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Edgar Lee Masters’ "Kinsey Keene"

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

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Kinsey Keene"

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Kinsey Keene" from Spoon River Anthology focuses on a legendary quotation by the French commander, General Count Etienne Cambronne at the losing end of the Battle at Waterloo. When the British were about to vanquish the Old Guard, British Major-General Peregrine Maitland called for the French to surrender, but Cambronne allegedly responded, "La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!"—"The Guard may die, but it will never surrender."

Cambronne repudiated the claim that he said those words, and legend has filled in the rest—claiming that he said, "Merde!" which translates variously as "F**k off!" or "Shit!"

Now to which legendary quotation Master’s speaker is alluding can be a matter of interpretation: that he fails to offer the quotation might indicate that he has in mind the obscenity. However, because he has already quoted the British Major-General’s command, he perhaps is implying the response about no surrender.

Regardless of which quotation the speaker is evoking, the same non-conformist, adversarial attitude is displayed by Kinsey Keene.

13. Kinsey Keene

Your attention, Thomas Rhodes, president of the bank;
Coolbaugh Whedon, editor of the Argus;
Rev. Peet, pastor of the leading church;
A. D. Blood, several times Mayor of Spoon River;
And finally all of you, members of the Social Purity Club—
Your attention to Cambronne’s dying words,
Standing with the heroic remnant
Of Napoleon’s guard on Mount Saint Jean
At the battle field of Waterloo,
When Maitland, the Englishman, called to them:
"Surrender, brave Frenchmen!"—
There at close of day with the battle hopelessly lost,
And hordes of men no longer the army
Of the great Napoleon
Streamed from the field like ragged strips
Of thunder clouds in the storm.
Well, what Cambronne said to Maitland
Ere the English fire made smooth the brow of the hill
Against the sinking light of day
Say I to you, and all of you,
And to you, O world.
And I charge you to carve it
Upon my stone.

Reading of "Kinsey Keene"

Commentary

First Movement: "Your attention, Thomas Rhodes, president of the bank"

Your attention, Thomas Rhodes, president of the bank;
Coolbaugh Whedon, editor of the Argus;
Rev. Peet, pastor of the leading church;
A. D. Blood, several times Mayor of Spoon River;
And finally all of you, members of the Social Purity Club—

Kinsey Keene addresses some of the upper crust of the fictional town of Spoon River: the president of the bank, the editor of the newspaper, the pastor of the leading church, and a "several times" mayor of the town. He also calls for the attention of "all of you, members of the Social Purity Club"—a fictional club that implies Keene’s disdain for the town’s leaders.

Second Movement: "Your attention to Cambronne’s dying words"

Your attention to Cambronne’s dying words,
Standing with the heroic remnant
Of Napoleon’s guard on Mount Saint Jean
At the battle field of Waterloo,
When Maitland, the Englishman, called to them:
"Surrender, brave Frenchmen!"—

The second movement reveals that Keene is drawing attention to those famous, legendary words of the dying French commander, General Count Etienne Cambronne. Instead of revealing the words, Keene describes the scene: the French general was "standing with heroic remnant / Of Napoleon’s guard on Mount Saint Jean / At the battle field of Waterloo."

Thus placed, Cambronne was accosted by the command of the British general Maitland, who demanded, "Surrender, brave Frenchmen!"

Third Movement: "There at close of day with the battle hopelessly lost"

There at close of day with the battle hopelessly lost,
And hordes of men no longer the army
Of the great Napoleon
Streamed from the field like ragged strips
Of thunder clouds in the storm.

Again, Keene describes the battlefield. It is "at close of day," the battle lost, and the once proud French army of "the great Napoleon" was "stream[ing] from the field like ragged strips / Of thunder clouds in the storm."

Fourth Movement: "Well, what Cambronne said to Maitland"

Well, what Cambronne said to Maitland
Ere the English fire made smooth the brow of the hill
Against the sinking light of day
Say I to you, and all of you,
And to you, O world.
And I charge you to carve it
Upon my stone.

Keene then inserts the phantom quotation by referring to it with the clause "what Cambronne said to Maitland." Before the English continued to demolish the "brow of the hill / Against the sinking light of day," Cambronne made his famous remark. Now, Keene defiantly thrusts that same statement at his adversaries and challenges them to "carve it / Upon my stone."

Of course, the French lost the Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon was exiled. Historians remain uncertain regarding the Cambronne quotation: perhaps he merely said, “The Guard dies but never surrenders,” or as others have asserted, Cambronne might uttered the obscene, "Merde!" French for "Shit!"

This final command to carve the Cambronne quotation upon his stone leaves the reader again with the ambiguity for interpretation: does Keene want an obscenity carved upon his stone, or just a defiant, "never surrender"? Either way, he gets his point across—that he never surrendered his own sense of dignity to that of the town’s corrupt leaders.

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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