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Edgar Lee Masters’ "Mrs. Meyers" and "Isa Nutter"

Edgar Lee Masters' classic work, "Spoon River Anthology," offers a fascinating character study of the American mind in the mid-20th-century.

Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters

Introduction and Text of "Mrs. Meyers"

Edgar Lee Masters "Mrs. Meyers" from 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 Jones" 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 on "Mrs. Meyers"

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. Neither the doctor nor his wife offers 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.

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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 the 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 the sin of murder, which 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.

Edgar Lee Masters - Commemorative Stamp

Edgar Lee Masters - Commemorative Stamp

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Isa Nutter"

Isa Nutter suffered from a seemingly mysterious illness, but his complaint gradually reveals his problem along with how he apparently solved it.

Introduction and Text of "Isa Nutter"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Isa Nutter" from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker declares his beef with his relatives who hassled him mercilessly for his choice in female companionship.

This speaker mentions Doc Meyers and Doc Hill, two physicians of Spoon River, each of whom had diagnosed Nutter's misery very differently. Nutter, however, disagrees with both diagnoses and offers one of his own.

Isa Nutter

Doc Meyers said I had satyriasis,
And Doc Hill called it leucæmia—
But I know what brought me here:
I was sixty-four but strong as a man
Of thirty-five or forty.
And it wasn’t writing a letter a day,
And it wasn’t late hours seven nights a week,
And it wasn’t the strain of thinking of Minnie,
And it wasn’t fear or a jealous dread,
Or the endless task of trying to fathom
Her wonderful mind, or sympathy
For the wretched life she led
With her first and second husband—
It was none of these that laid me low—
But the clamor of daughters and threats of sons,
And the sneers and curses of all my kin
Right up to the day I sneaked to Peoria
And married Minnie in spite of them—
And why do you wonder my will was made
For the best and purest of women?

Reading of "Isa Nutter"

Commentary on "Isa Nutter"

Isa Nutter suffered from a seemingly mysterious illness, but his complaint gradually reveals his problem along with how he apparently solved it.

First Movement: Mystery Illness

Doc Meyers said I had satyriasis,
And Doc Hill called it leucæmia—
But I know what brought me here:
I was sixty-four but strong as a man
Of thirty-five or forty.

The speaker, Isa Nutter, apparently suffered from mysterious illness and begins his complaint by arguing against the diagnoses of two Spoon River physicians, Doc Meyers and Doc Hill.

Doc Meyers had determined that Nutter suffered from satyriasis, the male version of nyphhmania in females. Doc Hill, however, called Nutter's condition "leucæmia," alternate spelling, leukemia.

Nutter disagrees with both doctors, and he begins his argument by stating that his health was perfectly fine for a man his age, which was sixty-four years. He barks that he was as strong as any man the age of "thirty-five or forty."

Thus the diagnosis of leukemia would be puzzling, for that disease weakens the victim and causes bleeding, bruising, and fever. Nutter would know if he suffered any of those effects, but he does not deny them with the exception that he touts his strength.

However, if Nutter's condition stemmed from an overactive sex drive which he satisfied often, he might experience some of those symptoms plus depression.

That he denies out of hand both diagnoses, however, means he has some other explanation in mind for his problem. At this point in his narrative, the reader/listener has no idea what his condition might be.

Second Movement: Exploring Possibilities

And it wasn’t writing a letter a day,
And it wasn’t late hours seven nights a week,
And it wasn’t the strain of thinking of Minnie,
And it wasn’t fear or a jealous dread,
Or the endless task of trying to fathom
Her wonderful mind, or sympathy
For the wretched life she led
With her first and second husband—

In the second movement of Nutter's narrative, he catalogues all the issues that might have caused his problem. He seems to suggest that the doctors might have pointed out those activities, but that remains unclear.

It is possible that Nutter went about town complaining to anyone he could engage in conversation and has accumulated the list of possible causes for his ailment.

But Nutter is now dismissing each issue. He denies that his problem stemmed from daily letter writing, or staying up late every night. He also takes issue the suggestion that his condition was worsened by his concentration on Minnie. However, after he mentions "Minnie," his denial begins to unravel.

He claims his condition did not stem from "the strain of thinking of Minnie." But then the rest of his narrative is focused on Minnie, and now he has inadvertently revealed that his condition was depression because of the circumstances surrounding Minnie's life and his relationship with her.

As he continues his catalogue of issues that he is dismissing, he is simultaneously revealing these issues are the very root of the condition for which he sought medical treatment from the two town doctors.

In fact, his condition is stemming from the daily letter writing, the late nights, and the thinking of Minnie. Additionally, his condition of depression was exacerbated by his fear and "jealous dread," entailed by "trying to fathom / Her wonderful mind."

Despite possessing a wonderful mind, Minnie had led a "wretched life" because of her first two marriages. Nutter, no doubt, also harbors a great hatred in his heart for those husbands who have scarred the life of this "wonderful mind."

Third Movement: It's Their Fault!

It was none of these that laid me low—
But the clamor of daughters and threats of sons,
And the sneers and curses of all my kin
Right up to the day I sneaked to Peoria
And married Minnie in spite of them—
And why do you wonder my will was made
For the best and purest of women?

But Nutter categorically denies that any of those issue "laid [him] low." And now he reveals what did actually lay him low: And instead of doctors' diagnoses and the list of other issues, Nutter believes his depression was caused by constant harassment by his own kinfolk.

That he describes his problem as being laid low confirms that his illness was, in fact, depression, and he is correct that neither doctor detected this problem. Although each doctor might have been on the right track.

Nutter could have been suffering from satyriasis and leukemia as well as depression, and likely those illness could have been further exacerbating his depression.

So after his denials, Nutter lays out clearly the suffering that played out in his mind. He was constantly being nagged by clamoring daughters and sons who threatened him. Furthermore, he was suffering from all of his relatives' "sneers and curses."

Nutter suffered these tribulations from his nasty kinfolk until finally he relocates from Spoon River to Peoria, and despite all the sneers, curses, clamoring, and threats, he marries this woman of the "wonderful mind."

Nutter's final remark attempts to cap his complaint with the notion he finally got the last laugh. Instead of allowing his bedeviling relatives to inherit his estate, he has written his will "for the best and purest of women."

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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