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Edgar Lee Masters' "Blind Jack"

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, "Blind Jack"

In Edgar Lee Masters’ "Blind Jack" from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker reports his drama in the form of an American sonnet, also known as an Innovative sonnet. This sonnet is the epitome of "innovative." The poem displays itself in four movements, offering a cinquain, a tercet, a couplet, and a quatrain.

The poem eschews both rime and rhythm, opting nevertheless for a surprise conclusion that is both gripping and a bit shocking, but in the final analysis nothing short of fascinating.

Blind Jack

I had fiddled all at the county fair.
But driving home “Butch” Weldy and Jack McGuire,
Who were roaring full, made me fiddle and fiddle
To the song of Susie Skinner, while whipping the horses
Till they ran away.

Blind as I was, I tried to get out
As the carriage fell in the ditch,
And was caught in the wheels and killed.

There’s a blind man here with a brow
As big and white as a cloud.

And all we fiddlers, from highest to lowest,
Writers of music and tellers of stories,
Sit at his feet,
And hear him sing of the fall of Troy.

Reading of "Blind Jack"

Commentary

Poor Blind Jack the Fiddler dies because of two drunken louts who drove a set of horses too fast and landed them all in a ditch. But Jack has an important report to offer from his seat in the afterlife.

First Movement Cinquain: Drunken Louts of Death

I had fiddled all at the county fair.
But driving home “Butch” Weldy and Jack McGuire,
Who were roaring full, made me fiddle and fiddle
To the song of Susie Skinner, while whipping the horses
Till they ran away.

Blind Jack begins by asserting that he had been playing his fiddle all day at the county fair. No doubt he was tired and eager to get home to rest. Jack was riding in a buckboard with two drunken louts, "Butch" Weldy and Jack McGuire. The two drunks insisted that Blind Jack keep playing his fiddle. Seems they were partial to the tune, "Susie Skinner." So they insisted that Jack keep playing that song.

Jack reports that they kept whipping the horses to make them run faster and faster. But the horses with horse-minds of the own then ran wild and landed the trio in a ditch.

Second Movement Tercet: Trapped by Wheels

Blind as I was, I tried to get out
As the carriage fell in the ditch,
And was caught in the wheels and killed.

Jack then claims that even though he was blind as bat he tried to save himself by jumping from the buckboard as it was tumbling into the ditch. Unfortunately, the blind fiddler became trapped by the wheels of the carriage and was killed.

Third Movement Couplet: Finished His Earthly Talk

There’s a blind man here with a brow
As big and white as a cloud.

Jack the blind fiddler has now finished his earthly tale and begins his report of things from where his soul now exists. He reveals that he has encountered another blind man, and this man's brow is "as big and white as a cloud."

This revelation, of course, implies that Jack can now see. Otherwise, he would not know that this blind man had such a brow.

Fourth Movement Quatrain: Greek Poet, Homer

And all we fiddlers, from highest to lowest,
Writers of music and tellers of stories,
Sit at his feet,
And hear him sing of the fall of Troy.

Jack, in his final movement, confides that the "blind man" with the cloud-like eyebrows is none other than the famous Greek poet, Homer. Jack does not mention the poet's name, but his description makes it abundantly clear to whom he is referring.

Jack also reports that all types of creative writers sit at the poet Homer's feet listening to him tell the tales that have come down to us as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid. And, of course, all flavor of musicians, especially fiddlers "from highest to lowest," place themselves among those craving to hear a good yarn.

Homer's Appearance and How Blind Jack Would Know

Interestingly, all the images and busts of the poet Homer that we have today do not show that he had such prominent brow. Likely, the blind fiddler is merely exaggerating for effect. He probably surmises that extraordinary, creative folks like Homer would also be extraordinary in appearance.

Also Jack's description raises another puzzle: was Jack able to see at some point in his life? was he not born blind? had he actually seen any of the busts and likenesses that exist of Homer? However, if before he lost his sight, Jack had seen an image of what Homer has been considered to look like, one can only accept that his postmortem description is, in fact, pure exaggeration.

On the other hand, readers may simply interpret Jack's ability to see after death as the soul's immutable ability and that Jack is now able to correct all the images that do not push forth the big and cloud-like brow that belongs on Homer.

Homer

Source

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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