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Edgar Lee Masters' "Theodore the Poet"

Updated on January 28, 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, "Theodore the Poet"

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Theodore the Poet" from Spoon River Anthology consists of two movements, with three minor movements each: the first grand movement reports Theodore’s observation of crawfish, and the second his observation of people.

This complex arrangement fits the conception of the speaker as a "poet." As poets are "makers," they need material for the making. Unfortunately, there are no examples of Theodore's products here, only the moving part of his mind as perhaps gathered in those bits of materials.

Theodore the Poet

As a boy, Theodore, you sat for long hours
On the shore of the turbid Spoon
With deep-set eye staring at the door of the crawfish’s burrow,
Waiting for him to appear, pushing ahead,
First his waving antennæ, like straws of hay,
And soon his body, colored like soap-stone,
Gemmed with eyes of jet.
And you wondered in a trance of thought
What he knew, what he desired, and why he lived at all.
But later your vision watched for men and women
Hiding in burrows of fate amid great cities,
Looking for the souls of them to come out,
So that you could see
How they lived, and for what,
And why they kept crawling so busily
Along the sandy way where water fails
As the summer wanes.

Reading of "Theodore the Poet"

Commentary: First Grand Movement: Observation of Crawfish

In the first grand movement, the speaker offers his observation of crawfish.

First Minor Movement: Addressing His Alter Ego

As a boy, Theodore, you sat for long hours
On the shore of the turbid Spoon
With deep-set eye staring at the door of the crawfish’s burrow,
Waiting for him to appear, pushing ahead,

The speaker is Theodore himself who is addressing an alter ego, demonstrating the introspective nature of the poet. He begins by broaching the subject of Theodore’s long habit of sitting by the Spoon River "for long hours."

As Theodore sat "with deep-set eye staring at the door of the crawfish’s burrow," the budding poet waited for crawfish to come out.

Second Minor Movement: Crawfish

First his waving antennæ, like straws of hay,
And soon his body, colored like soap-stone,
Gemmed with eyes of jet.

The speaker then reveals by implication that he is Theodore, who is in fact talking to himself as he describes vividly what the crawfish looked like and did. The crawfish’s antennae were waving, and they looked like "straws of hay."

After the hay-like antennae appeared, the body of the crawfish soon emerged. The crawfish body was the color of "soap-stone," and it was "gemmed with eyes of jet." Only Theodore himself could know these details.

Third Minor Movement: Philosophical Turn of Mind

And you wondered in a trance of thought
What he knew, what he desired, and why he lived at all.

In the final minor movement of the first grand movement, the speaker reveals what was on Theodore’s mind as he watched the crawfish: "[I]n a trance of thought," Theodore mused on "what [the crawfish] knew, what he desired" and most startlingly, "why [the crawfish] lived at all."

Theodore’s observations and musing demonstrate the philosophical nature of the mind of his ilk as a poet.

Commentary: Second Grand Movement: Observation of People

In the second grand movement, the speaker offers his observation of people.

Fourth Minor Movement: From Crawfish to People

But later your vision watched for men and women
Hiding in burrows of fate amid great cities,
Looking for the souls of them to come out,

In the second grand movement, the speaker shifts his focus from crawfish to people. Later in Theodore’s life, instead of watching crawfish, he turned to observing people, "your vision watched for men and women."

Because of his former experience of watching for crawfish, the speaker/poet metaphorically refers to the places from which people exit as "burrows of fate amid great cities" after "hiding" for some period of time.

Theodore was watching the people to determine the nature of their souls; thus, he was constantly "looking for the souls of them to come out."

Fifth Minor Movement: Same Attitude

So that you could see
How they lived, and for what,

Theodore watched the people with nearly the same attitude that he had watched the crawfish: he wanted to see "how they live, and for what."

Sixth Minor Movement: Lack of Discrimination

And why they kept crawling so busily
Along the sandy way where water fails
As the summer wanes.

Theodore wanted to understand the people as well the crawfish, but in the end, the people became indistinguishable from the crawfish. In Theodore’s description, the people "kept crawling so busily / Along the sandy way."

And like crawfish, they seemed to be moving along the "sandy way where water fails / As the summer wanes." Theodore has concluded that both crawfish and humankind seem to live rather useless lives, and he will likely continue to wonder why.

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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