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Edgar Lee Masters' "Mrs. Williams"

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 Memorial Stamp

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Mrs. Williams"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ “Mrs. Williams” from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker is the mother of "Dora Williams,” who after a life of prostitution, married and then killed two wealthy husbands and was likely poisoned by her third husband, who was an Italian count, likely one of those impoverished Europeans who attach themselves to wealthy American women in order to continue their opulent life-styles.

Mrs. Williams is miffed because the reputation of her miscreant daughter splattered her with shame. She understood that the Spoon River residents blamed Dora's upbringing for her misdeeds in becoming a prostitute. But this mother has observed that the women of Spoon River could avoid losing their husbands to prostitutes if they would simply dress better.

Then again, if those women decided to dress better, they would have to visit the milliner to purchase a spiffy hat or a nice set of "buckles and feathers." So Mrs. Williams' advice comes as a commercial for her own business venture.

Mrs. Williams

I was the milliner
Talked about, lied about,
Mother of Dora,
Whose strange disappearance
Was charged to her rearing.
My eye quick to beauty
Saw much beside ribbons
And buckles and feathers
And leghorns and felts,
To set off sweet faces,
And dark hair and gold.
One thing I will tell you
And one I will ask:
The stealers of husbands
Wear powder and trinkets,
And fashionable hats.
Wives, wear them yourselves.
Hats may make divorces—
They also prevent them.
Well now, let me ask you:
If all of the children, born here in Spoon River
Had been reared by the County, somewhere on a farm;
And the fathers and mothers had been given their freedom
To live and enjoy, change mates if they wished,
Do you think that Spoon River
Had been any the worse?

Reading of "Mrs. Williams"

Commentary

First Movement: The Sins of the Mothers

I was the milliner
Talked about, lied about,
Mother of Dora,
Whose strange disappearance
Was charged to her rearing.
My eye quick to beauty
Saw much beside ribbons
And buckles and feathers
And leghorns and felts,
To set off sweet faces,
And dark hair and gold.

Mrs. Williams begins by stating her profession—she was a milliner. She identifies herself as the “Mother of Dora.” But Mrs. Williams also reports that she was “talked about” and “lied about,” and she disdains the fact that she has been blamed for Dora’s misdeeds.

Mrs. Williams then reveals that there was more to her knowledge than having an eye “quick to beauty”; she wants to state that she knew more about human nature than it might have seemed. Thus, Mrs. Williams claims that she understood more about things than mere “ribbons / And buckles and feathers / And leghorns and felts, / To set off sweet faces.”

Mrs. Williams then announces that she will reveal her philosophical observations with two things: one she “will tell you” and the other she will “ask.”

Second Movement: Pearls of Wisdom (Pun Intended)

One thing I will tell you
And one I will ask:
The stealers of husbands
Wear powder and trinkets,
And fashionable hats.
Wives, wear them yourselves.
Hats may make divorces—
They also prevent them.

Mrs. Williams announces, "One thing I will tell you / And one I will ask.” She then sets about spreading her pearls of wisdom; she says that the strumpets who lure husbands away from their wives, "Wear powder and trinkets / And fashionable hats.” Mrs. Williams drops a bombshell, telling wives,” Wives, wear them yourselves.” She adds, "Hats may make divorces— / They also prevent them.”

So if only wives would avail themselves of Mrs. Williams wares, they could save their marriages, keep their husbands from divorcing them and taking up with those women who have already availed themselves of Mrs. Williams items for sale.

It is interesting that her observation works like a commercial for her business. Although she thinks she is offering solid advice to the poor wives of Spoon River, she is able to look back and see how she could have been enriched if the wives had been able to follow her advice.

Third Movement: Let the State Raise the Brats

Well now, let me ask you:
If all of the children, born here in Spoon River
Had been reared by the County, somewhere on a farm;
And the fathers and mothers had been given their freedom
To live and enjoy, change mates if they wished,
Do you think that Spoon River
Had been any the worse?

Finally, Mrs. Williams asks a question that reveals an incredibly decadent mindset: she wants to know if the social fabric of Spoon River would be any worse off if “the County” would raise the children “somewhere on a farm,” thus allowing the fathers and mothers “freedom to live and enjoy" life, changing partners as they wished. When one considers Dora’s situation, one is inclined to give that insane suggestion some serious thought.

Biographical 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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