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Edgar Lee Masters' "Fiddler Jones"
Edgar Lee Masters
Introduction: A Life of No Regrets
In Edgar Lee Masters’ “Fiddler Jones” from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker waxes philosophical about life; he possesses a more congenial nature than most of the other Spoon River inmates.
Although Fiddler has trials to report from his life, he remains one of the more jovial and less melancholy characters from the Spoon River bunch.
Interpretive Reading of "Fiddler Jones"
First Movement: “The earth keeps some vibration going”
Fiddler Jones holds forth: “The earth keeps some vibration going / There in your heart, and that is you.” He believes the essence of the human being is “some vibration” that resides in the heart and that essence constitutes the personality and nature of the individual.
Fiddler offers an example, using his own “vibration,” his talent for playing a fiddle. He claims that when people learn of your talent, then you have to keep performing for them until you die.
Second Movement: “What do you see, a harvest of clover?”
Fiddler then compares himself to a farmer, who sees “a harvest of clover,” a meadow that backs up to a river, beef cattle “ready for market.” Instead of all these things, Fiddler hears “the rustle of skirts” of the girls dancing while he plays his fiddle.
Third Movement: “To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust”
Fiddler refers to Cooney Potter, the farmer who began with an inherited forty acres and turned them into a thousand and strove to double that.
Fiddler asserts that a storm would leave Potter devastated, but people expected music from the fiddler so they could dance. He implies that he would not have to endure such ruin.
Fourth Movement: “How could I till my forty acres”
Unlike Cooney, who coveted more and more acres, Fiddler had a head full of music, “a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos.” All of these instruments were “stirred in [his] brain by crows and robins / And the creak of a wind-mill.”
Fiddler fiddled because he had musical talent that occupied his heart and mind.
Fifth Movement: “And I never started to plow in my life”
Fiddler’s music ability, however, interfered with his ability to farm. Every time he started to plow a field, someone would come and drag him off “to a dance or picnic” to entertain them.
Fiddler, however, obviously enjoyed his music more than plowing, or else he would have turned down those invitations once in a while.
Sixth Movement: “I ended up with forty acres”
The musician claims that as he started with forty acres, he “ended up with forty acres.” But he also “ended up with a broken fiddle.”
Sadly, Fiddler ended up with “a broken laugh, and a thousand memories.” But yet not so sadly, he can report that he also ended up with no regrets.
Being without regrets puts Fiddler Jones into a very different mind-set from most of the Spoon River epitaph reporters, whose main issue usually focuses on their regrets.
When they are not blaming others for their poor choices, they are whining about they could have done better had the people around them treated them better.
Thus to announce a life that results in no regrets demonstrates that Fiddler Jones is resting much easier than his fellow graveyard residents.
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