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Edgar Lee Masters' "Robert Fulton Tanner"

Updated on April 19, 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

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Introduction and Text of "Robert Fulton Tanner"

Edgar Lee Masters' "Robert Fulton Tanner" is the fifth epitaph in the Spoon River Anthology. Fulton is a pathetic character, who discovers that building a better mouse trap might only get up a cockeyed metaphor to fling at this thing vaguely called "Life."

Robert Fulton Tanner

If a man could bite the giant hand
That catches and destroys him,
As I was bitten by a rat
While demonstrating my patent trap,
In my hardware store that day.
But a man can never avenge himself
On the monstrous ogre Life.
You enter the room—that’s being born;
And then you must live—work out your soul,
Aha! the bait that you crave is in view:
A woman with money you want to marry,
Prestige, place, or power in the world.
But there’s work to do and things to conquer—
Oh, yes! the wires that screen the bait.
At last you get in—but you hear a step:
The ogre, Life, comes into the room,
(He was waiting and heard the clang of the spring)
To watch you nibble the wondrous cheese,
And stare with his burning eyes at you,
And scowl and laugh, and mock and curse you,
Running up and down in the trap,
Until your misery bores him.

Rading of "Robert Fulton Tanner"

Commentary

The fifth epitaph in Masters’ Spoon River Anthology features the character named Robert Fulton Tanner, who compares his life to a rat caught in a trap.

First Movement: A Grudge Against Life

If a man could bite the giant hand
That catches and destroys him,
As I was bitten by a rat
While demonstrating my patent trap,
In my hardware store that day.

"Robert Fulton Tanner" holds a grudge, and he holds it against "Life."" He thus blames "Life" for his misery, and he muses on the notion of being able the bite that hand of Life that has bitten him. If he could have bitten that "giant hand," then what? He does not say. It appears he did not think beyond that luscious ability. Or perhaps he thinks such biting would be enough to avenge his plight.

Reader/listeners are free to imagine the consequence of such biting, and the only safe conclusion is that Tanner would feel better if he could have accomplished such a biting. Likening that "giant hand" to God, as well as Life, Tanner reveals that he is a hardware store owner, who had determined that he had built a better mouse trap.

But while demonstrating that "patent trap," a rat bit his hand. And that bitter event unleashed in Tanner’s mind all that would go wrong in his life henceforth. From that day forth, he would see himself as a victim of the giant hand, which caught him and destroyed him.

Second Movement: To Bite the Hand of God, or Whatever

But a man can never avenge himself
On the monstrous ogre Life.
You enter the room—that’s being born;
And then you must live—work out your soul,
Aha! the bait that you crave is in view:
A woman with money you want to marry,
Prestige, place, or power in the world.

If only one could bite that giant hand—of God, of Life, or of whatever—living would be improved for the man. Unfortunately, that is never going to happen, and Tanner knows it.

Tanner then goes on a philosophically tinged discourse, likening being born to entering a room. He observes that one must "live" and "work out [one’s soul]." He pities himself for having to do such work, but then transforming himself into the rat seeking bait, he admits that sought to marry a woman who had money.

And then he marries her for "prestige, place, or power in the world." The reader’s likely sympathy at this point turns to disgust at the incivility of this speaker. Who seeks a woman to marry to achieve wealth and power? Only scoundrels unworthy of the very wealth and power they seek.

Third Movement: Some Kind of Effort

But there’s work to do and things to conquer—
Oh, yes! the wires that screen the bait.
At last you get in—but you hear a step:
The ogre, Life, comes into the room,

Having discovered that all of life requires some kind of effort, he highlights his having to perform and struggle just to get to the woman in order to woo her. But to him, she is just a piece of rat bait. He must exert much effort just to get to her. But like the rat who spies a piece of cheese, he does what it takes to grasp that morsel.

After achieving his goal of marrying the woman he sought, he finds not the wealth, the power, the prestige he thought he was pursuing, but that that "ogre, Life," is entering the room again, watching him munch at the bait, while scowling and laughing at him. What has he achieved? Only more of that monster Life eating at him.

Of course, the reader realizes that the only ogre in this lazy, evil opportunist’s life is Robert Fulton Tanner himself. He has destroyed his own life because he failed to understand honesty, sincerity, and genuine affection while striving for self-improvement.

Fourth Movement: Victimhood on Parade

(He was waiting and heard the clang of the spring)
To watch you nibble the wondrous cheese,
And stare with his burning eyes at you,
And scowl and laugh, and mock and curse you,
Running up and down in the trap,
Until your misery bores him.

Self-professed victims are all the same: someone else is to blame for their misery. They have no role in making themselves miserable. They cannot see that it is exactly what they have done that has resulted in all the misery of their lives.

The final image of Robert Fulton "[r]unning up and down in the trap" is most appropriate. But his ignorance of how he got there is the real ogre in his life. It is not God or "Life" that will become "bored" with his misery; it is his own self who will experience that boredom until he discovers a way out of it.

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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