Edgar Lee Masters' "Tennessee Claflin Shope"

Updated on August 1, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edgar Lee Masters

Source

Introduction and Text of "Tennessee Claflin Shope"

Tennessee Claflin Shope attempts to rehabilitate his reputation as a "laughing-stock" of Spoon River. He tries to show that he deserved more respect than he got. He asserts that his mastering and curing his own soul was more important than engaging in political and religious discussions or observing the many superstitions that abound in the village.

Tennessee Claflin Shope

I was the laughing-stock of the village,
Chiefly of the people of good sense, as they call themselves—
Also of the learned, like Rev. Peet, who read Greek
The same as English.
For instead of talking free trade,
Or preaching some form of baptism;
Instead of believing in the efficacy
Of walking cracks, picking up pins the right way,
Seeing the new moon over the right shoulder,
Or curing rheumatism with blue glass,
I asserted the sovereignty of my own soul.
Before Mary Baker G. Eddy even got started
With what she called science
I had mastered the “Bhagavad Gita,”
And cured my soul, before Mary
Began to cure bodies with souls—
Peace to all worlds!

Reading of "Tennessee Claflin Shope"

Commentary

As Spoon River Cemetery inmates go, Shope comes of a one of the more mild mannered, even though he is attempting rescue his reputation from those who merely thought of him as the town laughing-stock.

First Movement: Laughed at by the Good Sense People

I was the laughing-stock of the village,
Chiefly of the people of good sense, as they call themselves—
Also of the learned, like Rev. Peet, who read Greek
The same as English.

The character, Tennessee Claflin Shope, begins by admitting, actually boasting, that he was considered a target of ridicule from the townspeople. But that ridicule came mainly from people who claim to be sensible, a quality that Shope disavows for them.

Shope also cites Rev. Peet as one of the "learned," stating the reverend could read Greek as well as English. Rev. Peet will be remembered as complaining that after his effects were sold at auction, the grog-keeper acquired his trunk full of sermons. And the grog-keeper burned those sermons, an act that causes the reverend much consternation.

Second Movement: Found His Own Soul

For instead of talking free trade,
Or preaching some form of baptism;
Instead of believing in the efficacy
Of walking cracks, picking up pins the right way,
Seeing the new moon over the right shoulder,
Or curing rheumatism with blue glass,
I asserted the sovereignty of my own soul.

Shope then begins to catalogue the many things that he believes these so-called people of good sense believe and do. He asserts that he has discovered the "sovereignty of [his] own soul."

Therefore Shope disdained talking the politics of "free trade," or suggesting types of baptism. He eschewed superstitions like "walking cracks" or "picking up pins" properly. He failed to observe the "new moon" above his "right shoulder." He held no stock in the belief that rheumatism could be cured "with blue glass."

Third Movement: The Science of Soul Sovereignty

Before Mary Baker G. Eddy even got started
With what she called science
I had mastered the “Bhagavad Gita,”
And cured my soul, before Mary
Began to cure bodies with souls—
Peace to all worlds!

Shope now reveals that he found his own soul before the invention of Christian Science by "Mary Bake G. Eddy." He then boasts that he had "mastered the 'Bhagavad Gita'" without having the privilege of the Christian Science knowledge.

Shope claims to have "cured" his own soul before Mary began to show people how to cure their bodies through soul power. He then wishes peace to "all worlds!."

Although Shope comes off as a braggart, he remains mostly a mystery. Without further examples of what he means by curing his soul, it remains doubtful that he has "cured" that soul entirely.

And was Shope also able to cure his body of ailments? His level of spiritual advancement remains in doubt. He comes off as a name dropper, and although he thinks he was the laughing-stock of the village, he wants desperately to show that he merited genuine respect for his uncommon abilities.

Edgar Lee Masters - Commemorative Stamp

Source

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.

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    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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