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Edgar Lee Masters' "Hon. Henry Bennett"

Updated on January 28, 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, "Hon. Henry Bennett"

Edgar Lee Masters' again allows his Spoon River lamenter to fashion his lament in an American or Innovative sonnet. Featuring the traditional fourteen lines, the sonnet remain timeless and without a definite rhythm patters.

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Hon. Henry Bennett" from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker laments his rapacious wife’s treachery: she effectively "loved" him to death, but not out of love. His wife had in mind to inherit Henry’s fortune and then marry the man of her dreams, the one with big muscles and a small brain.

The Honorable Henry Bennett is one of Spoon River's more pathetic characters. His wife, who was much younger than the judge, literally screwed the man to death. By the time he realized what was happening, he was on his deathbed. The wife's treachery rendered the poor man a fool.

Hon. Henry Bennett

It never came into my mind
Until I was ready to die
That Jenny had loved me to death, with malice of heart.
For I was seventy, she was thirty-five,
And I wore myself to a shadow trying to husband
Jenny, rosy Jenny full of the ardor of life.
For all my wisdom and grace of mind
Gave her no delight at all, in very truth,
But ever and anon she spoke of the giant strength
Of Willard Shafer, and of his wonderful feat
Of lifting a traction engine out of the ditch
One time at Georgie Kirby’s.
So Jenny inherited my fortune and married Willard—
That mount of brawn! That clownish soul!

Reading of "Hon. Henry Bennett"

Commentary

Henry Bennett is a pathetic character, who realizes too late that he has been played for fool by his wife.

First Movement: "Loved" to Death

It never came into my mind
Until I was ready to die
That Jenny had loved me to death, with malice of heart.

Judge Bennett confesses that it had not occurred to him until he was on his death bed that his young wife, Jenny, had deliberately tried to kill him by engaging him in too much sexual activity.

The young Jenny literally "loved him to death." Euphemizing lascivious marital relations as "love," the judge, nevertheless, now realizes that her intention had nothing to do with love and affection but with "with malice of heart."

Second Movement: Twice Her Age

For I was seventy, she was thirty-five,
And I wore myself to a shadow trying to husband
Jenny, rosy Jenny full of the ardor of life.

The Honorable Henry Bennett was seventy years old when he married the woman, Jenny, who was half his age. She was "full of the ardor of life"—another veiled reference to her oversexualized comportment.

In the judge's supposed husbandly duties, the poor Henry "wore [himself] to a shadow" attempting to keep Jenny satisfied. He also describes Jenny as "rosy," indicating the rush of blood that appears on the skin after a sexual encounter.

Third Movement: No Interest in His Mind

For all my wisdom and grace of mind
Gave her no delight at all, in very truth,
But ever and anon she spoke of the giant strength
Of Willard Shafer, and of his wonderful feat
Of lifting a traction engine out of the ditch
One time at Georgie Kirby’s.

Jenny demonstrated no interest in the judge’s "wisdom and grace of mind." We have to take Henry’s word for it that he possessed such praiseworthy qualities, but whatever his redeeming qualities might have been, his wife showed no interest in them.

Instead, the wife admired physical strength. She was always taunting Henry by repeating the story that Willard Shafer had "lift[ed] a traction engine out of the ditch / One time at Geogrie Kirby’s."

His wife likely used this story repeatedly to entice Henry to service her sexually in order weaken Henry’s health. But of course, as Henry said, he did not realize the nasty game Jenny was playing until it was too late.

Fourth Movement: Rich Enough to Marry Her Stud

So Jenny inherited my fortune and married Willard—
That mount of brawn! That clownish soul!

To make a long story short, Henry quickly sums up his lament by reporting that after his death, Jenny married the man of the "giant strength," Willard Shafer, after inheriting Henry’s fortune. Jenny’s scheme succeeded, and Henry is left to name-call Jenny’s new husband, "That mount of brawn! That clownish soul!"

Lacking the "wisdom and grace of mind" of the Honorable Henry Bennett, the strongman Willard Shafer wins the woman and the judge’s money. And the Hon. Henry Bennett is not at all happy, definitely not resting in peace.

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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