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Edgar Lee Masters’ "Mrs. Meyers"

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. - Clarence Darrow Law Library

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq. - Clarence Darrow Law Library

Introduction and Text of "Mrs. Meyers"

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Mrs. Meyers" from the American classic, Spoon River Anthology, is an American curtal sonnet. The curtal sonnet features 11 lines with the traditional rime scheme of abcabc dcbdc or abcabc dbcdc. The final line is often a half line; an example is Father Gerard Manley Hopkins "Pied Beauty." Father Hopkins is credited with this form’s invention. However, Masters’ curtal departs from the traditional form as it dispenses with the rime scheme and is sectioned into two quatrains and one tercet; thus, it is an innovative or American curtal sonnet.

"Mrs. Meyers" is the fourth poem in the "Minerva" sequence. The poem finds Dr. Meyers' wife testifying to the fact that her husband, whom she calls "Poor soul," reaped his just rewards for his actions in life, particularly the abortion that killed Minerva.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Mrs. Meyers

He protested all his life long
The newspapers lied about him villainously;
That he was not at fault for Minerva’s fall,
But only tried to help her.
Poor soul so sunk in sin he could not see
That even trying to help her, as he called it,
He had broken the law human and divine.
Passers by, an ancient admonition to you:
If your ways would be ways of pleasantness,
And all your pathways peace,
Love God and keep his commandments.

Reading of "Mrs. Meyers"

Commentary

Mrs. Meyers offers her opinion regarding her husband's reputation and actions. Often other characters help fill out the character of those who have earlier given testimony to their own actions and worth.

First Movement: A Drama of Protest

He protested all his life long
The newspapers lied about him villainously;
That he was not at fault for Minerva’s fall,
But only tried to help her.

The first movement of "Mrs. Meyers" is a quatrain stanza and has Mrs. Meyer speaking directly about her husband. Without identifying him by name, she simply begins by stating their husband complained about his lot for his entire life. And the reader will remember that he did, indeed; his little drama’s raison d’être is to expound on the grounds for his complaint.

Mrs. Meyers reports more specifically about her husband’s protest; in his view, the newspapers reported falsely and viciously about the doctor. Of course, neither the doctor nor his wife offer any details regarding those reports. But her husband always contended that he was only trying to help the pregnant poetess, Minerva Jones, by aborting her baby.

Second Movement: The Crime of Murder

Poor soul so sunk in sin he could not see
That even trying to help her, as he called it,
He had broken the law human and divine.

After explaining Doctor Meyers’ position on his situation, Mrs. Meyers reveals her philosophical, religious view of his problem: she believes that he committed a crime by murdering that unborn child, and despite her sorrow and sympathy for him, she knows that those who commit such atrocities must be held accountable for breaking "the law human and divine."

Mrs. Meyers calls her husband a "poor soul," for he was obviously blind to his grave error. He spent his lifetime trying to justify his complicity in committing a sin that in no way can be justified.

Third Movement: The Tragedy of Poor Judgment

Passers by, an ancient admonition to you:
If your ways would be ways of pleasantness,
And all your pathways peace,
Love God and keep his commandments.

Finally, Mrs. Meyers offers a piece of advice to the "passers by" who might be listening to her account. She tells them that if they would live a tranquil and peaceful life, they must "Love God and keep his commandments."

Mrs. Meyers calls her advice "an ancient admonition," which gives its import the weight of truth. She had lived with a man who was basically a good soul but who allowed his good judgment to be averted in order to appease a foolish woman. Mrs. Meyers has lived with and observed the sorrow that results from failing to follow the ancient law of karma, of sowing and reaping.

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.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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