Edgar Lee Masters' "Knowlt Hoheimer" and "Lydia Puckett

Updated on February 2, 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



In Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, the short poems, or epitaphs as Masters called them, "Knowlt Hoheimer" features a man who regrets among other things that he had the misfortune of dying in battle.

The character, "Lydia Puckett," offers a little drama showcasing her thoughts on the topic of Knowlt's joining the army.

"Knowlt Hoheimer"

I was the first fruits of the battle of Missionary Ridge.
When I felt the bullet enter my heart
I wished I had staid at home and gone to jail
For stealing the hogs of Curl Trenary,
Instead of running away and joining the army.
Rather a thousand times the country jail
Than to lie under this marble figure with wings,
And this granite pedestal
Bearing the words, "Pro Patria."
What do they mean, anyway?

According to Knowlt, he simply joined the army to avoid jail. He stole some livestock belonging to another man, and thus faced serving time for the crime.

First Movement: "I was the first fruits of the battle of Missionary Ridge"

Knowlt is claiming to have been the first casualty of "the battle of Missionary Ridge." He died after "the bullet enter[ed his] heart."

Knowlt had signed up with the army and went off to war to avoid being incarcerated. After stealing some farm animals belonging to Curl Trenary, Knowlt simply ran off to join the army.

Because he is now dead, having become the first to die in the battle in which his infantry was engaged, he deeply regrets his choice. He discovers that serving some jail time would be preferable to dying in war.

Second Movement: "Rather a thousand times the country jail"

Knowlt now professes great regret over his deadly decision. He laments, "Rather a thousand times the country jail / Than to lie under this marble figure with wings."

Knowlt supposes that he would still be living, had he served his time in jail. He imagines that serving a thousand jail terms would beat dying.

Apparently, Knowlt has been recognized as a war hero. He rests beneath a majestic monument which he describes: "this marble figure with wings, / And this granite pedestal / Bearing the words, "Pro Patria."

Knowlt reveals that he does not even comprehend that "Pro Patria" means "for country." He asks rather sarcastically, "What do they mean, anyway?"

That he does not even know the Latin phrase suggest that he would not believe the sentiment even if understood the words in translation. He likely believes along with the speaker in Wilred Owen's "Dulce et Decroum Est" that the old Horace adage was a lie.

Knowlt by revealing what he does not know further reveals his ignorant narcissism.

"Lydia Puckett

Knowlt Hoheimer ran away to the war
The day before Curl Trenary
Swore out a warrant through Justice Arnett
For stealing hogs.
But that’s not the reason he turned a soldier.
He caught me running with Lucius Atherton.
We quarreled and I told him never again
To cross my path.
Then he stole the hogs and went to the war—
Back of every soldier is a woman.

Lydia Puckett spews forth a very different view of Knowlt Hoheimer's actions. Although he has asserted that he ran off and joined the army simply because he stole some livestock and would have landed in jail over it, Lydia believes Knowlt went to the army because she told him to buzz off.

First Movement: "Knowlt Hoheimer ran away to the war"

Lydia begins her epitaph by reporting some specifics not revealed by Knowlt. Justice Arnett had sworn out a warrant for Knowlt to be arrested, after Curl Trenary, owner of the livestock stolen by Knowlt, had pressed charges against the thief.

Thus, Knowlt claims to have joined the army to avoid incarceration, but Lydia now insists that Knowlt did not got to war for that reason.

Second Movement: "He caught me running with Lucius Atherton"

Lydia and Knowlt had been sweethearts. Then Lydia started seeing "Lucius Atherton" while still involved with Knowlt. After Knowlt discovered Lydia's cheating, the two quarreled. Then Lydia broke ended her relationship with Knowlt.

Knowlt, after the quarrel and break up of his relationship with Lydia, then committed to thief of hogs from Curl Trenary. He subsequently went off to war and was killed.

Lydia waxes philosophical about Knowlt's having died as a soldier; she reasons, unreasonably, "Back of every soldier is a woman."

Reading of "Knowlt Hoheimer" and "Lydia Puckett"

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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    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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