Final Argument: Edgar Lee Masters

October 9, 2013 Clarence Darrow

How does a poet fit into this series? Edgar Lee masters was not an ivory tower academic – he was a lawyer who advocated for the poor and powerless just like one of his law partners — Clarence Darrow. I came across Masters while teaching myself English literature. His legacy is the Spoon River Anthology, a series of 244 poetic monologues in the voices of the dead. He took the names off tombstones in an Illinois cemetery and combined fact, fiction and speculation to create their voices.

Masters-129x176Masters writes like a lawyer-advocate. The poems are written in the first person, direct and clear, telling a story, attempting to persuade. They combine free verse, epitaph, realism, seasoned with a healthy dose of cynicism.

One speaks to me. That is why I include it in this series on final argument. Masters uses the voice of a cynical and arrogant lawyer to illustrate the possibility of redemption through compassion. It tells how life experience changes us; how tragedy makes us more human. Here is the epiphany of “State’s Attorney Fallas”:

I, the scourge-wielder, balance-wrecker,
Smiter with whips and swords;
I, hater of the breakers of the law;
I, legalist, inexorable and bitter,
Driving the jury to hang the madman, Barry Holden,
Was made as one dead by light too bright for eyes,
And woke to face a Truth with bloody brow:
Steel forceps fumbled by a doctor’s hand
Against my boy’s head as he entered life
Made him an idiot.
I turned to books of science
To care for him.
That’s how the world of those whose minds are sick
Became my work in life, and all my world.
Poor ruined boy! You were, at last, the potter
And I and all my deeds of charity
The vessels of your hand.

Yesterday our vaunted federal prosecutors took down Scott Saidel, another in a long list of local lawyers broken, and his tragedy reminded me of Masters’ poem. Saidel’s lawyer told the judge that her client was not driven by profit or greed, but that he erred by viewing Kim Rothstein as a friend rather than a client. “He saw this woman drowning and he tried to help her. She was losing everything in the world through no fault of her own.… He has lost his career … his wife and child have moved out of their home.… He has no money left. He’s lost everything in the world.” And the last thing he has left, his dog, is dying of cancer. The Herald described him as looking ashen and resigned, his head tilted downward.

The federal prosecutor added: “Being in over your head is no excuse….” And “unfortunately he was the last man standing.” So the judge added three years in prison to his misery.

A man being persecuted by his own conscience and his life in ruins doesn’t need the world to join in.

But back to the sublime poetry of Edgar Lee Masters. I love this poem. It is simple and direct, yet powerful, like a final argument. There is a lot to learn by studying his writing style. Both Darrow and Masters had a love for literature and poetry and it infused their legal work with clarity and beauty. Darrow published essays on Whitman and Omar Khayyám, among others, and we see the result in the final paragraph of his great Leopold and Loeb speech:

“I feel that I should apologize for the length of time I have taken. This case may not be as important as I think it is, and I am sure I do not need to tell this court, or to tell my friends that I would fight just as hard for the poor as for the rich. If I should succeed in saving these boys’ lives and do nothing for the progress of the law, I should feel sad, indeed. If I can succeed, my greatest reward and my greatest hope will be that I have done something for the tens of thousands of other boys, for the countless unfortunates who must tread the same road in blind childhood that these poor boys have trod — that I have done something to help human understanding, to temper justice with mercy, to overcome hate with love. I was reading last night of the aspiration of the old Persian poet, Omar Khayyam. It appealed to me as the highest that I can vision. I wish it was in my heart, and I wish it was in the hearts of all:

So I be written in the Book of Love
I do not care about that Book above.
Erase my name or write it as you will,
So I be written in the book of Love. “