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Edgar Lee Masters' "Roger Heston"

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

Introduction and Text of "Roger Heston"

Enthusiasts of Edgar Lee Masters' American classic, Spoon River Anthology, become aware that several poems exist in a themed series, such as the Pantier sequence and the Minerva Jones sequence.

Readers met Ernest Hyde in the previous eponymous epitaph. Other epitaphs merely mention another character but without forming a sequence. Roger Heston mentions Ernest Hyde but there the story ends. However, it is always useful to read or re-read the epitaph of the mentioned name when encountering a new voice.

Like Ernest Hyde, Roger Heston liked to argue about philosophical issues. Heston’s point of view on the issue of free will, unfortunately, leads to his death because of his "favorite metaphor." As with many of the epitaphs, Heston reveals how he died, which is a fact that readers of these pieces desire to know. However, regarding the issue of free will, Heston leaves his stance in abeyance.

While readers become aware that Heston apparently argued that free will was real, and Hyde likely took that opposite side, Heston’s view remains unclear after it appears that Hyde has offered the better argument. Perhaps, Heston, after dying, concludes that the issue no longer matters, or maybe he simply needs more time to reaffirm his position—likely he realizes, at least, that he needs a new "favorite metaphor."

There does exist a certain level of dark humor in the Roger Heston epitaph—a man dying because of a metaphor involving a cow. His unfortunate fall, however, while running speaks volumes and becomes a symbol for his wrong-headedness. The irony, however, is not lost on Hyde, whose wisecrack to Heston remains so strong in the former’s mind that it has become part of his after-death testimony.

Roger Heston

Oh many times did Ernest Hyde and I
Argue about the freedom of the will.
My favorite metaphor was Prickett’s cow
Roped out to grass, and free you know as far
As the length of the rope.
One day while arguing so, watching the cow
Pull at the rope to get beyond the circle
Which she had eaten bare,
Out came the stake, and tossing up her head,
She ran for us.
"What’s that, free-will or what?" said Ernest, running.
I fell just as she gored me to my death.

Reading of "Roger Heston"

Commentary

Two philosophically inclined opponents argue the complex and profound issue of free will. Do human beings really have free will or are they like puppets on a string, pulled by an angry entity, whom no one can ever know? Does it even matter if a man has free will? Because he dies eventually anyway! Whether humankind is free to do or think seems to come to naught.

First Movement: The Recurring Argument

Oh many times did Ernest Hyde and I
Argue about the freedom of the will.

Roger Heston lets his audience know that he and Ernest Hyde used to discuss philosophical issues, such as free will. Readers had experienced Hyde’s philosophical frame of mind in his epitaph. No great mind was Hyde, and now Roger Heston comes along to emphasize that fact, while at the same time revealing the poverty of his own philosophical thinking.

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Heston makes no critical judgment regarding Hyde’s argument, but he lets his listeners know that he and Hyde had quite often, "many times," discussed the issue. Nay, they did not only "discuss" the issue, as Heston claims, but they also "argue[d]" about the issue. Heston does not state directly which side either Hyde or he took regarding the issue, but his eventual demise makes it fairly clear that Heston had argued for free will, while Hyde argued against it.

Second Movement: The Cow Metaphor

My favorite metaphor was Prickett’s cow
Roped out to grass, and free you know as far
As the length of the rope.

While Hyde and Heston were wont to argue philosophical issues, Heston narrates his little story by offering his "favorite metaphor," a cow tethered with a rope, demonstrating that the animal has free will as far as the rope allows. However, in a discussion about free will, it is revealing that a participant would choose such an inept metaphor. Likening human will to that of lower evolved bovine is ludicrous and unworkable. Although Heston then appears to be arguing that free will exists for humans, it simply makes no sense to make such a non-analogous comparison.

In order to counter such a stance, all the opponent has to do is argue that animals are guided primarily by instinct and that in human beings, instinct is replaced by free will. By choosing to base his argument on the behavior and subsequent activities of a lower evolved creature, the arguer opens himself up to the exact ending that he faces, with his opponent besting him in the worst way and at the worst time—as the opponent is dying.

Third Movement: Watching the Literal Cow

One day while arguing so, watching the cow
Pull at the rope to get beyond the circle
Which she had eaten bare,
Out came the stake, and tossing up her head,
She ran for us.

Heston then begins his narration of a time when he and Hyde were discussing the issue of free will. They were actually watching Prickett’s cow attempting to free itself from the restraint of the rope because it has eaten all the grass within its reach and desired to pursue additional sustenance. Suddenly, the cow breaks the rope-securing stake loose from the ground. The cow begins running, "tossing up her head," and she runs straight for the pair of philosophers.

Fourth Movement: Gored by the Cow

"What’s that, free-will or what?" said Ernest, running.
I fell just as she gored me to my death.

As Hyde is running, he cracks wise to Heston, "What’s that, free-will or what?" Heston falls and succumbs to the animal’s next act of "gor[ing him] to death." There the narration stops with a thud; therefore, Spoon River readers do learn how Heston died, but they do not learn what Roger Heston’s next philosophical argument might have been regarding the issue of free will.

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes

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