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Edgar Lee Masters’ "Justice Arnett"

Updated on December 27, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Edgar Lee Masters

Source

Introduction and Text of "Justice Arnett"

Edgar Lee Masters’ “Justice Arnett” from Spoon River Anthology features a character who died after his court docket fell and gashed his bald head. This character is mentioned in three other anthology entries: “Daisy Fraser,” “Lydia Puckett,” and “A. D. Blood.”

Justice Arnett

IT is true, fellow citizens,
That my old docket lying there for years
On a shelf above my head and over
The seat of justice, I say it is true
That docket had an iron rim
Which gashed my baldness when it fell—
(Somehow I think it was shaken loose
By the heave of the air all over town
When the gasoline tank at the canning works
Blew up and burned Butch Weldy)—
But let us argue points in order,
And reason the whole case carefully:
First I concede my head was cut,
But second the frightful thing was this:
The leaves of the docket shot and showered
Around me like a deck of cards
In the hands of a sleight of hand performer.
And up to the end I saw those leaves
Till I said at last, “Those are not leaves,
Why, can’t you see they are days and days
And the days and days of seventy years?
And why do you torture me with leaves
And the little entries on them?”

Reading of "Justice Arnett"

Commentary

Justice Arnett demonstrates weakness and confusion, commensurate with many other fellow citizens of Spoon River.

First Movement: Confirming a Rumor

IT is true, fellow citizens,
That my old docket lying there for years
On a shelf above my head and over
The seat of justice, I say it is true
That docket had an iron rim
Which gashed my baldness when it fell—

Opening his monologue, the justice seems to be confirming the details of his demise as if there had been some speculation about it. To end the speculation, he confirms, “It is true, fellow citizens.” The docket that had been lying above his head for many years did, in fact, fall, and when it did, it “gashed [his] baldness.”

Arnett positions the docket on a shelf not only above his head but also “over the seat of justice.” He seems to need to emphasize that he occupied this “seat of justice,” for he wants to put himself in the best light, as all the Spoon River speakers do.

Second Movement: The Cause of the Falling Docket

(Somehow I think it was shaken loose
By the heave of the air all over town
When the gasoline tank at the canning works
Blew up and burned Butch Weldy)—

The reader then learns what caused the docket to fall. The reader will recall the Butch Weldy incident, in which Weldy suffered two broken legs and was blinded for life. Weldy was pouring gasoline into the tank at the canning factory when the tank blew up.

Arnett makes light of Weldy’s injuries by merely stating the accident “burned Butch Weldy.” But the justice speculates that the explosion so “heaved the air all over town” that it shook loose the docket and caused it to fall.

Third Movement: Points of Order on Dying

But let us argue points in order,
And reason the whole case carefully:
First I concede my head was cut,
But second the frightful thing was this:

The justice then shifts to legalese to inflate his philosophizing about his ultimate demise: “let us argue points in order.” He has two points to “argue”: one is that his “head was cut,” and two is that there was a frightful component to this incident.

The reader will sense that the justice sounds somewhat demented in his explanation. The dementia might stem from Alzheimer’s disease or it might simply be the trauma of having been conked on the noggin by a big, heavy, metal-edged book.

Fourth Movement: The Image of Leaves

The leaves of the docket shot and showered
Around me like a deck of cards
In the hands of a sleight of hand performer.

Arnett describes the events of the frightful occurrence, “[t]he leaves of the docket shot and showered / Around me like a deck of cards / In the hands of a sleight of hand performer.” This description sounds quite realistic, and Arnett’s listeners can readily see the image he presents.

Fifth Movement: Logic and Dementia

And up to the end I saw those leaves
Till I said at last, “Those are not leaves,
Why, can’t you see they are days and days
And the days and days of seventy years?
And why do you torture me with leaves
And the little entries on them?”

Arnett’s final words reveal the fright, possible dementia, and as well as a fairly well grounded logic. The deck-of-card image turns back to leaves, which makes sense because pages in a book are called “leaves.” But then the justice recounts that he “said at last, ‘Those are not leaves’.”

Suddenly, Arnett is speaking as if refuting someone who has accused him of having nothing more than “leaves” in his court docket. He reprimands his imaginary accuser, “Why, can’t you see they are days and days / And the days and days of seventy years?” The justice disabuses his accuser of the notion that his docket was merely filled with leaves; it was filled with his life’s work. Day after day for seventy years, he has recorded his life’s work in that docket.

But then the justice makes a remarkable confession when he asks, “And why do you torture me with leaves / And the little entries on them?” Suddenly those days and days of the justice's life’s work are again reduced to leaves with “little entries on them.” In his fright and confusion, he is no longer certain that his life has made sense or even had any value.

Note: It remains unclear if Justice Arnett is related to Harold Arnett.

Edgar Lee Masters

Source

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 

    2 years ago from U.S.A.

    That gave me a chuckle, Mark! Thanks! Glad the Hub struck a chord with you. Have a blessed day!

  • Mark Tulin profile image

    Mark Tulin 

    2 years ago from Santa Barbara, California

    I left my career in therapy just in time before my appointment book landed on my baldness. Nice interpretation.

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