Edgar Lee Masters’ "Nellie Clark"

Updated on May 25, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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


Introduction and Text of "Nellie Clark"

The speaker of Edgar Lee Master's epitaph titled "Nellie Clark" from Spoon River Anthology begins her blunt report by describing a horrific event that certainly influenced the direction of her life and likely shortened that life.

Although this character remains simplistic, lacking much depth of experience and feeling, she does communicate her confusion and life of horror as she focuses on the despicable act that ruined her life.

Nellie Clark

I was only eight years old;
And before I grew up and knew what it meant
I had no words for it, except
That I was frightened and told my Mother;
And that my Father got a pistol
And would have killed Charlie, who was a big boy,
Fifteen years old, except for his Mother.
Nevertheless the story clung to me.
But the man who married me, a widower of thirty-five,
Was a newcomer and never heard it
Till two years after we were married.
Then he considered himself cheated,
And the village agreed that I was not really a virgin.
Well, he deserted me, and I died
The following winter.

Reading of "Nellie Clark"


Nellie Clark’s report focuses on the traumatic event she experienced at only eight years of age.

First Movement: A Violent Experience

When she was only eight years old, Nellie was raped by Charlie, an older boy of fifteen.
The little girl did not even realize what had happened to her, and she could not even give that act a label; as she explains, she had "no words for it."

However, Nellie did describe the act to her mother because she did experienced fear after the act occurred. Although Nellie has no word for crime at only age eight, even as she reports as an adult, she never uses the term "rape."

However, no reader can come away from Nellie's description without knowing what had occurred and know that the term "rape" does apply to what happened to the little girl. As an eight year old, there is no way that Nellie could have consented to that violent assault that took her virginity.

Second Movement: Violent Intentions

After learning about what happened to his daughter, Nellie's father took out his pistol with intentions of killing the boy, Charlie, who had raped his daughter. Nellie's father, however, did not kill the boy. And it remains somewhat unclear who managed to stop him.

Nellie states it this way: " . . . my Father got a pistol / And would have killed Charlie, who was a big boy, / Fifteen years old, except for his Mother." It remains unclear whether the "Mother" was the mother of Nellie's father or the mother of Charlie, the boy who raped Nellie.

It is likely Charlie's mother. Nellie would possibly have said her grandmother, if Nellie's father's mother has been the one to stop him. Either way, some mother prevents Nellie's father from becoming a murderer, which would have further traumatized the young girl.

Third Movement: Nellie's Husband

Nellie then reports that she had to live with the story following her throughout her life; she expresses it as, "the story clung to me." Eventually, Nellie marries a man who had relocated to Spoon River and who did not know about Nellie's unfortunate assault.

Nellie's husband had been a widower and was thirty-five years old. It is unclear the exact age of Nellie at the time of marriage, but she appears to suggest that she was still in her teens or likely in her early twenties.

Nellie and her husband had been married only two years when he learned that Nellie had been raped when she was eight years old. The man's "newcomer" status had prevented him from being aware of the story clinging to the young Nellie.

Fourth Movement: He Felt Cheated

After learning about Nellie's attack and therefore her lack of virginity, her husband leaves her. He claimed that he felt "cheated." Nellie asserts that, "the village agreed that I was not really a virgin." Then after being abandoned by her husband, Nellie dies the "following winter." Nellie offers no indication as to how she died.

Nellie, thus, leaves her listeners wondering how old she was when she died and what caused her early death, but those two details pale in comparison to the grizzly scene Nellie had earlier in her report planted in the mind's eye of her readers.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.


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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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