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Edgar Lee Masters' "Percy Bysshe Shelley"

Updated on April 8, 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, "Percy Bysshe Shelley"

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Percy Bysshe Shelley" from Spoon River Anthology consists of five tercets, each constructing its own movement and rendering this character-poem named for a poet one of the most highly structured of all the Spoon River poem offerings. The poem creates a drama, featuring the odd relationship between a father and son.

The father had great aspirations for his son, but Percy did not have the mental and spiritual wherewithal to live up to the father's wishes. The interesting missing feature from the relationship seems to be any malice. There is no hint of friction between the two, although they had very different temperaments and desires.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

My father who owned the wagon-shop
And grew rich shoeing horses
Sent me to the University of Montreal.
I learned nothing and returned home,
Roaming the fields with Bert Kessler,
Hunting quail and snipe.
At Thompson’s Lake the trigger of my gun
Caught in the side of the boat
And a great hole was shot through my heart.
Over me a fond father erected this marble shaft,
On which stands the figure of a woman
Carved by an Italian artist.
They say the ashes of my namesake
Were scattered near the pyramid of Caius Cestius
Somewhere near Rome.

Reading of "Percy Bysshe Shelley"

Commentary

In this poem, the speaker is dramatizing a relationship between a father and son, whose differences are vast and deep.

First Movement: Sent to Prestigious University

My father who owned the wagon-shop
And grew rich shoeing horses
Sent me to the University of Montreal.

Percy announces that his father ran a lucrative "wagon-shop," earning enough money to send Percy to the "University of Montreal." The elder Shelley "grew rich shoeing horses."

The claim sounds rather odd, and perhaps intends to serve as an exaggeration. While such a shop might keep the owner from poverty, it is not likely that such a business would allow the owner to grow rich.

Second Movement: Learned Nothing

I learned nothing and returned home,
Roaming the fields with Bert Kessler,
Hunting quail and snipe.

In the second tercet, Percy admits that at the prestigious Canadian university, "I learned nothing." So after flunking out, he "returned home." Percy's major activity from then on was hunting, "roaming the fields with Bert Kessler." They hunted "quail and snipe."

Third Movement: An Accidental Shooting

At Thompson’s Lake the trigger of my gun
Caught in the side of the boat
And a great hole was shot through my heart.

Percy dies in the middle of his poem. On one of his hunting expeditions "at Thompson’s Lake," he is accidentally shot through the heart when "the trigger of [his] gun" becomes "caught in the side of the boat." Again, Percy’s penchant for exaggeration emerges, "a great hole was shot through my heart."

Fourth Movement: A Grave Difference

Over me a fond father erected this marble shaft,
On which stands the figure of a woman
Carved by an Italian artist.

Percy’s grave is quite a spectacular sight. An Italian artist’s "figure of a woman" guards his remains. His "fond father" had "erected this marble shaft" and had the carving of the woman placed there.

The disconnect between the father and son is clearly demonstrated in this movement. The father’s interests are not the same as the son’s. Because the son’s only interest was hunting, it would be expected that some hunting related theme might be used to decorate the younger man’s grave.

Fifth Movement: A Bit of History

They say the ashes of my namesake
Were scattered near the pyramid of Caius Cestius
Somewhere near Rome.

Percy then states a bit of historical information regarding the biography of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, "[his] namesake." The speaker reveals that the poet’s ashes "were scattered near the pyramid of Caius Cestius / Somewhere near Rome."

Lack of Conflict

The name of this character is quite ironic, but it symbolizes the vast difference between this father and son. Percy could not even succeed in college, and his main interest was hunting, while the father had great ambitions for his son, beginning with his name and ending with the grave marker sculpted by an Italian artist.

While most disparities of this nature between father and son lead to a stressful and often volatile relationship, there is no evidence that these two characters resented each other. Percy remains rather emotionless but refers to his father as "a fond father" and seems very accepting of that fondness. Percy just reports a few salient facts about this life but does not seem to be aggrieved, as so many of the Spoon River epitaphs reveal.

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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