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Edgar Lee Masters' "Theodore the Poet"

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.

Introduction and Text of "Theodore the Poet"

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Theodore the Poet" from Spoon River Anthology consists of two movements, each with three minor movements. The first grand movement focuses on Theodore’s intense scrutiny of crawfish. The second grand movement reveals that same level of study of people. This complex arrangement fits the conception of this unique speaker as a "poet." As poets are "makers," they need material for the making; unfortunately, Theodore offers no examples of his poetic products, only the moving part of his mind, gathered in those bits of materials.

Theodore the Poet

As a boy, Theodore, you sat for long hours
On the shore of the turbid Spoon
With deep-set eye staring at the door of the crawfish’s burrow,
Waiting for him to appear, pushing ahead,
First his waving antennæ, like straws of hay,
And soon his body, colored like soap-stone,
Gemmed with eyes of jet.
And you wondered in a trance of thought
What he knew, what he desired, and why he lived at all.
But later your vision watched for men and women
Hiding in burrows of fate amid great cities,
Looking for the souls of them to come out,
So that you could see
How they lived, and for what,
And why they kept crawling so busily
Along the sandy way where water fails
As the summer wanes.

Reading of "Theodore the Poet"

Commentary: First Grand Movement - Observation of Crawfish

In the first grand movement, the speaker offers details gleaned from his hours of observing crawfish. This movement plays out in the first, second, and third minor movements.

First Minor Movement: Addressing His Alter Ego

As a boy, Theodore, you sat for long hours
On the shore of the turbid Spoon
With deep-set eye staring at the door of the crawfish’s burrow,
Waiting for him to appear, pushing ahead,

As Theodore addresses an alter ego, he is demonstrating the introspective nature of the poet. He begins by broaching the subject of his life-long habit of sitting by Spoon River "for long hours." As Theodore sat peering intensely at the opening of the crawfish's abode, the budding poet in him waited with curiosity for the crawfish to appear.

Second Minor Movement: Crawfish

First his waving antennæ, like straws of hay,
And soon his body, colored like soap-stone,
Gemmed with eyes of jet.

The speaker then dramatizes his next act of talking to himself as he vividly describes the appearance of the crawfish followed by their activities. The crawfish’s antennae were waving, and they looked like "straws of hay.” After the hay-like antennae appeared, the body of the crawfish soon emerged. The crawfish body was the color of "soap-stone," and it was "gemmed with eyes of jet." Theodore knows these details because he so studiously observed them.

Third Minor Movement: Philosophical Turn of Mind

And you wondered in a trance of thought
What he knew, what he desired, and why he lived at all.

In the final minor movement of the first grand movement, the speaker reveals what was on his mind as he watched the crawfish. He was, in fact, musing on and wondering about what the crawfish knew and what they desired. Finally, he desired to understand why those creature even existed. Theodore’s observations and musing demonstrate the philosophical nature of the mind of his ilk as a poet. Poets like Ralph Waldo Emerson possessed that same kind of philosophical mind—observing, wondering, musing, and finally putting those musings down in written form.

Crawfish in the North Fork Smith River, Oregon

Commentary: Second Grand Movement - Observation of People

In the second grand movement, the speaker offers his observation of people. This grand movement displays in the following fourth, fifth, and sixth three minor movements.

Fourth Minor Movement: From Crawfish to People

But later your vision watched for men and women
Hiding in burrows of fate amid great cities,
Looking for the souls of them to come out,

In the second grand movement, later in Theodore’s life, instead of watching crawfish, he turned to observing people; thus, he claims that “men and women” became the focus of his peering eye. Because of Theodore’s former experience of waiting and watching for crawfish, the speaker/poet metaphorically refers to the places from which people exit as “burrows,” as he referred to the abode of the crawfish. But he describes those people-burrows as great “hiding” places where those men and women play out their “fate amid great cities.” Theodore then explains that he was watching the people to determine the nature of their souls; thus, he was constantly searching for evidence of soulful behavior of the men and women he so studiously watched.

Fifth Minor Movement: Same Attitude

So that you could see
How they lived, and for what,

In this transitional movement, Theodore reveals that he watched the people with nearly the identical attitude that he had watched the crawfish: he wanted to understand the nature and procedure involved in the lives of those men and women as well as what those people desired out of life. The philosophical mind of Theodore the Poet has drawn the inevitable parallel between human and animal life in such a way as to confound the minds of lesser observers. Theodore’s observations have thus offered a unique poetic view of creation.

Sixth Minor Movement: The Question of Existence Remains

And why they kept crawling so busily
Along the sandy way where water fails
As the summer wanes.

Theodore wanted to understand people as well crawfish, but in the end, people became virtually indistinguishable from the crawfish. In Theodore’s colorful description, just as the crawfish crawled over the sand, the people, in Theodore’s mind, took on the same quality of “crawling so busily / Along the sandy way.”

Also like crawfish, those men and women seemed to be moving along that same "sandy way where water fails / As the summer wanes." Theodore has concluded that both crawfish and humankind seem to live rather useless lives, and because he leaves off his discussion without approaching his other main desire of knowing why those creatures, whether belonging to the animal kingdom or to the human race exist at all, he is implying that he will continue to wonder why. And likely he has concluded that there is no answer that the human mind can ever conceive which can fully and finally answer that ultimate question of existence.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes