Edgar Lee Masters' "Lucius Atherton"

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


Introduction: The Debauchery of a Womanizer

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.

Reading of Masters' "Lucius Atherton"

First Movement: “When my moustache curled”

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: “But when the gray hairs began to appear”

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: “Wherein I was all but shot for a heartless devil”

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: “And time went on until I lived at Mayer’s restaurant”

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: “There is a mighty shade here who sings”

Finally, with an arrogance to rival that of the pathetic popinjay Barack Obama, 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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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