Edgar Lee Masters’ "Franklin Jones"

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, Esq. - Clarence Darrow Law Library
Edgar Lee Masters, Esq. - Clarence Darrow Law Library | Source

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. Franklin, however, 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.

Franklin, however, 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.

Commemorative Stamp
Commemorative Stamp | 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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