Updated date:

Edgar Lee Masters' "Zenas Witt"

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

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

Introduction and Text of "Zenas Witt"

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Zenas Witt" from Spoon River Anthology features an unfortunate character whose nerves, it would seem, led him to an early grave. Zenas is one of Edgar Lee Masters’ more vague speakers from the Spoon River graveyard.

This speaker does manage to impart the fact that his short life caused him great suffering before it was extinguished at an early age sometime vaguely after he had turned sixteen. The poor lad Zenas never becomes specific enough to let the reader know exactly when he died or what he died of. That omission seems to be intentionally motivated in order to emphasize the young man's poor memory and weakness of health.

Zenas Witt

I was sixteen, and I had the most terrible dreams,
And specks before my eyes, and nervous weakness.
And I couldn’t remember the books I read,
Like Frank Drummer who memorized page after page
And my back was weak, and I worried and worried,
And I was embarrassed and stammered my lessons,
And when I stood up to recite I’d forget
Everything that I had studied.
Well, I saw Dr. Weese’s advertisement,
And there I read everything in print,
Just as if he had known me;
And about the dreams which I couldn’t help.
So I knew I was marked for an early grave.
And I worried until I had a cough,
And then the dreams stopped.
And then I slept the sleep without dreams
Here on the hill by the river.

Reading of "Zenas Witt"

Commentary

One of Edgar Lee Masters’ more vague speakers from the grave, Zenas Witt does make it clear that he suffered a miserable existence from age sixteen.

First Movement: Fuzzy Thinking

I was sixteen, and I had the most terrible dreams,
And specks before my eyes, and nervous weakness.
And I couldn’t remember the books I read,
Like Frank Drummer who memorized page after page

Zenas begins his discourse, by announcing that when he was sixteen years old, he had "the most terrible dreams." He saw "specks before [his] eyes." He reports his inability to remember books he had read. Zenas likens his condition to "Frank Drummer," who claimed to have memorized the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.

The disconnect between Zenas’ assertion that his condition was similar to Frank Drummer and his own description of his difficulty demonstrates the fuzzy thinking that the former seems to suffer in addition to his physical problems.

Second Movement: Bad Health

And my back was weak, and I worried and worried,
And I was embarrassed and stammered my lessons,
And when I stood up to recite I’d forget
Everything that I had studied.

Zenas continues to describe his unfortunate health issues: he had a weak back, he worried excessively, he was easily embarrassed by his maladies, and when he had to stand up in class to recite his lessons he would forget them. Zenas' memory was so bad that even though he had studied, he could never remember anything he had committed to memory.

Third Movement: Miracle Cure

Well, I saw Dr. Weese’s advertisement,
And there I read everything in print,
Just as if he had known me;
And about the dreams which I couldn’t help.

Zenas reports that he saw "Dr. Weese’s advertisement" and was attracted by what the ad said. He read everything about Dr. Weese’s putative miracle cure. Zenas felt that the doctor was describing his own situation, "just as if he had known me."

The doc even knows about the dreams, and Zenas feels he must emphasis that he could not control the dreams. Such a confession implies that Zenas might have believed he had control over his other woes but felt guilty that he did not do so.

Fourth Movement: No Miracle Cure

So I knew I was marked for an early grave.
And I worried until I had a cough,
And then the dreams stopped.

Nothing ever came of this possible miracle cure, and Zenas admits that he was sure he would die early. Thus, he continued to worry right up until the time developed a cough. Zenas says that the dreams abruptly came to a halt. He does not elaborate or even hint at how long he continued to suffer his nervousness, nightmares, and poor memory.

Fifth Movement: No Dreaming on the Hill

And then I slept the sleep without dreams
Here on the hill by the river.

Suddenly, without fanfare, Zenas is dead. He dramatically and poetically refers to his condition as "sle[eping] the sleep without dreams / Here on the hill by the river." Zenas is one of the more tight-lipped deceased reporters from the Spoon River graveyard. The reader never learns the specifics of his illnesses and is left to guess their nature as well as just how long Zenas had to suffer them. He also leaves unclear just exactly what eventually killed him.

Edgar Lee Masters

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles