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Edgar Lee Masters' "Lucius Atherton"

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.

Introduction and Text of "Lucius Atherton"

A disgusting poseur, “Lucius Atherton,” from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, complains about the loss of his earlier handsomeness as well as the loss of his ability to draw to himself women of whom he could take advantage. Readers will remember that “Aner Clute” had named Atherton as the man who jilted her, leaving her to take up the life of a prostitute. Aner had claimed that Lucius was a rich man and that they had been engaged.

Although Lucius' epitaph offers no evidence that the two had been engaged or even that he was a rich man, it does confirm the fact the two star-crossed lovers had huge egos. Aner and Lucius, also like many other Spoon River reporters from the grave, possess a penchant for making excuses regarding their own excesses and debauchery.

Lucius Atherton

When my moustache curled,
And my hair was black,
And I wore tight trousers
And a diamond stud,
I was an excellent knave of hearts and took many a trick.
But when the gray hairs began to appear—
Lo! a new generation of girls
Laughed at me, not fearing me,
And I had no more exciting adventures
Wherein I was all but shot for a heartless devil,
But only drabby affairs, warmed-over affairs
Of other days and other men.
And time went on until I lived at Mayer’s restaurant,
Partaking of short-orders, a gray, untidy,
Toothless, discarded, rural Don Juan....
There is a mighty shade here who sings
Of one named Beatrice;
And I see now that the force that made him great
Drove me to the dregs of life.

Reading of Masters' "Lucius Atherton"

Commentary

The "Lucius Atherton" epitaph reveals a truly depraved and delusional man who is decrying his aging body simply because it no longer attracts women.

First Movement: Regrets Aging

When my moustache curled,
And my hair was black,
And I wore tight trousers
And a diamond stud,
I was an excellent knave of hearts and took many a trick.

Formerly a dandy, Atherton begins his report as he reminisces about the man he had been earlier in his life. He had a curling mustache and black hair, no doubt kept perfectly combed. Atherton sported “tight trousers / And a diamond stud.” He describes himself as an “excellent knave of hearts and took many a trick.” He had the ability to attract any woman he might have fancied. The fatuousness of Atherton's nature begins to appear early in his monologue. His choices in behavior and dress suggest that he was likely little more than a male prostitute, who, however, instead of for money, compromised his integrity because of his vanity.

Second Movement: Decrying Loss of Good Looks

But when the gray hairs began to appear—
Lo! a new generation of girls
Laughed at me, not fearing me,
And I had no more exciting adventures

The sole purpose of Atherton's soliloquy is to decry his loss of good looks as the reason that a "new generation" of women were not attracted to him; in fact, these new "girls" would ridicule him openly. Atherton bemoans the fact that these new women showed no "fear" of him. That he desired to have them fear him reveals the depraved nature of this despicable man. He likely raped and beat the women that he had so easily attracted. Atherton's aging body lost for him the ability to engage in "exciting adventures." The many "tricks" he had taken started to dwindle as the years piled up on his physique, and he is deeply disturbed by that loss.

Third Movement: No Long Worth Attention

Wherein I was all but shot for a heartless devil,
But only drabby affairs, warmed-over affairs
Of other days and other men.

While the process of aging was gripping savagely his physique, Atherton began to realize that he was no longer deemed to be worth the attention of this new generation of women. These new women considered him a "heartless devil," and he evolved into a ridiculous humiliation to his former self. Instead of good-looking women, he could pick up only what he describes as “drabby affairs” and “warmed-over affairs." With his decrepitude, Atherton had the ability on to attract only women who had been with many "other men." He is filled with self-pity for his loss of his former handsome body with its magnetism to the female sex.

Fourth Movement: Whining Self-Pity

And time went on until I lived at Mayer’s restaurant,
Partaking of short-orders, a gray, untidy,
Toothless, discarded, rural Don Juan....

Throughout Atherton's caterwauling screed of whining self-pity, nowhere does he suggest that he offered any service to the community of humankind. It remains unclear that he ever had a job. He seems to hint that whatever means of support he formerly possessed he had also lost that. Atherton claims he finally ended up “liv[ing] at Mayer’s restaurant,” where he ate, “short-orders.” He is likely exaggerating, not actually saying that he resides at the restaurant but just takes most or all of his meals there. Likely the fact that Atherton leaves his listeners in the dark about how he met expenses and where he lived indicates a blurred mind, possibly being eaten up by syphilis. Atherton then gives a truly pathetic description of himself: “a gray, untidy, / Toothless, discarded, rural Don Juan.” No doubt a grave insult to the real "Don Juan."

Fifth Movement: Arrogant Popinjay

There is a mighty shade here who sings
Of one named Beatrice;
And I see now that the force that made him great
Drove me to the dregs of life.

Finally, with an arrogance to rival that of the pathetic popinjay Barack Obama, who liked to brag that he wrote two books all by himself, Atherton compares himself to the great poet Dante Alighieri, composer of The Divine Comedy. Atherton would have us believe, "that the force that made [Dante] great / Drove me to the dregs of life." Dante's driving force was spiritual love, symbolically portrayed by the beautiful Beatrice. Atherton's driving force was his penchant only for physical lust, demonstrated by his emphasis on his good looks and the pain that losing his physical appearance has caused him as he could no longer attract women for his exciting adventures. While Lucius Atherton does belong to the same class of men that includes Bill Clinton, Atherton has nothing in common with Dante Alighieri.

Edgar Lee Masters

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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