. As bad as those physical pains have been, as persistent as they remain dogging one even in deepest sleep, another kind of pain is equally as deplorable.

The pain from a lost love or failed goals or some mistake one has made that disfigures and upsets one's life will remain "[h]opelessly to the end."

The physical pains at least have the possibility of healing: the tooth may be filled or pulled, the cause of the pain in the side may be eliminated surgically, and the growth may be removed, but that second set of pains remain for they attack the mind where no physical remedy exists.

Thus those thwarted loves, failed ambitions, and unfortunate blunders will continues to haunt one even as one sleeps and dreams for the last time. Those malignant life experiences will "float" through the "dreams" for what seems to be an eternity.

Fourth Stanza: Freedom from Pain

Till perfect freedom from the earth-sphere
Comes to you as one who wakes
Healed and glad in the morning!

However, there is a happy note on which the speaker ends: that pain experienced and suffered on the "earth-sphere" will vanish as "perfect freedom" arrives at the sufferer's door to liberate one from all pain, physical as well as psychological.

In other words, the speaker is reporting that when death comes the sufferer will experience a state of wakefulness that includes the long desired healing.

The sufferers will feel as though they were simply sleeping and dreaming all those pains on the "earth-sphere." As the sufferer passes through death's door, his pain will vanish and he will feel that same gladness he used to feel as he woke up in the morning.

The morning will shine for him again because he has been cured from all that pain of earth.

Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters' "Thomas Ross, Jr."

Thomas Ross, Jr., describes a scene in which natural forces are taking place. However, he leaves his audience with a bizarre remark that only provokes questions that will receive no answers.

Introduction and Text of "Thomas Ross, Jr."

Some Spoon River characters are shady for what they have done, and others for what they might have done. Thomas Ross, Jr., belongs to the latter category. What he did in life remains a mystery.

In his epitaph, Thomas Ross, Jr., concocts a drama about a mother bird building a nest, hatching her eggs, only to have a snake eat them, after which she kills the snake and then is killed by a bigger bird.

But this story is merely a prologue to Thomas' own claim that he, like the mother bird, competed with natural forces only to be stabbed in the back by his own brother.

While the overall theme works well enough, Thomas leaves too much doubt in his audience's mind to make him a sympathetic, or even believable character.

Thomas Ross, Jr.

This I saw with my own eyes:
A cliff-swallow
Made her nest in a hole of the high clay-bank
There near Miller’s Ford.
But no sooner were the young hatched
Than a snake crawled up to the nest
To devour the brood.
Then the mother swallow with swift flutterings
And shrill cries
Fought at the snake,
Blinding him with the beat of her wings,
Until he, wriggling and rearing his head,
Fell backward down the bank
Into Spoon River and was drowned.
Scarcely an hour passed
Until a shrike
Impaled the mother swallow on a thorn.
As for myself I overcame my lower nature
Only to be destroyed by my brother’s ambition.

Reading of "Thomas Ross, Jr."

Commentary on "Thomas Ross, Jr."

As many of the Spoon River reporters do, Thomas Ross, Jr. leaves his audience with more questions than answers.

First Movement: A Mother Bird Builds a Nest

This I saw with my own eyes:
A cliff-swallow
Made her nest in a hole of the high clay-bank
There near Miller’s Ford.

The speaker begins by describing an event that he claims he saw "with [his] own eyes." The vapid phrase, "with my own eyes," alerts listeners to the likely fabrication of the teller. The words add nothing to the veracity of the teller's tale.

With whose eyes might the speaker have viewed the events he claims to have seen other than with his own? Perhaps the speaker thinks he is waxing poetic or philosophical, while, in fact, he is just being verbose and silly.

The speaker then reveals that he saw a mother bird build a nest in a hole in the bank of Miller's Ford. Now it takes a mother bird a few hours, sometimes days, to build such a nest. But Thomas has claimed to have seen this with his own eyes.

His lack of specificity render his claim questionable, however. Is he saying he saw her build the nest, which seems to be his claim or is he saying that he merely saw the nest and the rest of his report.

Readers/listeners will have to keep this vagary in mind as they continue experiencing Thomas' story.

Second Movement: A Snake Eats the Baby Birds

But no sooner were the young hatched
Than a snake crawled up to the nest
To devour the brood.

Again, the speaker is playing fast and loose with timing. After vaguely claiming to have watched a mother bird build her nest, now he has been on hand to watch her baby bird being hatched and then gobbled up by a snake.

The hatching birds, of course, takes many days. Does Thomas expect his audience to believed he was there watching with his own eyes as a mother bird built a nest, laid her eggs, and then hatched them?

Does Thomas truly expect his audience to believe that he stood on the river bank for several weeks observing this event? Might he be saying that returned day after day to continue observing this saga?

Thomas' credibility is stake here and that credibility is vital to his conclusion. Yet he is offering a story whose timeline belies his claims.

Third Movement: Mama Bird Kills the Snake

Then the mother swallow with swift flutterings
And shrill cries
Fought at the snake,
Blinding him with the beat of her wings,
Until he, wriggling and rearing his head,
Fell backward down the bank
Into Spoon River and was drowned.

In the longest part of Thomas' tale, he dramatizes the mother bird's killing of the horrid snake what had consumed her offspring. She moves fast and fiercely with rapidly beating wings and high pitched, ear-piercing cries as she battles with the slithering monster.

She blinds him with her wings, and begins to writhe and poke up his head, until he clumsily falls "backward and down the bank" of Spoon River, where he then drowns.

Thomas has concocted an interesting, entertaining tale, but he has made it very difficult for his audience to put much faith in its being accurate. But then he piles on disbelief upon disbelief as he continues his drama.

Fourth Movement: Mama Bird Killed by Bigger Bird

Scarcely an hour passed
Until a shrike
Impaled the mother swallow on a thorn.

Within the hour of her death, the mother bird through the instrumentality of a larger bird of prey is stricken dead after being "impaled" upon a thorn.

The speaker seems to be demonstrating that he has the patience of clock: after watching this series of events that would take perhaps weeks to come about, he remains at least another hour to see the small bird, the poor mother swallow, being finished off by the larger "shrike."

Fifth Movement: Shades of Cain and Abel?

As for myself I overcame my lower nature
Only to be destroyed by my brother’s ambition.

Of course, Thomas has just described natural events that like do in fact take place in the wild. Whether he actually saw those events or not, or perhaps any part of them, becomes besides the point philosophically, or at least that might has been the case had Thomas places his observations in their proper frames of reference.

Nevertheless, Thomas is now ready to state the true purpose of his drama. He claims to have transcended his animal nature. But as one might expect in this dog eat dog world, he and his efforts were laid low by his "brother's ambition."

Readers/listeners will most likely wonder what the brother did. What did Thomas do that he thinks demonstrates the overcoming of his "lower nature." Was his brother's ambition responsible for Thomas' death or just the loss of something, such as a business venture or a love interest?

These questions remain unanswered, at least at this point. Thus the audience comes away with the knowledge that natural events can be cruel and so can human events.

The can of knowledge has simply been kicked down the road, and the reader will never get back those minutes that it took to read Thomas' likely disingenuous epitaph.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles