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Edgar Lee Masters' "Thomas Ross, Jr."

Edgar Lee Masters' classic work, "Spoon River Anthology," offers a fascinating character study of the American mind in the mid-20th-century.

Introduction and Text of "Thomas Ross, Jr."

Some Spoon River characters are shady for what they have done, and others for what they might have done. "Thomas Ross, Jr.," belongs to the latter category. What he did in life remains a mystery.

In his epitaph from Edgar Lee Masters' American classic, Spoon River Anthology, Thomas Ross, Jr., concocts a drama about a mother bird building a nest, hatching her eggs, only to have a snake eat them, after which she kills the snake and then is killed by a bigger bird.

But this story is merely a prologue to Thomas' own claim that he, like the mother bird, competed with natural forces only to be stabbed in the back by his own brother. While the overall theme works well enough, Thomas leaves too much doubt in his audience's mind to make him a sympathetic, or even believable character.

Thomas Ross, Jr.

This I saw with my own eyes:
A cliff-swallow
Made her nest in a hole of the high clay-bank
There near Miller’s Ford.
But no sooner were the young hatched
Than a snake crawled up to the nest
To devour the brood.
Then the mother swallow with swift flutterings
And shrill cries
Fought at the snake,
Blinding him with the beat of her wings,
Until he, wriggling and rearing his head,
Fell backward down the bank
Into Spoon River and was drowned.
Scarcely an hour passed
Until a shrike
Impaled the mother swallow on a thorn.
As for myself I overcame my lower nature
Only to be destroyed by my brother’s ambition.

Reading of "Thomas Ross, Jr."

Commentary

Thomas Ross, Jr., describes a scene in which natural forces are taking place. However, he leaves his audience with a bizarre remark that only provokes questions that will receive no answers.

First Movement: A Mother Bird Builds a Nest

This I saw with my own eyes:
A cliff-swallow
Made her nest in a hole of the high clay-bank
There near Miller’s Ford.

The speaker begins by describing an event that he claims he saw "with [his] own eyes." The vapid phrase, "with my own eyes," alerts listeners to the likely fabrication of the teller. The words add nothing to the veracity of the teller's tale. With whose eyes might the speaker have viewed the events he claims to have seen other than with his own? Perhaps the speaker thinks he is waxing poetic or philosophical, while, in fact, he is just being verbose and silly.

The speaker then reveals that he saw a mother bird build a nest in a hole in the bank of Miller's Ford. Now it takes a mother bird a few hours, sometimes days, to build such a nest. But Thomas has claimed to have seen this with his own eyes. His lack of specificity render his claim questionable, however. Is he saying he saw her build the nest, which seems to be his claim or is he saying that he merely saw the nest and the rest of his report.

Readers/listeners will have to keep this vagary in mind as they continue experiencing Thomas' story.

Second Movement: A Snake Eats the Baby Birds

But no sooner were the young hatched
Than a snake crawled up to the nest
To devour the brood.

Again, the speaker is playing fast and loose with timing. After vaguely claiming to have watched a mother bird build her nest, now he has been on hand to watch her baby bird being hatched and then gobbled up by a snake. The hatching birds, of course, takes many days. Does Thomas expect his audience to believed he was there watching with his own eyes as a mother bird built a nest, laid her eggs, and then hatched them?

Does Thomas truly expect his audience to believe that he stood on the river bank for several weeks observing this event? Might he be saying that returned day after day to continue observing this saga?

Thomas' credibility is stake here and that credibility is vital to his conclusion. Yet he is offering a story whose timeline belies his claims.

Third Movement: Mama Bird Kills the Snake

Then the mother swallow with swift flutterings
And shrill cries
Fought at the snake,
Blinding him with the beat of her wings,
Until he, wriggling and rearing his head,
Fell backward down the bank
Into Spoon River and was drowned.

In the longest part of Thomas' tale, he dramatizes the mother bird's killing of the horrid snake what had consumed her offspring. She moves fast and fiercely with rapidly beating wings and high pitched, ear-piercing cries as she battles with the slithering monster. She blinds him with her wings, and begins to writhe and poke up his head, until he clumsily falls "backward and down the bank" of Spoon River, where he then drowns.

Thomas has concocted an interesting, entertaining tale, but he has made it very difficult for his audience to put much faith in its being accurate. But then he piles on disbelief upon disbelief as he continues his drama.

Fourth Movement: Mama Bird Killed by Bigger Bird

Scarcely an hour passed
Until a shrike
Impaled the mother swallow on a thorn.

Within the hour of her death, the mother bird through the instrumentality of a larger bird of prey is stricken dead after being "impaled" upon a thorn. The speaker seems to be demonstrating that he has the patience of clock: after watching this series of events that would take perhaps weeks to come about, he remains at least another hour to see the small bird, the poor mother swallow, being finished off by the larger "shrike."

Fifth Movement: Shades of Cain and Abel?

As for myself I overcame my lower nature
Only to be destroyed by my brother’s ambition.

Of course, Thomas has just described natural events that like do in fact take place in the wild. Whether he actually saw those events or not, or perhaps any part of them, becomes besides the point philosophically, or at least that might has been the case had Thomas places his observations in their proper frames of reference.

Nevertheless, Thomas is now ready to state the true purpose of his drama. He claims to have transcended his animal nature. But as one might expect in this dog eat dog world, he and his efforts were laid low by his "brother's ambition."

Readers/listeners will most likely wonder what the brother did. What did Thomas do that he thinks demonstrates the overcoming of his "lower nature." Was his brother's ambition responsible for Thomas' death or just the loss of something, such as a business venture or a love interest?

These questions remain unanswered, at least at this point. Thus the audience comes away with the knowledge that natural events can be cruel and so can human events. The can of knowledge has simply been kicked down the road, and the reader will never get back those minutes that it took to read Thomas' likely disingenuous epitaph.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on December 04, 2017:

You're welcome, Louise. Thanks for your response.

Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology has become an American classic. His cast of characters never fail to entertain the audience. Most of them are rather shady personalities, while many of them remain rather vague, keeping the audience wondering. Thomas Ross, Jr., is certainly an example of that. We are left to wonder exactly what his ambitious brother did to ruin Thomas. Could there be hints or explanations in further epitaphs? We have to wait and see. Thus, the experience of these short poems remains similar to experiencing a novel.

Have a blessed day, Louise!

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on December 04, 2017:

He was a very talented poet. This is a lovely poem, thanks for summarizing it. =)

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