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Edgar Lee Masters’ "Harold Arnett"

Updated on January 26, 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, "Harold Arnett"

Edgar Lee Masters’ “Harold Arnett” from Spoon River Anthology portrays a character who learns that the duty of facing trials and tribulations does not end with merely leaving the physical world.

Harold Arnett

I leaned against the mantel, sick, sick,
Thinking of my failure, looking into the abysm,
Weak from the noon-day heat.
A church bell sounded mournfully far away,
I heard the cry of a baby,
And the coughing of John Yarnell,
Bed-ridden, feverish, feverish, dying,
Then the violent voice of my wife:
“Watch out, the potatoes are burning!”
I smelled them ... then there was irresistible disgust.
I pulled the trigger ... blackness ... light...
Unspeakable regret ... fumbling for the world again.
Too late! Thus I came here,
With lungs for breathing ... one cannot breathe here with lungs,
Though one must breathe.... Of what use is it
To rid one’s self of the world,
When no soul may ever escape the eternal destiny of life?

Reading of Masters' "Harold Arnett"

Commentary

First Movement: “I leaned against the mantel, sick, sick”

I leaned against the mantel, sick, sick,
Thinking of my failure, looking into the abysm,
Weak from the noon-day heat.

The speaker begins his dismal report by describing how he “leaned against the mantel, sick, sick.” His mind was on his “failure” about which he never reveals any information.

Arnett continues, saying he was “looking into the abysm,” and the hot mid-day heat was making him feel weak.

Second Movement: “A church bell sounded mournfully far away”

A church bell sounded mournfully far away,
I heard the cry of a baby,
And the coughing of John Yarnell,
Bed-ridden, feverish, feverish, dying,

Arnett then reports that he hears the distant chiming of “a church bell,” and he also hears a baby crying. At first, the reader will take these to be actual sounds that Arnett is hearing as he indulges his melancholy at the fireplace.

But then Arnett adds that he hears John Yarnell coughing. Unless John Yarnell is a sick guest in Arnett’s home, it is likely that Arnett is hearing all of these sounds only in his memory’s ear and not literally.

Arnett never clears up any of these vague strands of thought because they are not the focus of his soliloquy.

Third Movement: “Then the violent voice of my wife”

Then the violent voice of my wife:
“Watch out, the potatoes are burning!”
I smelled them ... then there was irresistible disgust.

Arnett snaps the reader into the scene as he claims he hears “the violent voice of my wife.”

That “violent voice,” the reader later realizes will be the last thing Arnett hears, and perhaps its implication for the personality of the wife adds to the motivation of Arnett’s own violent act.

That violent voice screeched out to Arnett, “Watch out, the potatoes are burning!” Arnett then becomes aware of the burning stench and is filled with an “irresistible disgust.”

Fourth Movement: “I pulled the trigger ... blackness ... light”

I pulled the trigger ... blackness ... light...
Unspeakable regret ... fumbling for the world again.

With the sound of a “violent voice” and the disgusting smell of burning potatoes in his consciousness, Arnett “pulled the trigger,” killing himself. Immediately, he sees “blackness . . . light” and feels “unspeakable regret.”

Arnett then finds that he is “fumbling for the world again.”

After Arnett had pulled the trigger, his next reflex was to attempt to unpull it. He immediately feels regretful of his impulsive act and tries, in vain, to get back to his life.

Fifth Movement: “Too late! Thus I came here”

Too late! Thus I came here,
With lungs for breathing ... one cannot breathe here with lungs,
Though one must breathe….

However, Arnett’s “fumbling,” of course, fails. He reports, “Too late!” Therefore he says he “came here.”

Instead of being taken to his grave, Arnett claims he “came” to it, sounding as if he simply leisurely gave up and walked into death instead of having been forced into it.

Arnett then focuses on the very physical, human act of “breathing.” As he entered death, he entered with “lungs for breathing,” but the very dreadful truth is that in the grave, or simply in the state beyond life, “one cannot breathe with lungs.”

Arnett’s emphasis on lungs and breathing demonstrates the strong connection between breathing and remaining in the physical body.

Although Arnett's physical body still possessed lungs, they became useless to him in the after-life state, and he is frustrated by that conundrum; he says, “one must breathe.”

Sixth Movement: “Of what use is it”

… Of what use is it
To rid one’s self of the world,
When no soul may ever escape the eternal destiny of life?

Arnett’s conclusion demonstrates the futility of suicide. Framed as a question, Arnett’s final reaction emphasizes that souls cannot escape from their well-earned karma by simply ridding themselves of their physical bodies.

Arnett asks, “what use is it,” to leave the world behind, when the soul still continues to be affected by its own “destiny of life.”

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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