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Edgar Lee Masters’ “Griffy the Cooper”

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, "Griffy the Cooper"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Griffy the Cooper" from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker, known only as Griffy, expounds on his expertise as a maker of tubs, extending his knowledge to a profound conclusion that because of societal moral restraints, living life is like a living in a tub.

While the speaker's metaphor is somewhat clever, it eventually falls flat because his attempt to give advice remains weak and ineffectual. Griffy's premise that to escape the "tub" citizens should break societal "[t]aboos and rules" remains dangerously faulty. Such nonsense would ultimately lead to the penitentiary, the biggest "tub" of all.

This speaker apparently is unaware that to break out the societal prison, one must look within, not try to interfere with the very laws and rules that allow society to function. Griffy is simply a name-calling lout, among the many others like him, trying to elevate his own worth by lessening that of others, as he spouts is pedestrian view of behavior.

Griffy the Cooper

The cooper should know about tubs.
But I learned about life as well,
And you who loiter around these graves
Think you know life.
You think your eye sweeps about a wide horizon, perhaps,
In truth you are only looking around the interior of your tub.
You cannot lift yourself to its rim
And see the outer world of things,
And at the same time see yourself.
You are submerged in the tub of yourself—
Taboos and rules and appearances,
Are the staves of your tub.
Break them and dispel the witchcraft
Of thinking your tub is life!
And that you know life!

Reading of "Griffy the Cooper"

Commentary

First Movement: "The cooper should know about tubs"

The cooper should know about tubs.
But I learned about life as well,
And you who loiter around these graves
Think you know life.

Griffy begins by touting his own knowledge about what he should know and that is, of course, "about tubs." But he then begins his discourse on learning about life in addition to his expertise in tub-making.

Griffy then insults the folks who would come around "these graves" by calling them loiterers who think they know about life. But Griffy has some news for them, and he will show them that they do not know about life, but he does.

Second Movement: "You think your eye sweeps about a wide horizon, perhaps"

You think your eye sweeps about a wide horizon, perhaps,
In truth you are only looking around the interior of your tub.

Griffy says to those who loiter about the graves that they think they see so widely "about a wide horizon," but in fact they are really only seeing the "interior of [their] tub."

A useful example would have added to Griffy's discourse, but then his offering such an example likely would have detracted from Griffy's intellectual bankruptcy. Thus, Griffy's diatribe remains vague and hollow.

Third Movement: "You cannot lift yourself to its rim"

You cannot lift yourself to its rim
And see the outer world of things,
And at the same time see yourself.

So, with the metaphor established that all of the grave-loiterers are firmly ensconced in their own tub, Griffy explains that from that tub they cannot lift "[themselves] to its rim."

Because they cannot lift themselves, they cannot see what is actually happening outside of their tubs. He says they have no true frame of reference, because they cannot see "the outer world of things" and "at the same time see [themselves]."

At this point, Griffy has begun a useful analogy, but can he make it work for a useful conclusion?

Fourth Movement: "You are submerged in the tub of yourself"

You are submerged in the tub of yourself—
Taboos and rules and appearances,
Are the staves of your tub.

According to Griffy, the people are "submerged in the tub of [themselves]." And societal rules, taboos, and outward appearances form the "staves of [their] tub." In other words, people are imprisoned by the very schema that allows a civilized society to function.

Maybe Griffy should have tried a little harder to see over the lip of his own tub before drawing conclusions that would hold less water than his tubs.

Fifth Movement: "Break them and dispel the witchcraft"

Break them and dispel the witchcraft
Of thinking your tub is life!
And that you know life!

The bankruptcy of Griffy’s philosophy is conclusively revealed by his last proclamation. He simply commands his audience, that is, those loitering around the graves, to break those annoying "staves" and just stop thinking "your tub is life!"

That is Griffy's advice: "Break them and dispel the witchcraft / Of thinking your tub is life!" "Them" invariably includes all the laws that keep society functioning. And. no doubt, while Griffy is referring to religious law as "witchcraft," he has no substantial knowledge about the history and purpose of the great world religions.

Griffy implores his listeners to stop thinking "that you know life!" Then what? He then puts a hold on his diatribe before he could fill out his philosophy and explain the consequences of his demands.

This state of affairs remains rather typical for the Spoon River inmates who are big on hot-air inflated rhetoric and small on truth and logic. The reader will assign Griffy to the category of pathetic blow-hards whose epitaphs reek of a pompous nihilism.

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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