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Edgar Lee Masters' "Dr. Siegfried Iseman"

Updated on April 4, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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



The speaker in Edgar Lee Masters’ “Dr. Siegfried Iseman” from Spoon River Anthology is a disgraced physician who goes to imprison for peddling a concoction he called the “Elixir of Youth.”

Dr. Siegfried Iseman will be recognized as the typical Spoon River epitaph speaker who touts himself as a victim, as he huffs and puffs, blaming others for his own crimes on his path to self-destruction.

As scoundrels often justify their own perfidy, they not only blame others for their mishaps but they also feel an inner high-moral ground that sounds logical only to their misguided and twisted thinking.

Reading of Masters' "Dr. Siegfried Iseman"

First Movement: “I said when they handed me my diploma”

Dr. Iseman begins his confessional by recalling that at the beginning of his entry into the profession of medicine, he promised to be a good, Christian doctor. He intended to be “good / And wise and brave and helpful to others.”

Even as Iseman was “handed” his diploma, these promises he mouthed to himself. Interestingly, because the doctor had only silently “said” these things, there is conveniently no witness to his testimony.

The lack of any evidence that Iseman had intended to acquit himself honorably allows him to backslide at least without others knowing about this original intentions, a fact that, no doubt, in the beginning of his moral failure gave him a sense of comfort.

Second Movement: “Somehow the world and the other doctors”

Siegfried then philosophically laments that making such a “high-souled resolution” opened him to the fraud, greed, and graft of “the world and the other doctors.”

Completely without substantial support for the claim, Iseman decries the fact that they all “know” what is the heart of the man of good intentions. But this kind of conclusion is necessary when a scoundrel needs to justify his own improprieties.

Third Movement: “And the way of it is they starve you out”

Because Siegfried had made a pledge to himself to be good and noble, he became a victim of the other doctors who were not bound by such high-souled intentions. They were free to “starve [him] out.”

Because only the poor came to Dr. Iseman, he found that he could not thrive financially as the others did.

Iseman's lack of financial success ultimately led him to believe that, “being a doctor / Is just a way of making a living.” And he learned this lesson “too late”—this is, too late to change his good intentions and begin acting unconscionably as the others had.

Fourth Movement: “And when you are poor and have to carry”

Poor Siegfried, who remained poor, despite his medical practice became burdened by his “Christian creed” as well as by a “wife and children.”

With such heavy responsibilities “on [his] back,” Iseman exclaims, “it is too much!”

Fifth Movement: “That’s why I made the Elixir of Youth”

Siegfried finally reveals that he concocted “the Elixir of Youth,” and that concoction “landed [him] in jail in Peoria.”

Iseman's reputation was ruined, and he was “[b]randed a swindler and a crook.” He sarcastically blames “the upright Federal Judge” for his predicament.

Dr. Siegfried Iseman’s testimony from the grave resembles so many other Spoon River deceased, who excuse their own behavior by claiming themselves victims of someone else.

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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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image

      Linda Sue Grimes 12 months ago from U.S.A.

      Hello, Louise! I try to select the best reading I can find. I'm surprised sometimes at how much of selection exists. And interestingly enough, quite a few artists have rendered some of the works into song. When I find an especially well done musical rendition, I post it along with the reading. That happens rather seldom though. Many of the songs do not actually work.

      Thank you for responding to my commentaries. Have a blessed day, Louise!

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 12 months ago from Norfolk, England

      Again, a wonderful description. I always watch the videos you post too, it helps a lot to listen.