Mr. Lee Masters. A review of Songs and Satires, by Edgar Lee Masters
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488 ] Mr. Lee Masters A review of Songs and Satires, by Edgar Lee Masters London: T. Werner Laurie, 1916. Pp. viii + 172.1 The Manchester Guardian, 906 (9 Oct 1916) 3 Everyone has read and admired the Spoon River Anthology: almost no one can say precisely what he thinks of it. The present volume ought to clear up some of these hesitations. Very little of it is quite in the Spoon River vein, and much of it is in quite conventional vein. Whether the ballads of Launcelot were written before or after Spoon River is really a matter of indifference;2 the fact that Mr. Masters has published them now is evidence of a certain sincerity; he is not trying to force or exploit his style, nor to advertise his idiosyncrasies à tout propos. Some of the verse in this volume is as good as Spoon River, and the book as a whole offers hints toward a criticism of Mr. Masters’s hitherto baffling talent. It is clear that Mr. Masters needs to set himself one particular problem in order to bring his gifts to focus. This problem is not necessarily the epitaph . But he must have a personage, and this personage must be detached from himself in order to give his peculiar meditative irony its opportunity: it must not appear as an element in a supposed autobiographic situation, or the incisive comment tends to dissolve in sentiment. Mr. Masters sometimes fails in a situation (“Arabel”) because he does not fix before you the contact and cross-contact of souls, the breath and scent of the room. His mind is reflective, not evocative; the Spoon River epigraphy is terse rather than concentrated. In descriptive passages– The windows are begrimed with dust and beer. A child half clothed, with legs as thin as spindles, Carries a basket with some bits of coal.3 –we have a vision from the moral emotions, not an immediate application of all the senses. But there is one long poem in the book which fulfils Mr. Masters’s necessary conditions. It is about the American agitator Bryan.4 We should cherish any volume of Mr. Masters which contained another study as good as this. [ 489 Mr. Lee Masters But suppose you were giving a lecture on the constitution, And you got mixed on your dates, And the audience rotten-egged you, . . . But suppose you could just change your clothes, And lecture to the same audience On the religious nature of Washington, And be applauded and make money– You’d do it, wouldn’t you? Bryan had been advised– “You’d better go back to Lincoln and study Science, history, philosophy, And read Flaubert’s Madam something-or-other, And quit this village religious stuff. You’re head of the party before you are ready, And a leader should lead with thought.” It is the best criticism of Bryan that has ever been written. T. S. E. Notes 1. Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950) leaped into prominence as an American poet with the publication of The Spoon River Anthology (1915), a collection of 244 poems written as the personal epitaphs on the tombstones of the named dead who lie in a cemetery in Spoon River, a fictional composite of the small communities of Petersburg and Lewistown, Illinois, where Masters grew up. Following its commercial success in America (New York: Macmillan), Songs and Satires was published in this English edition. 2. “The Death of Sir Launcelot” and “Ballad of Launcelot and Elaine” first appeared in Songs and Satires. 3. From “The Loop” in Songs and Satires (36). 4. “The Cocked Hat,” from which TSE quotes, is a character sketch of William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), noted orator, head of the Democratic Party, and Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, who is quoted in the poem’s epigraph: “Would that some one would knock Mr.Bryanintoacockedhat.”Thefirstquotedpassage(15)referstoBryan’soratoricalperformances and the second (13) to his conflict with Clarence Darrow, who speaks the words in quotation marks, regarding the teaching of evolution. ...