Edgar Lee Masters' "Flossie Cabanis"

Updated on April 4, 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



Edgar Lee Masters’ “Flossie Cabanis” from Spoon River Anthology features a drama queen who wishes that “Duse could stand amid the pathos / Of these quiet fields / And read these words.”

Flossie alludes to the Italian actress, Eleonora Duse, who was noted for making lavish, sweeping statements, such as “If I had my will, I would live in a ship on the sea and never come nearer to humanity than that!”

First Movement: “From Bindle’s opera house in the village”

Flossie reports that there is a great difference in stature between “Broadway” and “Bindle’s opera house,” the local playhouse in Spoon River. She calls that difference a “great step.”

Second Movement: “But I tried to take it, my ambition fired”

The fact that the step was great, however, did not stop Flossie from making the effort by taking that step. Her ambition was “fired / When sixteen years of age.”

At that young age, Flossie attended the play, “East Lynne,” featuring Ralph Barrett, who was a rising star of stage. This “romantic actor” stirred this ambition in her soul.

Third Movement: “True, I trailed back home, a broken failure”

Completely skipping over her ordeal in New York, Flossie admits that she “trailed back home, a broken failure.” Not only did she fail in pursuing her acting career, but she also failed to hold on to a relationship with Ralph. She reports that he “disappeared in New York.”

Flossie was thus left “alone in the city.” She has not given any indication about how long she had remained in New York. Her only focus is on her failures.

Fourth Movement: “But life broke him also”

Flossie then confides that not only was she a “broken failure,” but so was Ralph. She does not elaborate, but she does offer a pregnant silence that allows her listener to imagine the pain and disappointment of both would-be stars.

Flossie then describes Spoon River as a “place of silence” where there exist for her “no kindred spirits.” Her ambition could not be realized in such a place, for she found no one with whom she could confide or share.

Fifth Movement: “How I wish Duse could stand amid the pathos”

The one quality that Flossie continues to retain is her sense of drama. She expresses the desire to have the melodramatic Italian actress Eleonora Duse stand out in the fields surrounding Spoon River and deliver her lament. For Flossie those fields are filled with “pathos.”

Minimalist Sketch

Flossie’s minimalist sketch leaves much to the imagination of her listener/reader. It is only through very broad hints that the reader can interpret Flossie’s true ambitions.

It is possible that her only ambition was to become and remain the mate of Ralph Barrett as he pursued the heights of stardom on the stage, and that she had no real aspirations of following an acting career for herself.

However, by introducing and alluding to the famous Italian actress, she seems to be presenting Duse as her rôle model; thus the reader infers that Flossie’s ambition was two-fold: she wanted both an acting career and a relationship with Barrett.

Reading of "Flossie Cabanis"

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

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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