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Edgar Lee Masters' "Zenas Witt"

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

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Zenas Witt"

Edgar Lee Masters’ “Zenas Witt” from Spoon River Anthology features an unfortunate character whose nerves, it would seem, led him to an early grave.

Zenas is one of Edgar Lee Masters’ more vague speakers from the Spoon River graveyard. This speaker does manage to impart the fact that his short life caused him great suffering before it was extinguished at an early age sometime vaguely after he had turned sixteen.

Zenas never becomes specific enough to let the reader know exactly when he died or what he died of. That omission seems to be intentionally motivated in order to emphasize the young man's poor memory and weakness of health.

Zenas Witt

I was sixteen, and I had the most terrible dreams,
And specks before my eyes, and nervous weakness.
And I couldn’t remember the books I read,
Like Frank Drummer who memorized page after page
And my back was weak, and I worried and worried,
And I was embarrassed and stammered my lessons,
And when I stood up to recite I’d forget
Everything that I had studied.
Well, I saw Dr. Weese’s advertisement,
And there I read everything in print,
Just as if he had known me;
And about the dreams which I couldn’t help.
So I knew I was marked for an early grave.
And I worried until I had a cough,
And then the dreams stopped.
And then I slept the sleep without dreams
Here on the hill by the river.

Reading of "Zenas Witt"

Commentary

First Movement: “I was sixteen, and I had the most terrible dreams”

I was sixteen, and I had the most terrible dreams,
And specks before my eyes, and nervous weakness.
And I couldn’t remember the books I read,
Like Frank Drummer who memorized page after page

Zenas begins his discourse, by announcing that when he was sixteen years old, he had “the most terrible dreams.” He saw “specks before [his] eyes.” He reports his inability to remember books he had read.

Zenas likens his condition to “Frank Drummer,” who claimed to have memorized the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.

The disconnect between Zenas’ assertion that his condition was similar to Frank Drummer and his own description of his difficulty demonstrates the fuzzy thinking that the former seems to suffer in addition to his physical problems.

Second Movement: “And my back was weak, and I worried and worried”

And my back was weak, and I worried and worried,
And I was embarrassed and stammered my lessons,
And when I stood up to recite I’d forget
Everything that I had studied.

Zenas continues to describe his unfortunate health issues: he had a weak back, he worried excessively, he was easily embarrassed by his maladies, and when he had to stand up in class to recite his lessons he would forget them.

Zenas' memory was so bad that even though he had studied, he could never remember anything he had committed to memory.

Third Movement: “Well, I saw Dr. Weese’s advertisement”

Well, I saw Dr. Weese’s advertisement,
And there I read everything in print,
Just as if he had known me;
And about the dreams which I couldn’t help.

Zenas reports that he saw “Dr. Weese’s advertisement” and was attracted by what the ad said. He read everything about Dr. Weese’s putative miracle cure. Zenas felt that the doctor was describing his own situation, “just as if he had known me.”

The doc even knows about the dreams, and Zenas feels he must emphasis that he could not control the dreams. Such a confession implies that Zenas might have believed he had control over his other woes but felt guilty that he did not do so.

Fourth Movement: “So I knew I was marked for an early grave”

So I knew I was marked for an early grave.
And I worried until I had a cough,
And then the dreams stopped.

Nothing ever came of this possible miracle cure, and Zenas admits that he was sure he would die early. Thus, he continued to worry right up until the time developed a cough.

Zenas says that the dreams abruptly came to a halt. He does not elaborate or even hint at how long he continued to suffer his nervousness, nightmares, and poor memory.

Fifth Movement: “And then I slept the sleep without dreams”

And then I slept the sleep without dreams
Here on the hill by the river.

Suddenly, without fanfare, Zenas is dead. He dramatically and poetically refers to his condition as “sle[eping] the sleep without dreams / Here on the hill by the river.”

Zenas is one of the more tight-lipped deceased reporters from the Spoon River graveyard. The reader never learns the specifics of his illnesses and is left to guess their nature as well as just how long Zenas had to suffer them. He also leaves unclear just exactly what eventually killed him.

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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