Edgar Lee Masters' "Thomas Rhodes"

Updated on July 26, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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 "Thomas Rhodes"

Thomas Rhodes appears in several other Spoon River epitaphs, always described as a greedy yet powerful man. In his own report, he demonstrates the personality behind the reputation.

104. Thomas Rhodes

Very well, you liberals,
And navigators into realms intellectual,
You sailors through heights imaginative,

Blown about by erratic currents, tumbling into air pockets,
You Margaret Fuller Slacks, Petits,
And Tennessee Claflin Shopes—
You found with all your boasted wisdom
How hard at the last it is
To keep the soul from splitting into cellular atoms.
While we, seekers of earth’s treasures,
Getters and hoarders of gold,
Are self-contained, compact, harmonized,
Even to the end.

Reading of "Thomas Rhodes"

Commentary

Thomas Rhodes' own words indict him even better than the claims of all the others who have castigated the influential businessman and banker.

First Movement: Classical Liberal vs Modern Liberal

Very well, you liberals,
And navigators into realms intellectual,
You sailors through heights imaginative,
Blown about by erratic currents, tumbling into air pockets,

Thomas Rhodes is an influential businessman, banker, and well-known and widely despised citizen of Spoon River. He begins his rant by castigating "liberals," and people who deem themselves "intellectual." He colorfully accuses his enemies of being, "Blown about by erratic currents, tumbling into air pockets."

The term "liberal" here differs somewhat from modern liberalism. The political atmosphere during the late 19th and early 20th centuries pitted libertinism against traditional values. Closer to the classical liberal definition, it puts Thomas Rhodes into a category that today is more equivalent to modern liberalism. Rather than perceive Rhodes through the lens of liberal vs conservative, it is more accurate to perceive him as a stodgy hypocrite vs a staid citizen of tradition values. While Rhodes would claim he accepts tradition values, his behavior demonstrates his hypocrisy, power-hunger, and greed, all features of the modern day "liberal."

Second Movement: Soul Splintering

You Margaret Fuller Slacks, Petits,
And Tennessee Claflin Shopes—
You found with all your boasted wisdom
How hard at the last it is
To keep the soul from splitting into cellular atoms.

Rhodes then lists three of the people whom he mocks and claiming that despite all of their boasting, they have learned that things are tough all over: Margaret Fuller Slack was a tortured soul who believed that motherhood trounced her ability to become a great writer. Ironically named after the first American feminist, "Margaret Fuller," Mrs. Slack does possess the egotistical personality of her namesake, while suffering the ills that they both decry. Petit, the Poet, claimed he missed out on the life around him. He created a ludicrous a poem that heralds the postmoderns with its absurdity featuring the sound of ticking, and Tennessee Claflin Shope represents a fine example of "boasted wisdom."

Third Movement: Self-Evaluation

While we, seekers of earth’s treasures,
Getters and hoarders of gold,
Are self-contained, compact, harmonized,
Even to the end.

Rhodes then delineates his own estimate of the value of people who think as he does. He is practical and is a "seeker[] of earth's treasures." He is "getter[]." But then he claims to be "hoarder[] of gold," and that is a stupid, negative feature to assign to himself.

But Rhodes continues his self-laudatory description, saying he and his ilk are "self-contained, compact, harmonized, / Even to the end." All of these positive characteristics hoist his ego above the riff-raff of Spoon River.

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

    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

    Comments

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      11 days ago from U.S.A.

      Thank you, Louise! We are fortunate that many of the epitaphs have readings. It always adds a level of meaning to hear it as well as see the text. Blessings, Louise. Always love hearing from you.

    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      3 weeks ago from U.S.A.

      Nice to hear from you, Louise! Yes, all of the Spoon River epitaphs are fascinating pieces of work. These characters are so varied. Unfortunately, not all of them do have well done readings but they are usually better than nothing. It's always helpful to hear the piece spoken, assists understanding of the lines to hear them as well as see them.

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      3 weeks ago from Norfolk, England

      I love this poem. And the video is well spoken. I do like his poetry.

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