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Edgar Lee Masters' "Jacob Goodpasture"

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



In Edgar Lee Masters’ “Jacob Goodpasture” from Spoon River Anthology, the speaker disparages his own life as he parallels it with the condition of his country.

As Jacob Goodpasture laments the outbreak of the U.S.A. War between the States, he makes it clear that he believes the war to be unjustified, but he is no doubt pontificating from a position of a father in mourning. He lost his soldier son to the war effort.

Reading of "Jacob Goodpasture"

First Movement: “When Fort Sumter fell and the war came”

The grieving father commences his lamentation, stating that “bitterness of soul” has overtaken him as the Civil War begins after the firing on Fort Sumter.

Goodpasture asserts that upon receiving the dreaded report, he declaimed, “O glorious republic now no more!”

Second Movement: “When they buried my soldier son”

Goodpasture is suffering after the death of his son, who has become a casualty of the war. Goodpasture deems the war “unjust.” His suffering became intense as he listened to the trumpets and heard the sound of the drums beating for his son's military funeral.

The eighty-year-old Goodpasture senses the heavy burden of his long life; he is unable to find any comfort in having his son give his life for the protection of his freedom.

Goodpasture is decrying the death of his son, but he is also insisting that even freedom itself was “slain” in the unjust war.

As do most political hacks with opinions unfettered by facts and unsubstantiated with analysis, Jacob Goodpasture can mouth talking-points while offering no support or explanation for his bitter claims. He can label events but remains unable or unwilling to clarify them.

Third Movement: “And I crept here under the grass”

Goodpasture dramatizes his emotion, signifying this own death by remarking, “I crept her under the grass."

Goodpasture seems to an outrageous claim that he perceives truths that others fail to see. He makes a prediction about his country, the United States, after its population has tripled in size: “thrice thirty million.” The U.S. population indeed was about 31 million during the Civil War years.

Goodpasture offers his prediction that the 90 million American souls will unite in “the love of larger truth.” He suggests that, “a new Beauty” will come to fruition in “Brotherhood and Wisdom.”

Despite the fact that Goodpasture labels the war “unjust” and not needed, he somehow remains optimistic that later generations will benefit from the true goal of this supposed unjust conflict.

Of course, the very purpose of the war was do just what Goodpasture thinks will happen in future. Political hacks never trouble themselves with purpose and logic as they continue to traffic in stances of obfuscation and political chicanery.

Fourth Movement: “I with eyes of spirit see the Transfiguration”

Goodpasture asserts that he can know the future of his country before the living residents perceive it. He metaphorically compares the coming generation to “golden eagles," asking them to forgive his war-mongering generation, which resembles a blind owl that has now left the picture.

Final Comment: Uncertain Time-Frame

The timing of Goodpasture’s prediction raises problematic issues. The reader may gather that he died around age eighty. But it remains unclear if he was, in fact, age eighty at the outbreak of the war.

If Goodpasture has lived around twenty years after the war, he likely could have seen the results of the war effort. Yet in order to brag up his prediction, he has to be asserting that he possessed the foresight to predict those war results.

Goodpasture's patriotism can only be aligned with the death of his son; yet he is lamenting the son's death as well as his opinion that the war has caused also the death of freedom.

Goodpasture seems to be trying to have it both ways—the war caused the death of freedom, yet in future he seems the rise of freedom. His pessimism continues to rankle him, however, as he seems to detect a bloody moon instead of a phoenix rising.

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


Submit a Comment

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image

    Linda Sue Grimes 13 months ago from U.S.A.

    The issue of slavery is a complex one. Any simplistic conclusion about such a wide-spread institution lacks usefulness and/or conviction.

    However, the poem in question does not even broach the issues that motivated the American Civil War. The poem's focus is squarely on one man's loss and reaction to it; even Jacob's notions about the war and the country remain fringe issues at best.

  • whonunuwho profile image

    whonunuwho 13 months ago from United States

    I suppose you would have to "walk a mile in his shoes" to realize that his loss of a son was so traumatising to him and his family members. One is torn between what is right and feeling the pain from such a loss. I find it quite upsetting at times when I realize that the early slaves were taken from their native soil by the Dutch and British traders. They were brought and sold around the world. This country still feels the impact of such grievous acts and perhaps one day, we may find a better way to overcome this tragedy. Blessings to all, whonu