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Edgar Lee Masters’ "Justice Arnett"

Updated on April 4, 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



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.”

Reading of Masters' "Justice Arnett"

First Movement: “It is true, fellow citizens”

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: “(Somehow I think it was shaken loose”

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: “But let us argue points in order”

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 leaves of the docket shot and showered”

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: “And up to the end I saw those leaves”

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.


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

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


Submit a Comment

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image

    Linda Sue Grimes 13 months 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 13 months ago from Santa Barbara, California

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