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Edgar Lee Masters’ "Francis Turner"

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

Edgar Lee Masters - Chicago Literary Hall of Fame

Edgar Lee Masters - Chicago Literary Hall of Fame

Introduction and Text of "Francis Turner"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Francis Turner" from the American classic, Spoon River Anthology, the speaker is a pathetic little guy, who claims that suffering scarlet fever in childhood damaged his heart. Thus he finds ordinary activities challenging.

In death, Francis finds solace in a simple memory of an odd biological reaction to a stimulus. He does not reveal much about his life but his odd reaction indicates that as his body was ravaged by the disease, his mind remained quite limited as well.

Francis Turner

I could not run or play
In boyhood.
In manhood I could only sip the cup,
Not drink—
For scarlet-fever left my heart diseased.
Yet I lie here
Soothed by a secret none but Mary knows:
There is a garden of acacia,
Catalpa trees, and arbors sweet with vines—
There on that afternoon in June
By Mary’s side—
Kissing her with my soul upon my lips
It suddenly took flight.

Reading of "Francis Turner"

Commentary

"Francis Turner," a physically and mentally weak individual, finds solace after death, romanticizing a single kiss that led to a "secret" he shared with "Mary."

First Movement: Couldn't Run, Couldn't Drink

I could not run or play
In boyhood.
In manhood I could only sip the cup,
Not drink—
For scarlet-fever left my heart diseased.

The speaker reports that as a boy he was unable to run and play as other children did. Then as a man, he could not "drink"—apparently he means alcohol but that is not clear; he could only "sip the cup." He then asserts that the reason for these malfunctions is that in childhood he suffered scarlet fever.

It becomes obvious that this character is setting himself up as a pathetic invalid in order to make some remarkable discovery that he likely thinks will elevate his lowly, sickly position in life. As many of these characters do, Francis attempts to not only cover his life's blemishes but also to make some grandiose display of how he wasn't such a loser after all.

Second Movement: Comfort in a "Secret"

Yet I lie here
Soothed by a secret none but Mary knows:

Despite his malady which left him unable to function as a normal adult, Francis finds solace and comfort in a "secret" to which no one but "Mary" is privy. It becomes clear that Francis now feels tranquil about this life's tribulations; he has learned to look past his flaws, which could be useful position to take, except for the nature of that "secret."

Third Movement: Where the "Secret" Happened

There is a garden of acacia,
Catalpa trees, and arbors sweet with vines—
There on that afternoon in June
By Mary’s side—

Francis then describes the location where the "secret" took place. It was in a garden filled with flowers such as acacia, a flower that turns up quite frequently in poems and songs. The garden included catalpa trees and "arbors sweet with vines." It was in the month of June in the afternoon, and Mary was seated beside Francis.

The speaker has now romanticized the location of this secret happening to point of near overkill. This romanticization could herald nothing less than a sexual encounter. But the reader will remain skeptical that such an encounter would be in Francis' offing, after having heard of the speaker's complete and utter physical and mental incapacities. Nevertheless, Francis has staged the scene and has his readers on pins and needles wondering what will happen next, that is, what did happen that has caused Francis to lie in his grave all soothed over with what seems to be delight.

Fourth Movement: Pathetic Little Guy

Kissing her with my soul upon my lips
It suddenly took flight.

In his final effusion, Francis demonstrates the depth of his naïveté. Francis and Mary kiss. And Francis now remembers that his soul was "upon [his] lips." His exaggeration merely indicates that it was a passionate kiss but also that he is employing of the term "soul" only as a metaphor for mind.

But Francis then remarks, "It suddenly took flight." It is difficult to interpret this claim as other than he experienced an erection, likely the first time in his life. This occurrence seems to have surprised Francis and delighted him so much that after death this physical reaction to a stimulus is the chief memory he cares to indulge from his life.

That an erection can become the soothing factor of his after death experience provides the evidence that Francis remained a pathetic, weak, naïve character in life and death.

Jack Masters Drawing

Jack Masters Drawing

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.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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