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Edgar Lee Masters' "Reuben Pantier"

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


Introduction and Text of Poem, "Reuben Pantier"

Reuben Pantier, son of Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Pantier, tells his story by addressing his high school teacher, Miss Emily Sparks. (Emily's story follows.)

16. Reuben Pantier

Well, Emily Sparks, your prayers were not wasted,
Your love was not all in vain.
I owe whatever I was in life
To your hope that would not give me up,
To your love that saw me still as good.
Dear Emily Sparks, let me tell you the story.
I pass the effect of my father and mother;
The milliner’s daughter made me trouble
And out I went in the world,
Where I passed through every peril known
Of wine and women and joy of life.
One night, in a room in the Rue de Rivoli,
I was drinking wine with a black-eyed cocotte,
And the tears swam into my eyes.
She thought they were amorous tears and smiled
For thought of her conquest over me.
But my soul was three thousand miles away,
In the days when you taught me in Spoon River.
And just because you no more could love me,
Nor pray for me, nor write me letters,
The eternal silence of you spoke instead.
And the black-eyed cocotte took the tears for hers,
As well as the deceiving kisses I gave her.
Somehow, from that hour, I had a new vision—
Dear Emily Sparks!

Reading of "Reuben Pantier"


First Movement: “Well, Emily Sparks, your prayers were not wasted”

Reuben Pantier, addressing his former teacher, Emily Sparks, reveals that the teacher had prayed for her student and always believed in his good nature. His opening remark hints that he did not move through this life as untroubled as he might have liked, but that with the good will of his former teacher, he has been able to salvage some self esteem.

Thus, he tells Miss Sparks, “your prayers were not wasted,” and her care for him “was not all in vain.” He further asserts, “I owe whatever I was in life / To your hope that would not give me up, / To your love that saw me still as good.”

Second Movement: “Dear Emily Sparks, let me tell you the story”

In the second movement, Reuben tells his “story” to Miss Sparks. He managed to survive the withering childhood that might have blighted the life of one less strong willed.

The reader will remember that his parents were a dysfunctional couple whose example would have proved negative for children. Nevertheless, Reuben claims that he survived this negative environment.

After “pass[ing] the effect of [his] father and mother,” however, he was caused great difficulty in a relationship with “the milliner’s daughter.” Leaving Spoon River and going out into the world, he met with “every peril known / Of wine and women and joy of life.” He became a womanizer and one given to debauchery.

Third Movement: “One night, in a room in the Rue de Rivoli”

Finally, Reuben gets to the heart of his “story”: one night he finds himself in a Paris hotel room with a “dark-eyed cocotte.” The prostitute sees that Reuben’s eyes have become brimmed with tears, and she thinks he is crying “amorous tears” for her. He reports that she thought his tears showed her power over him, or as he puts it, “for thought of her conquest over me.”

Fourth Movement: “But my soul was three thousand miles away”

Reuben then declaims that his “soul was three thousand miles away” and many years back to the “days when you taught me in Spoon River.” Thus, his heart and mind were not with the prostitute in France but back with his former teacher in his old home town of Spoon River.

Reuben then declares that even though he was no longer in the physical presence of the one person who showed him care and attention, his soul became aware of the love she had shown him, and “the eternal silence of you spoke instead.”

Fifth Movement: “And the black-eyed cocotte took the tears for hers”

The prostitute’s mistaken belief that Reuben cared for her motivated him to understand that the reality of spiritual love is stronger and more satisfying than the false affection of a physical relationship. Thus, “from that hour, I had a new vision.” And he realized it was the prayers and love he had been afforded by “Dear Emily Sparks” that sparked his new understanding.

Musical rendition of "Reuben Pantier"

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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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