Edgar Lee Masters' "Ida Chicken"

Updated on September 12, 2018
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

Source

Introduction and Text of "Ida Chicken"

Considering herself an intellectual, Ida Chicken deems herself above the ordinary citizens of Spoon River. She sounds like the typical modern liberal, denigrating the U.S. Constitution, complaining that she could not "defend or support it at all!"—and then belly-aching that she had to take an oath to secure a passport to France. One might hope that Ida remained in France for her own peace of mind.

Ida Chicken

After I had attended lectures
At our Chautauqua, and studied French
For twenty years, committing the grammar
Almost by heart,
I thought I’d take a trip to Paris
To give my culture a final polish.
So I went to Peoria for a passport—
(Thomas Rhodes was on the train that morning.)
And there the clerk of the district Court
Made me swear to support and defend
The constitution—yes, even me—
Who couldn’t defend or support it at all!
And what do you think? That very morning
The Federal Judge, in the very next room
To the room where I took the oath,
Decided the constitution
Exempted Rhodes from paying taxes
For the water works of Spoon River!

Reading of "Ida Chicken"

Commentary

Ida Chicken wants to travel to Paris to put polish on her language skills in French.

First Movement: A Smart Chicken

After I had attended lectures
At our Chautauqua, and studied French
For twenty years, committing the grammar
Almost by heart,
I thought I’d take a trip to Paris
To give my culture a final polish.

Note of historical interest: "At our Chautauqua" alludes to the lecture circuit of traveling shows that become very popular in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition to lectures, it staged plays, presented concerts, and other entertainment, all modeled on the events that originated at the Chautauqua Institution New York.

Ida Chicken, by touting an interest in "lectures" and studying French, is self-identifying as an intellectual. It would be natural that such an individual would desire to travel to France to improve language skills and as Ida puts it "give my culture a final polish."

Second Movement: To Secure a Passport in Peoria

So I went to Peoria for a passport—
(Thomas Rhodes was on the train that morning.)
And there the clerk of the district Court
Made me swear to support and defend
The constitution—yes, even me—
Who couldn’t defend or support it at all!

Ida then travels to Peoria to fetch a passport and reports that Thomas Rhodes happened to be traveling on the same train as Ida that day. Ida then complains that in order to get the passport, she had to swear allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, vowing to "support and defend it."

Ida is offended to have to swear such support for a constitution that she obviously feels she could not support and defend "at all!" But to provide Ida with the passport, the clerk of the district court required her to swear to that support and defense.

Third Movement: In a Huff Over Thomas Rhodes' Tax Exemption

And what do you think? That very morning
The Federal Judge, in the very next room
To the room where I took the oath,
Decided the constitution
Exempted Rhodes from paying taxes
For the water works of Spoon River!

Ida then offers an example of her reasoning for remaining a skeptical citizen, who has no compunction about denigrating the nation's governing document. As Ida was securing her passport, the businessman Thomas Rhodes was securing from a federal judge an exemption from paying taxes to support the "water works of Spoon River."

Taking that oath thus grated on the nerves of the intellectual Ida, as she became aware of Thomas Rhodes' tax exemption. As so many of the complaining residents continue to do, Ida offers no clear insight into why Rhodes was able to secure that exemption; she just assumes the worst corruption and then blames the U.S. Constitution, seemingly unaware that the interpretation of the document is where the blame for corruption lies.

Edgar Lee Masters 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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

    Comments

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      8 months ago from U.S.A.

      Yes, Louise. Spoon River offers some fascinating reading. Masters' classic work always delivers a useful and entertaining study of character.

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      8 months ago from Norfolk, England

      I've read a few of your articles about Edgar Lee Masters poetry. I really do like his poems.

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