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Edgar Lee Masters' "Ollie McGee" and "Fletcher McGee"

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

Reading of "Ollie McGee"

"Ollie McGee," the wife, is the first speaker

Poem: 3. Ollie McGee

Have you seen walking through the village
A man with downcast eyes and haggard face?
That is my husband who, by secret cruelty
Never to be told, robbed me of my youth and my beauty;
Till at last, wrinkled and with yellow teeth,
And with broken pride and shameful humility,
I sank into the grave.
But what think you gnaws at my husband’s heart?
The face of what I was, the face of what he made me!
These are driving him to the place where I lie.
In death, therefore, I am avenged.

Commentary

First Movement: "Have you seen walking through the village"

Mrs. "Ollie McGee" begins with a query, wondering if her listeners have observed, "a man with downcast eyes and haggard face," ambling throughout the village from time to time. She then admits that that haggard face belongs to the man who was her husband.

The speaker then begins to hurl accusations at the man. The wife reveals that he is guilty of horrifying cruelty: the man took away his wife's youth as well as her beauty.

This theft continued over the lifetime of their miserable marriage. Mrs. McGee then died, "wrinkled and with yellow teeth." He stole her pride and made her to suffer "shameful humility."

Second Movement: "But what think you gnaws at my husband’s heart?"

Ollie then offers a further inquiry, as she questions whether her listeners know what "gnaws at my husband’s heart." She contends that two images likely unsettle her husband’s heart and mind: "the face of what I was" and "the face of what he made me."

Mrs. McGee asserts that these images are taking his life, "driving him to the place where I lie." Thus, she has convinced herself that she is getting her revenge in death.

Reading of "Fletcher McGee"

"Fletcher McGee," the husband, is the next speaker

Poem: 4. Fletcher McGee

She took my strength by minutes,
She took my life by hours,
She drained me like a fevered moon
That saps the spinning world.
The days went by like shadows,
The minutes wheeled like stars.
She took the pity from my heart,
And made it into smiles.
She was a hunk of sculptor’s clay,
My secret thoughts were fingers:
They flew behind her pensive brow
And lined it deep with pain.
They set the lips, and sagged the cheeks,
And drooped the eyes with sorrow.
My soul had entered in the clay,
Fighting like seven devils.
It was not mine, it was not hers;
She held it, but its struggles
Modeled a face she hated,
And a face I feared to see.
I beat the windows, shook the bolts.
I hid me in a corner—
And then she died and haunted me,
And hunted me for life.

Commentary

First Movement: "She took my strength by minutes"

Mr. "Fletcher McGee" also begins his epitaph with appalling accusations against his wife. Just as he had done, she had foisted on him unspeakable cruelty: "she took my strength," "she took my life," "she drained me."

This speaker also includes time measurements to each complaint, in order to increase and compound the pain he claims he suffered at the hands of this woman.

Mr. McGee then asserts, "the days went by like shadows, / the minutes wheeled like stars."

Second Movement: "She took the pity from my heart"

However, after fiercely complaining that Mrs. McGee ruined his life, Mr. McGee freely and somewhat gleefully confesses that he, in fact quite deliberately, ruined hers.

Instead of pitying his wife for her unhappiness and shrewish behavior, he came to possess the ability to smile about her suffering.

Mr. McGee's smiles grew out of the fact that he had power over her. He came to see her only as "a hunk of sculptor’s clay."

Thus, Mr. McGee went about working to sculpt the ugly features into his wife.

Mr. McGee asserts that, "my secret thoughts were fingers." He continues with the sculptor metaphor, as he affirms what Ollie has earlier said about the man.

The miserable husband freely confesses and describes his fingers as sculptors, motivated by his "secret thoughts" which "lined" "her pensive brow" "deep with pain."

Mr. McGee again freely admits that he, in fact, "set the lips, and sagged the cheeks, / And drooped the eyes with sorrow."

Mr. McGee then bizarrely asserts that his "soul had entered in the clay." Thus, his soul became the force of evil, "fighting like seven devils." He appears to have become so hooked on making her miserable that he just could not stop himself. His evil served him like a dangerous drug.

Mr. McGee then admits that he actually killed her: "I beat the windows, shook the bolts." He vaguely claim that he hid "in a corner," and "she died and haunted me / And hunted me for life."

Mr. McGee took advantage of his weak, depressed, sorrowful wife. He fully realized what he was doing. Therefore, it becomes clear that Ollie was correct about her lout of a husband, who was in fact a criminal. At least Mrs. McGee can feel somewhat avenged in death.

But a pathetic irony is laced within these pitiful confessions. Readers are left to doubt that any vengeance or feeling "haunted" can, in fact, offer these tortured souls any meaningful rest.

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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