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Edgar Lee Masters "Judge Somers"

Updated on April 4, 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 Stamp

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Judge Somers"

The speaker in Edgar Lee Masters’ “Judge Somers” is the judge himself, who wants to know why a man of importance, such as himself, has died unnoticed while the town drunk has been well noted.

Judge Somers

How does it happen, tell me,
That I who was the most erudite of lawyers,
Who knew Blackstone and Coke
Almost by heart, who made the greatest speech
The court-house ever heard, and wrote
A brief that won the praise of Justice Breese—
How does it happen, tell me,
That I lie here unmarked, forgotten,
While Chase Henry, the town drunkard,
Has a marble block, topped by an urn,
Wherein Nature, in a mood ironical,
Has sown a flowering seed?

Reading of "Judge Somers"

Commentary

First Movement: “How does it happen, tell me”

How does it happen, tell me,
That I who was the most erudite of lawyers,
Who knew Blackstone and Coke
Almost by heart, who made the greatest speech
The court-house ever heard, and wrote
A brief that won the praise of Justice Breese—

This poem consists of two movements each beginning with a command embedded in a question. The judge is demanding an answer to his question in both instances. Judge Somers begins by asserting his demand/question, posited with “How does it happen, tell me.” But in the first movement, he does not finish the question proper; he merely prefaces it by reporting all of his achievements.

The judge claims that he was the “most erudite of lawyers.” He feigns no modesty in his self-evaluation but flatly asserts that he was the most brilliant of attorneys. Part of his erudition and brilliance was due to his having “almost by heart Blackstone and Coke.”

Somers is alluding to two British legal writers—Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780), who wrote the Commentaries, and Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), who wrote and published treatises titled Institutes of the laws of England.

The judge’s knowledge of these works sounds much more important than it is; a lawyer or judge practicing in a 19th century Illinois rural community would hardly be confronted with issues dealt with in these obscure legal works.

Judge Somers then boasts that he “made the greatest speech / The court-house ever heard.” In his own mind, not only was he a great orator, but he also “wrote / A brief that won the praise of Justice Breese.” Again, the fictional speaker Somers alludes to a real-life justice, Justice Sidney Breese, who served on the Illinois Supreme Court as both a judge and as chief justice.

Second Movement: “How does it happen, tell me”

How does it happen, tell me,
That I lie here unmarked, forgotten,
While Chase Henry, the town drunkard,
Has a marble block, topped by an urn,
Wherein Nature, in a mood ironical,
Has sown a flowering seed?

So with such a shining reputation for accomplishment, the judge again poses his demand/question: "How does it happen, tell me.” He then completes the question for he wants to know why he is left to “lie here unmarked, forgotten.”

And to make matters worse, that “town drunkard” and scoundrel, “Chase Henry,” has been afforded “a marble block, topped by an urn.” The judge adds that, “Nature,” with a splash of irony “has sown a flowering weed.” He takes a bit of comfort from the ironic weed, but still he chafes at the fact that he is forgotten while the town drunk seems to be celebrated.

The reader knows a secret that the judge obviously does not know: that Henry’s memorial has nothing to do with Henry but can be laid at the door of rivalry between the Protestants and the Catholics.

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.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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