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Edgar Lee Masters' "Thomas Ross, Jr."

Updated on January 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 Stamp

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Thomas Ross, Jr."

Some Spoon River characters are shady for what they have done, and others for what they might have done. Thomas Ross, Jr., belongs to the latter category. What he did in life remains a mystery.

In his epitaph, Thomas Ross, Jr., concocts a drama about a mother bird building a nest, hatching her eggs, only to have a snake eat them, after which she kills the snake and then is killed by a bigger bird.

But this story is merely a prologue to Thomas' own claim that he, like the mother bird, competed with natural forces only to be stabbed in the back by his own brother.

While the overall theme works well enough, Thomas leaves too much doubt in his audience's mind to make him a sympathetic, or even believable character.

Thomas Ross, Jr.

This I saw with my own eyes:
A cliff-swallow
Made her nest in a hole of the high clay-bank
There near Miller’s Ford.
But no sooner were the young hatched
Than a snake crawled up to the nest
To devour the brood.
Then the mother swallow with swift flutterings
And shrill cries
Fought at the snake,
Blinding him with the beat of her wings,
Until he, wriggling and rearing his head,
Fell backward down the bank
Into Spoon River and was drowned.
Scarcely an hour passed
Until a shrike
Impaled the mother swallow on a thorn.
As for myself I overcame my lower nature
Only to be destroyed by my brother’s ambition.

Reading of "Thomas Ross, Jr."

Commentary

First Movement: A Mother Bird Builds a Nest

This I saw with my own eyes:
A cliff-swallow
Made her nest in a hole of the high clay-bank
There near Miller’s Ford.

The speaker begins by describing an event that he claims he saw "with [his] own eyes." The vapid phrase, "with my own eyes," alerts listeners to the likely fabrication of the teller. The words add nothing to the veracity of the teller's tale. With whose eyes might the speaker have viewed the events he claims to have seen other than with his own? Perhaps the speaker thinks he is waxing poetic or philosophical, while, in fact, he is just being verbose and silly.

The speaker then reveals that he saw a mother bird build a nest in a hole in the bank of Miller's Ford. Now it takes a mother bird a few hours, sometimes days, to build such a nest. But Thomas has claimed to have seen this with his own eyes. His lack of specificity render his claim questionable, however. Is he saying he saw her build the nest, which seems to be his claim or is he saying that he merely saw the nest and the rest of his report.

Readers/listeners will have to keep this vagary in mind as they continue experiencing Thomas' story.

Second Movement: A Snake Eats the Baby Birds

But no sooner were the young hatched
Than a snake crawled up to the nest
To devour the brood.

Again, the speaker is playing fast and loose with timing. After vaguely claiming to have watched a mother bird build her nest, now he has been on hand to watch her baby bird being hatched and then gobbled up by a snake. The hatching birds, of course, takes many days. Does Thomas expect his audience to believed he was there watching with his own eyes as a mother bird built a nest, laid her eggs, and then hatched them?

Does Thomas truly expect his audience to believe that he stood on the river bank for several weeks observing this event? Might he be saying that returned day after day to continue observing this saga?

Thomas' credibility is stake here and that credibility is vital to his conclusion. Yet he is offering a story whose timeline belies his claims.

Third Movement: Mama Bird Kills the Snake

Then the mother swallow with swift flutterings
And shrill cries
Fought at the snake,
Blinding him with the beat of her wings,
Until he, wriggling and rearing his head,
Fell backward down the bank
Into Spoon River and was drowned.

In the longest part of Thomas' tale, he dramatizes the mother bird's killing of the horrid snake what had consumed her offspring. She moves fast and fiercely with rapidly beating wings and high pitched, ear-piercing cries as she battles with the slithering monster. She blinds him with her wings, and begins to writhe and poke up his head, until he clumsily falls "backward and down the bank" of Spoon River, where he then drowns.

Thomas has concocted an interesting, entertaining tale, but he has made it very difficult for his audience to put much faith in its being accurate. But then he piles on disbelief upon disbelief as he continues his drama.

Fourth Movement: Mama Bird Killed by Bigger Bird

Scarcely an hour passed
Until a shrike
Impaled the mother swallow on a thorn.

Within the hour of her death, the mother bird through the instrumentality of a larger bird of prey is stricken dead after being "impaled" upon a thorn. The speaker seems to be demonstrating that he has the patience of clock: after watching this series of events that would take perhaps weeks to come about, he remains at least another hour to see the small bird, the poor mother swallow, being finished off by the larger "shrike."

Fifth Movement: Shades of Cain and Abel?

As for myself I overcame my lower nature
Only to be destroyed by my brother’s ambition.

Of course, Thomas has just described natural events that like do in fact take place in the wild. Whether he actually saw those events or not, or perhaps any part of them, becomes besides the point philosophically, or at least that might has been the case had Thomas places his observations in their proper frames of reference.

Nevertheless, Thomas is now ready to state the true purpose of his drama. He claims to have transcended his animal nature. But as one might expect in this dog eat dog world, he and his efforts were laid low by his "brother's ambition."

Readers/listeners will most likely wonder what the brother did. What did Thomas do that he thinks demonstrates the overcoming of his "lower nature." Was his brother's ambition responsible for Thomas' death or just the loss of something, such as a business venture or a love interest?

These questions remain unanswered, at least at this point. Thus the audience comes away with the knowledge that natural events can be cruel and so can human events. The can of knowledge has simply been kicked down the road, and the reader will never get back those minutes that it took to read Thomas' likely disingenuous epitaph.

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    9 months ago from U.S.A.

    You're welcome, Louise. Thanks for your response.

    Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology has become an American classic. His cast of characters never fail to entertain the audience. Most of them are rather shady personalities, while many of them remain rather vague, keeping the audience wondering. Thomas Ross, Jr., is certainly an example of that. We are left to wonder exactly what his ambitious brother did to ruin Thomas. Could there be hints or explanations in further epitaphs? We have to wait and see. Thus, the experience of these short poems remains similar to experiencing a novel.

    Have a blessed day, Louise!

  • Coffeequeeen profile image

    Louise Powles 

    9 months ago from Norfolk, England

    He was a very talented poet. This is a lovely poem, thanks for summarizing it. =)

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