Edgar Lee Masters’ "Francis Turner"

Updated on October 16, 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 - Chicago Literary Hall of Fame
Edgar Lee Masters - Chicago Literary Hall of Fame | Source

Introduction and Text of "Francis Turner"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Francis Turner" from 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 | 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.

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    © 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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