38. Edgar Lee Masters’ "Charlie French"

Updated on December 18, 2017
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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



Edgar Lee Masters’ “Charlie French” from Spoon River Anthology features its character musing about who might have been responsible for his contracting lockjaw which lead to his death.

The little drama creates a speaker in Charlie who finds himself obsessed with a specific detail.

After dying from this dreadful disease, he has his mind fixed upon who did it, who “snapped the toy pistol against” his hand.

Reading of Masters' "Charlie French"

First Movement: “Did you ever find out”

Charlie is addressing an eclipsed listener, that is, a listener who cannot be identified. Traditionally, when a poet’s speaker seems to be addressing no one, the context usually reveals that the speaker is, in fact, musing to him/herself. But this is not the case with Charlie.

Charlie French wants to know who the culprit is who shot off a cap gun against his hand. He asks the question at the beginning of his discourse and then concludes the discourse with the same question.

After his musing, he remains in the dark about who the cap-gun shooter was; thus he repeats the question.

Second Movement: “There when the flags were red and white”

Charlie describes the event at which his fatality occurred. The description reveals a Civil War enactment or some other military observance. There were “red and white” flags flapping in the breeze, while “Bucky” Estil was firing up the cannon.

The cannon had been transported to Spoon River by “Captain Harris,” who brought it all the way from Vicksburg. The Civil War era relic suggests that the celebration might have been a commemoration of the war.

Third Movement: “And the lemonade stands were running”

In addition to the cannon fire and flags, there were lemonade stands and a “band was playing.”

Then upon this jubilant scene intrudes Charlie’s unfortunate and ultimately fatal cap-gun shooting. The day was moving along splendidly, “To have it all spoiled / By a piece of a cap shot under the skin of my hand.”

Fourth Movement: “And the boys all crowding about me saying”

Seeing the cap-shot stain under Charlie’s skin, the other boys gathered around him and started making comments: “You’ll die of lock-jaw, Charlie, sure.”

The suggestion frightened Charlie so severely that he actually did contract the disease, and then he expired, leaving the reader little knowledge about this character other than his strong suggestibility.

Fifth Movement: “Oh, dear! oh, dear!”

The exclamation, “Oh, dear! oh, dear!,” connects two strands of thought and activity: First, the boys who were observing Charlie’s cap-gun shot hand are thinking thus, if, in fact they are not the ones projecting this utterance, and second, Charlie himself definitely engages this “oh dear” sentiment about his own health’s prospects; therefore, the implication is that Charlie let out this cry.

Charlie’s main reason for carrying on this discourse is further emphasized as he continues to wonder, “What chum of mine could have done it?”

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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