Edgar Lee Masters

Carl Hamblin by Edgar Lee Masters

Carl Hamblin’ is a powerful poem that stands out among Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. Although this poem was written in the early 1900s, it is still applicable today. It is one of many epitaphs published in Spoon River Anthology n 1915. The poems are based around town and its deceased residents. This one, in particular, has a deeper, allegorical meaning at its heart that makes it one of the most impactful in the collection. 

Carl Hamblin by Edgar Lee Masters


Summary of Carl Hamblin

Carl Hamblin’ by Edgar Lee Masters tells the story of how Hamblin ended up tarred and feathered through a story of injustice and anarchism.

The poem starts with Hamblin introducing his demise to the reader. He tells the reader that he was tarred and feathered for writing the following article in protest of the hanging of “anarchists.” The article is, in fact, a powerful allegory about the nature of justice and injustice in what was Masters’ contemporary society. He uses personification to depict Lady Justice as a mad wielder of power, bribed by the rich and merciless to the poor and needy. In the end, a youth rips off her blindfold and reveals to the multitudes that what they thought was a fair and impartial justice system was in fact corrupt and oozing,


Themes in Carl Hamblin

Masters does a wonderful job of focusing on the themes of justice and resistance in ‘Carl Hamblin.’ The poet explores the injustice justice system through an allegorical story of Lady Justice wielding her sword, striking down laborers and children. He reveals to the reader the truth in the system when a youth, a symbol of resistance and even anarchism, reaches up and takes her blindfold off, revealing to the world the nature of the system they’ve been suffering under. By tying this allegorical narrative to the real-life hysteria, and unjust execution of men, as well as the tarring and feathering of fiction Carl Hamblin, Masters is suggesting that readers should take a good hard look at their own society. 


Structure and Form of Carl Hamblin 

Carl Hamblin’ by Edgar Lee Masters is a twenty-four line poem contained within a single stanza. The lines are written in free verse. This means that they do not conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This is an effective choice in ‘Carl Hamblin’ due to the conversational nature of the poem. The lines read, mostly, as though someone is speaking out loud. 

This poem, like all those in Spoon River Anthology, is an epitaph spoken by the deceased subject of the poem. The “I” in ‘Carl Hamblin’ is, in fact, Carl Hamblin, someone who has died. 


Literary Devices in Carl Hamblin 

Masters makes use of several literary devices in ‘Carl Hamblin.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, allegory, and alliteration. The first of these, enjambment, is a common formal device concerned with how a poet uses or doesn’t use end-punctuation. For example, the transition between lines four and five as well as that between line thirteen and fourteen. In both of these examples, readers have to move down to the next line in order to find out how the sentence/phrase concludes. 

Alliteration is a type of repetition. It focuses on the use and reuse of words that begin with the same consonant sounds. For example, “beautiful” and “bandaged” in the fourth line and “marble” and “multitudes” in the fifth and sixth lines. Alliteration is extremely effective in adding a feeling of rhyme and rhythm, where there is no clear meter or rhyme scheme. 

An allusion is a reference in a poem or story to something outside that poem or story. In the case of ‘Carl Hamblin,’ the poet mentions the “day the Anarchists were hanged in Chicago.” This refers to November 11th, 1887, when four anarchists were convicted of being “accessories to murder” Nader, a bomb, was thrown into a group of police who were trying to disperse a gathering of peaceful protesters. These protestors were striking for an eight-hour working day. The men who were convicted, along with several others, were eventually deemed innocent and as victims of hysteria. 


Analysis of Carl Hamblin 

Lines 1-11

The press of the Spoon River Clarion was wrecked, 

And I was tarred and feathered, 

For publishing this on the day the Anarchists were hanged in Chicago: 

“I saw a beautiful woman with bandaged eyes 

Standing on the steps of a marble temple. 

Great multitudes passed in front of her, 

Lifting their faces to her imploringly. 

In her left hand she held a sword. 

She was brandishing the sword, 

Sometimes striking a child, again a laborer, 

Again a slinking woman, again a lunatic. 

In the first lines of ‘Carl Hamblin,’ the speaker begins by noting what initiated his downfall in the town. He was tarred and feathered, or covered in hot tar and feathers, for publishing the following section of writing. The reason it was so controversial was that it was published on the day that the “Anarchists were hanged in Chicago.” This refers to an incident in which several men were hanged unjustly. (See more in the literary devices section above). 

The first one of the article that Hamblin wrote detail a visual personification of Justice. The woman with the “bandaged eyes” is a clear symbol for Lady Justice. But, in this case, she is not acting as one assumes. She strikes out with her sword, hitting those who need her most. These unjust actions are meant to allude to the unjust treatment of the “Anarchists.” 


Lines 12-18 

In her right hand she held a scale; 

Into the scale pieces of gold were tossed 

By those who dodged the strokes of the sword. 

A man in a black gown read from a manuscript: 

‘She is no respecter of persons.’ 

Then a youth wearing a red cap 

Leaped to her side and snatched away the bandage. 

The imagery continues into the next lines. Here, personified Justice holds a scale, taking bribes of gold from those who “dodged the strokes of the sword.” The men and women wealthy enough to pay off the system can avoid her violent weapon. But the child, the slinking woman, the lunatic, and the laborer are unable to do so. 

Two more characters come into the story in the following lines. They are a “man in a black gown” and a “youth wearing a red cap.” These two characters are there to call out the truth as they see it. Justice, the man says, is “no respecter of persons.” It, or “she” as the case is in ‘Carl Hamblin,’ has been corrupted. The youth, who may symbol socialism, communism, or more broadly radical resistance, steps up to reveal what’s beneath Lady Justice’s bandage. 


Lines 19-24 

And lo, the lashes had been eaten away 

From the oozy eye-lids; 

The eye-balls were seared with a milky mucus; 

The madness of a dying soul 

Was written on her face i 

But the multitude saw why she wore the bandage.” 

The last lines of the poem reveal the depth and breadth of justice’s corruption. Her eyes are oozy, blind, and dark. There, everyone can see “why she wore the bandage,” in order to hide the truth from the “multitudes.” Now, with it gone, everyone can see the injustice at the heart of the legal system. 


Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘Carl Hamblin’ should also consider reading some of Masters’ other best-known poems. These include ‘Petit, the Poet’ and Minerva Jones.’ Both of these were also published in Spoon River Anthology and provided the reader with two more epitaphs of interesting lives. The first of these, ‘Petit, the Poet,’ is often considered to contain Masters’ judgment of his own literary accomplishments. While the latter, ‘Minerva Jones,’ describes the tragic life of a young woman and her solitary death. Some other related poems are ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ by Oscar Wilde and Power’ by Audre Lorde.

Discover the Essential Secrets

of Poetry

Sign up to unveil the best kept secrets in poetry,

brought to you by the experts

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap