Edgar Lee Masters’ "Dora Williams"
Edgar Lee Masters
Introduction and Text of Poem, "Dora Williams"
In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Dora Williams" from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker, unlike the other posthumous reporters who announce themselves from the graveyard in Spoon River, is offering her shout-out from Campo Santo in Genoa, Italy.
The none-too-subtle allusion to Columbus offers an opening salvo of the trash-America-first bunch, who begin with the Columbian discovery of a New World.
When Reuben Pantier ran away and threw me
I went to Springfield. There I met a lush,
Whose father just deceased left him a fortune.
He married me when drunk. My life was wretched.
A year passed and one day they found him dead.
That made me rich. I moved on to Chicago.
After a time met Tyler Rountree, villain.
I moved on to New York. A gray-haired magnate
Went mad about me—so another fortune.
He died one night right in my arms, you know.
(I saw his purple face for years thereafter.)
There was almost a scandal. I moved on,
This time to Paris. I was now a woman,
Insidious, subtle, versed in the world and rich.
My sweet apartment near the Champs Élysées
Became a center for all sorts of people,
Musicians, poets, dandies, artists, nobles,
Where we spoke French and German, Italian, English.
I wed Count Navigato, native of Genoa.
We went to Rome. He poisoned me, I think.
Now in the Campo Santo overlooking
The sea where young Columbus dreamed new worlds,
See what they chiseled: ”Contessa Navigato
Implora eterna quiete.”
Reading of "Dora Williams"
First Movement: "When Reuben Pantier ran away and threw me"
Readers will remember meeting Dora as part of the fornicating couple, whom A. D. Blood castigated for using his grave as their "unholy pillow." The reader will not be surprised to learn the particulars of Dora’s ultimate history.
Dora begins with a brief mention of "Reuben Pantier," who dumped her and "ran away." But after Reuben ran off, so did Dora; she "went to Springfield." There she met "a lush"; she reports that the lush’s father had died and left him a fortune.
The lush ends up married to Dora (she blames it on his being drunk at the time) and makes her life miserable.
After a year of this wretched existence, "one day they found him dead." What’s Dora’s response? "That made me rich. I moved to Chicago."
No word of concern for the man with whom she had lived, just the unadorned report that "they found him dead."
And after relocating to Chicago, Dora meets another man, Tyler Rountree, whom she claims was a "villain." She gives us no further details about Tyler. Thus, she moves on.
Second Movement: "I moved on to New York. A gray-haired magnate"
Dora then moves to New York, where the lucky gal again manages to marry a fortune, "a gray-haired magnate," who again dies. This time in her arms.
And Dora claims that she "saw his purple face for years thereafter." She also admits, "[t]here was almost a scandal." But then she moves on.
Third Movement: "This time to Paris. I was now a woman"
Now, Dora finds herself in Paris, and she is "now a woman," and she describes herself as "[i]nsidious, subtle, versed in the world and rich." She lived in a "sweet apartment near the Champs Élysées."
Dora's pad became a hang-out for such rabble as "Musicians, poets, dandies, artists, nobles." They spoke "French and German, Italian, English." Dora has the need to make herself look very sophisticated and cosmopolitan.
Fourth Movement: "I wed Count Navigato, native of Genoa"
While in Paris, Dora marries again, possibly a man with a fortunate, but maybe not. His name is "Count Navigato," and he is a "native of Genoa." They relocate to Rome, where the count poisons Dora; at least, she thinks he poisoned her.
Dora is reporting from a cemetery called "Campo Santo," which is supposedly "overlooking / The sea where young Columbus dreamed new worlds."
On Dora's tombstone, the following is engraved: "Contessa Navigato / Implora eterna quiete," which roughly translates as "Countess Navigato – Rest in Peace."
The irony is thick and Dora gets it: she lived anything but a peaceful life, having murdered at least two husbands and finally being murdered by her third.
Dora understandably doubts that her rest will be peaceful.
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