Edgar Lee Masters' "Benjamin Fraser"
Edgar Lee Masters
Their spirits beat upon mine
Like the wings of a thousand butterflies.
I closed my eyes and felt their spirits vibrating.
I closed my eyes, yet I knew when their lashes
Fringed their cheeks from downcast eyes,
And when they turned their heads;
And when their garments clung to them,
Or fell from them, in exquisite draperies.
Their spirits watched my ecstasy
With wide looks at starry unconcern.
Their spirits looked upon my torture;
They drank it as it were the water of life;
With reddened cheeks, brightened eyes
The rising flame of my soul made their spirits gilt,
Like the wings of a butterfly drifting suddenly into sunlight.
And they cried to me for life, life, life.
But in taking life for myself,
In seizing and crushing their souls,
As a child crushes grapes and drinks
From its palms the purple juice,
I came to this wingless void,
Where neither red, nor gold, nor wine,
Nor the rhythm of life is known.
Reading of "Benjamin Fraser"
The epitaph,“Benjamin Fraser” from Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, allows the serial rapist/murderer to dramatize his unsavory character.
Edgar Lee Masters has explained that "The Spooniad" is a mock herioc after Alexander Pope's "The Dunciad." The Spooniad offers commentary about each of the Spoon River speakers who hold forth in Spoon River Anthology.
From "The Spooniad" the reader learns that "Benjamin Fraser,” was the “son of Benjamin Pantier / By Daisy Fraser,” which resulted in a lethal combination: the Pantiers’ dysfunctional relationship motivated Benjamin Pantier’s bedding the prostitute, Daisy Fraser, who gave birth to the criminally insane Benjamin Fraser.
First Movement: “Their spirits beat upon mine”
Benjamin Fraser reports that as he murdered and raped his victims their spirits were like butterflies. Fraser enjoyed the acts of rape and murder intensely and considered the struggle for life of the victims as a play of souls.
Fraser's victims' souls leaving their bodies made the insane criminal think of them as the "wings of a thousand butterflies." He reports that he “closed his eyes and felt their spirits vibrating.”
And even with closed eyes, he knew they were frantically flailing about as “their lashes / Fringed their cheeks from downcast eyes.” As their heads thrashed from side to side, he could sense that their clothes sometimes “clung to them” and at other times “fell from them, in exquisite draperies.” In Fraser's twisted imagination, his act becomes decorated in finery, instead of human despair and blood.
Second Movement: “Their spirits watched my ecstasy”
The souls of these women “watched my ecstasy”; he imagines that his victims can discern the joy this perverted individual is experiencing as he rapes and kills them. He lessens their agony in his own mind by calling their looks “starry unconcern.” As he admits to torturing them, he converts their response to drinking “the water of life.”
Fraser describes the face of his victim as he squeezes the life out of her: she has “reddened cheeks, brightened eyes”—those eyes would be filled with terror, but he perceives a different image; he visualizes, “The rising flame of my soul made their spirits gilt.” His appalling act causes their souls to look all golden and again reminds him of butterflies “drifting suddenly into the sunlight.” All the while, they are pleading “to me for life, life, life.”
Third Movement: “But in taking life for myself”
Fraser becomes very vivid as he describes his act of strangulation; he asserts that he crushes their souls—he seizes and crushes them, “As a child crushes grapes and drinks / From its palms the purple juice.”
The rapist/murderer cannot bring himself to confess that he is, in fact, killing a human being’s physical body. He does not accept his victim as a human being with personhood. To him they are just disembodied “spirits” that are ripe for his taking, seizing, and crushing.
Benjamin Fraser's final admission that through taking these lives, he has arrived at his present destination, a place where “neither red, nor gold, nor wine, / Nor the rhythm of life is known,” remains as detached as his conscience remained as he committed his loathsome crimes.
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.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes