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Edgar Lee Masters' "'Butch' Weldy"

Updated on April 4, 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 Poem, "'Butch' Weldy"

In Edgar Lee Masters' "''Butch' Weldy" from Spoon River Anthology, the character of the man who impregnated Minerva Jones before he "got religion and steadied down" is revealed.

The reader will notice that Butch makes no reference to Minerva Jones, her father—Indignation Jones, or Doctor and Mrs. Meyers. Butch's choice of narrative subject reveals him to be a rather self-indulgent individual.

"'Butch' Weldy" concludes the "Minerva" series. Butch declaims about his ordeal after a work related accident—with nary a nod to Minerva, but it is easy to understand how his own misery would tend to blot out his dealings with the ilk of Minerva, et al.

'Butch' Weldy

After I got religion and steadied down
They gave me a job in the canning works,
And every morning I had to fill
The tank in the yard with gasoline,
That fed the blow-fires in the sheds
To heat the soldering irons.
And I mounted a rickety ladder to do it,
Carrying buckets full of the stuff.
One morning, as I stood there pouring,
The air grew still and seemed to heave,
And I shot up as the tank exploded,
And down I came with both legs broken,
And my eyes burned crisp as a couple of eggs.
For someone left a blow-fire going,
And something sucked the flame in the tank.
The Circuit Judge said whoever did it
Was a fellow-servant of mine, and so
Old Rhodes’ son didn’t have to pay me.
And I sat on the witness stand as blind
As Jack the Fiddler, saying over and over,
“I didn’t know him at all.”

Reading of "'Butch' Weldy"

Commentary

First Movement: "After I got religion and steadied down"

Presenting himself as a ne'er-do-well, Butch reports that he was able to find work after he "got religion and steadied down," exposing his character as a gad-about, who likely indulged in all manner of adolescent chicanery.

This estimation of Weldy's character can be inferred from the fact that he impregnated Minerva Jones out- of-wedlock.

Likely, Butch led Minerva to believe he loved her and after carrying on with her for a time that suited his fancy, he dumped her. As Minerva said, Butch left her "to her fate with Doctor Meyers."

Butch explains his job at the canning works, how he "mounted a rickety ladder" every morning "to fill / The tank in the yard with gasoline." This fuel then fed the "blow-fires in the sheds / To heat the soldering irons."

Second Movement: "One morning, as I stood there pouring"

Butch then states that on one work morning as he was filling the tank with gasoline that he had fetched up the ladder, he noticed that, "the air grew still and seemed to heave, / And I shot up as the tank exploded."

From this unfortunate event, Butch suffered two broken legs and his eyes "burned crisp as a couple of eggs," thus, rendering him blind.

Third Movement: "For someone left a blow-fire going"

A fellow worker had allowed one of the fires to continue to burn. Butch explains that the air sucked the flame in the tank.

Butch's narrative then lurches quickly to the trial in which the Circuit Judge said "whoever did it / Was a fellow-servant of mine, and so / Old Rhodes' son didn't have to pay me."

Butch's attempt to recover damages from the canning works for his injuries is thwarted by the court. The court finds that because a fellow worker had been negligent and caused the accident, the owners of the canning works could not be held responsible.

Fourth Movement: "And I sat on the witness stand as blind"

Butch protests that he didn't know [the fellow worker] at all. This response reveals a lack of understanding; the court was not saying the Butch and the perpetrator were buddies; it was saying that the canning works owners were not responsible. It would therefore seem to follow that if Butch were to sue the fellow worker, he might have a case.

Butch remarks that he sat on the witness stand, "as blind / As Jack the Fiddler," repeating his claim that he did not know the fellow employ who neglected to douse the fire in the shed. Jack the Fiddler is an allusion to "Blind Jack," who appears later on in the Spoon River Anthology.

The "Minerva Jones" Sequence

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

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