Edgar Lee Masters' "Julia Miller"

Updated on January 26, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edgar Lee Masters



Edgar Lee Masters’ “Julia Miller” from Spoon River Anthology is an American sonnet, also called Innovative sonnet, with its movements vaguely echoing the Italian form as practiced by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her Sonnets from the Portuguese.

Masters' choice of innovative Italian sonnet likely reveals the notion that he would like to suggest that this particular character is more poetic than some others, whose diatribes remain rather prosaic.

First Movement: “We quarreled that morning”

In Masters’ first movement, which corresponds to the first octave quatrain of the Italian sonnet, the speaker begins cryptically by asserting, “[w]e quarreled that morning.”

She then reveals that it is an old man with whom she has quarreled, “[f]or he was sixty-five, and I was thirty.” But she seems not to want to reveal too much too soon.

Julia, however, continues to disclose that she is “heavy with child,” and that she was not happy about giving birth to this child.

At this point, the reader might assume that she is an unwed woman and has quarreled with her father.

Second Movement: “I thought over the last letter written me”

The second movement, which echoes the second quatrain in the octave of the Italian sonnet, unlocks the mystery that Julia has been slowly narrating. She reveals that she had been thinking about “the last letter written me” by a young man, whom she describes as “that estranged young soul.”

It turns out that Julia married the old man, with whom she has just quarreled, to cover up the fact that this “estranged young soul” had impregnated her and then deserted her.

Had Julia admitted to the old man her true reason for becoming his wife? She allows the listener only to speculate.

Third Movement: “Then I took morphine and sat down to read”

The third movement then takes its form from the first tercet of the sextet of the Italian sonnet form.

In this movement, Julia reports that she has taken morphine “and sat down to read.” She is committing suicide, and as she waits for death, she sees “the flickering light of these words.” And she asserts that even after death, she still sees those words.

Fourth Movement: “And Jesus said unto him, Verily”

The final movement, which completes the Italianesque echo of the second tercet of the sextet, features the Bible verse with which Julia Miller leaves this world:

And Jesus said unto him, Verily
I say unto thee, To-day thou shalt
Be with me in paradise—

From the Bible verse, implication comes into view that Julia feels rather optimistic about her journey after death.

A Chosen Few

One might speculate that Masters wanted to infuse certain narrators with a more poetic spirit than others; thus, he employs certain poetic forms to reveal those individuals.

Oddly enough, it seems that “Julia Miller” is one of those chosen few.

Masters' choices as he dramatizes his characters could infuse and inform a marvelous character-study of not only the speakers in the epitaphs but also of Edgar Lee Masters himself.

Reading of Masters' "Julia Miller"

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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