Updated date:

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Judge Somers" and "Penniwit, the Artist"

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

Class Warfare in Spoon River

While many of the epitaphs in Edgar Lee Masters' American classic, Spoon River Anthology, reveal issues motivated by class warfare, these two reports, "Judge Somers" and "Penniwit, the Artist," offer two of the most pronounced, with a judge who deems himself better than his peers and an artist who scapegoats a judge for his own pleasure.

Judge Somers

The speaker in the epitaph, "Judge Somers," from Edgar Lee Masters' American classic, Spoon River Anthology, is the judge himself, who wants to know why a man of importance, such as himself, has died unnoticed while the town drunk has been well noted.

Text of Poem, "Judge Somers"

How does it happen, tell me,
That I who was the most erudite of lawyers,
Who knew Blackstone and Coke
Almost by heart, who made the greatest speech
The court-house ever heard, and wrote
A brief that won the praise of Justice Breese—
How does it happen, tell me,
That I lie here unmarked, forgotten,
While Chase Henry, the town drunkard,
Has a marble block, topped by an urn,
Wherein Nature, in a mood ironical,
Has sown a flowering seed?

Reading of "Judge Somers"

Commentary on "Judge Somers"

Judge Somers' complaint demonstrates that he is jealous of a man he deems to occupy a lower rung on the social status ladder than he does.

First Movement: Why Me?

How does it happen, tell me,
That I who was the most erudite of lawyers,
Who knew Blackstone and Coke
Almost by heart, who made the greatest speech
The court-house ever heard, and wrote
A brief that won the praise of Justice Breese—

This poem consists of two movements each beginning with a command embedded in a question. The judge is demanding an answer to his question in both instances. Judge Somers begins by asserting his demand/question, posited with "How does it happen, tell me." But in the first movement, he does not finish the question proper; he merely prefaces it by reporting all of his achievements.

The judge feigns no modesty in his self-evaluation but flatly asserts that he was the most brilliant of attorneys. Part of his erudition and brilliance was due to his having "almost by heart Blackstone and Coke." The judge is alluding to two British legal writers—Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780), who wrote the Commentaries, and Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), who wrote and published treatises titled Institutes of the laws of England.

The judge’s knowledge of these works sounds much more important than it is; a lawyer or judge practicing in a 19th century Illinois rural community would hardly be confronted with issues dealt with in these obscure legal works.

Judge Somers then boasts that he "made the greatest speech / The court-house ever heard." In his own mind, not only was he a great orator, but he also "wrote / A brief that won the praise of Justice Breese." Again, the fictional speaker Somers alludes to a real-life justice, Justice Sidney Breese, who served on the Illinois Supreme Court as both a judge and as chief justice.

Second Movement: How Does it Happen to Me?

How does it happen, tell me,
That I lie here unmarked, forgotten,
While Chase Henry, the town drunkard,
Has a marble block, topped by an urn,
Wherein Nature, in a mood ironical,
Has sown a flowering weed?

So with such a shining reputation for accomplishment, the judge again poses his demand/question: "How does it happen, tell me." He then completes the question for he wants to know why he is left to "lie here unmarked, forgotten."

And to make matters worse, that "town drunkard" and scoundrel, "Chase Henry," has been afforded "a marble block, topped by an urn." The judge adds that, "Nature," with a splash of irony "has sown a flowering weed." He takes a bit of comfort from the ironic weed, but still he chafes at the fact that he is forgotten while the town drunk seems to be celebrated.

The reader knows a secret that the judge obviously does not know: that Henry’s memorial has nothing to do with Henry but can be laid at the door of rivalry between the Protestants and the Catholics.

Penniwit, the Artist

Penniwit, the Artist, plays a trick on Judge Somers.

Text of Poem, "Penniwit, the Artist"

I lost my patronage in Spoon River
From trying to put my mind in the camera
To catch the soul of the person.
The very best picture I ever took
Was of Judge Somers, attorney at law.
He sat upright and had me pause
Till he got his cross-eye straight.
Then when he was ready he said "all right."
And I yelled "overruled" and his eye turned up.
And I caught him just as he used to look
When saying "I except."

Reading of "Penniwit, the Artist"

Commentary on "Penniwit, the Artist"

A poor "artist" gets the better of a judge—and feels some satisfaction after playing a nasty trick on the jurist.

First Movement: Poor Artist Loses Patronage

I lost my patronage in Spoon River
From trying to put my mind in the camera
To catch the soul of the person.

Penniwit claims to have lost his support because he played a trick on a judge. Penniwit, who laughingly is titled "the Artist," describes that incident as his attempting to capture the "soul of a person" as he "put [his] mind" into his camera.

The hapless Penniwit had been the recipient of some supporting art grant, the giver of which was formerly known as a "patron of the arts." The reader is not informed as to the exact nature of the "patronage," and the speaker's purpose is simply to explicate the trick he played on "Judge Somers, attorney at law."

Second Movement: His Best Photograph

The very best picture I ever took
Was of Judge Somers, attorney at law.
He sat upright and had me pause
Till he got his cross-eye straight.

The speaker then recounts the time he took his "very best picture." The picture was to capture the likeness of Judge Somers. Penniwit reports that the judge needed a few moments to straighten his "cross-eye." So the judge "sat upright" and apparently got that eye straight, as Penniwit paused patiently.

Third Movement: A Cross-Eyed Judge

Then when he was ready he said "all right."
And I yelled "overruled" and his eye turned up.
And I caught him just as he used to look
When saying "I except."

Suddenly, the judge is ready for his picture to be snapped, and he says, "all right." At that point, Penniwit barks out, "overruled." Immediately, the judge's eye re-crosses itself, at which point the "artist" snaps the photo.

Penniwit boasts that he caught the judge as he actually looked as the judge would say, "I except." Penniwit, the Artist, appears quite amused and even proud of his little trick—a starving artist who had lost his "patronage" has got one over on a judge.

Commemorative Stamp

Commemorative Stamp

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.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles