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5. Edgar Lee Masters’ "Robert Fulton Tanner"

Updated on September 27, 2017
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Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Edgar Lee Masters


A bit overly dramatic reading of "Robert Fulton Tanner"

First Movement: “If a man could bite the giant hand”

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 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: “But a man can never avenge himself”

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: “But there’s work to do and things to conquer”

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: “(He was waiting and heard the clang of the spring)”

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.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes


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