Edgar Lee Masters' "Nicholas Bindle"

Updated on December 17, 2019
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 "Nicholas Bindle"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ “Nicholas Bindle” from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker is venting his outrage at the town’s citizenry for continuing to harass him for charitable offerings while his financial situation was not strong.

Nicholas also demonstrates his disgust that Deacon Rhodes was acquitted of bank fraud. This poem’s speaker begins with a question for his fellow citizens who, he feels, should be ashamed for their role in urging him to donate.

Nicholas' opening question reveals his own beliefs about the situation and therefore is rhetorical in nature. Of course, he wants them to feel shame as he is berating them. The speaker concludes his tirade also with a question that again reveals his own disgust at how unfairly he thinks he was treated.

Nicholas Bindle condenses his tirade into an eleven-line near-sonnet, which bellows his deep displeasure from the grave. Nicholas Bindle is one of the extremely unhappy deceased who use their epitaph to castigate their fellow citizens with sharp, critical words. Bindle expresses deep contempt for the citizens of Spoon River.

Nicholas Bindle

Were you not ashamed, fellow citizens,
When my estate was probated and everyone knew
How small a fortune I left?—
You who hounded me in life,
To give, give, give to the churches, to the poor,
To the village!—me who had already given much.
And think you not I did not know
That the pipe-organ, which I gave to the church,
Played its christening songs when Deacon Rhodes,
Who broke the bank and all but ruined me,
Worshipped for the first time after his acquittal?

Reading of "Nicholas Bindle"


Nicholas Bindle is one of the many unhappy dead, who spit out unkind words at the citizens of Spoon River.

First Movement: Chiding for Charity

Were you not ashamed, fellow citizens,
When my estate was probated and everyone knew
How small a fortune I left?—

The speaker, Nicholas Bindle, chides his “fellow citizens” for begging him to give to charity. He needles them as he asked if they were “not ashamed” when they became aware that his estate was so meager.

After Nicholas' death, his estate was “probated” in the courts, and the size of his holdings would have been exposed. Of course, he is implying that his generosity in giving to charities has depleted his funds.

Of course, Nicholas knows that those citizens understand “how small a fortune [he] left” behind, and he wants to vent his anger and frustration over the issue.

Second Movement: Begging for More

You who hounded me in life,
To give, give, give to the churches, to the poor,
To the village!—me who had already given much.

Nicholas continues his rant, accusing the citizens of “hound[ing]” him to “give, give, give.” They constantly implored him to donate “to the churches, to the poor, / To the village!”

Indignantly, the speaker claims that he had “already give[n] much,” yet they continued to badger him for more. Nicholas wants to make sure his fellow citizens understand the deep frustration their pleading for charitable offerings has engendered in him.

Third Movement: Guilt That Goes Unpunished

And think you not I did not know
That the pipe-organ, which I gave to the church,
Played its christening songs when Deacon Rhodes,
Who broke the bank and all but ruined me,
Worshipped for the first time after his acquittal?

Finally, Nicholas does reveal that he actually did provide some bounty: he gave the church a pipe-organ. But instead of taking any comfort in his giving, he is outraged because “Deacon Rhodes” had been in attendance when the pipe-organ first “played its christening songs.” In an earlier poem, the reader learned about Deacon Rhodes, who won his acquittal through some legal chicanery. The unfairness of this situation rankles the frustrated Nicholas as he derides those who caused it to happen.

Although Nicholas does not allude to those specific circumstances, because he probably does not know the details, he is obsessed because Rhodes’ guilt went unpunished. Nicholas along with other citizens would have experienced financial hardship and even ruin because of old Thomas Rhodes breaking the bank. Nicholas expresses his outrage as he compares his own situation to those whom he believes bear guilt, while he is an innocent man hounded by the busy-body citizens of Spoon River.

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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