Petit, the Poet by Edgar Lee Masters

‘Petit, the Poet’ is one of the many brilliant poems in Edgar Lee Masters’ masterpiece, Spoon River Anthology. It was first published in 1916 to very enthusiastic reviews. This particular poem, like all those in the volume, is written as an epitaph. These are the words of someone speaking from beyond the grave, looking back on his life and his choices. The speaker, a poet, realizes now that he lost out on a freer, more creative way of writing. 

Petit, the Poet by Edgar Lee Masters

 

Summary of Petit, the Poet

Petit, the Poet’ by Edgar Lee Masters is a skillful poem about writing poetry, its traditions, and those who break them.

In this piece, Masters’ speaker Petit, the poet, outlines through figurative language, what he dislikes about traditional poetry. He wrote it, just like everyone else, but now he knows that he’s been blind. The styles that he lists in this text are just the ticking over of iambs, the quiet, pointless, repetitive thoughts that have become completely unoriginal. This is a world of writing that he doesn’t want to belong to, but he knows he does. 

 

Themes in Petit, the Poet

The themes in ‘Petit, the Poet’ are quite clear from the beginning. Masters was interested in exploring themes of writing, originality, and dissatisfaction. All three of these are tied together as masters discuss what he now sees as being valuable in writing and what isn’t. By writing this poem in free verse, he’s firmly staking a claim that the age-old poetic structures of the past are out of date. There is nothing left to say in those forms. When he reads them, and when he reads his own work, he finds himself dissatisfied with what he’s done. He feels as though he’s been blind to the reality of the written word for his own life, and now he can finally see. 

 

Structure and Form of Petit, the Poet

Petit, the Poet’ by Edgar Lee Masters is an eighteen-line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. The lines are written in free verse, this means that there is so consistent rhyme scheme or metrical pattern that structures the text. This is an interesting choice considering the content of the poem—poetry itself. But, after an initial reading o the text, it quickly becomes clear that Masters’ speaker, the intended writer of the poem, dislikes the traditional poetic forms that he mentions throughout the eighteen lines. 

 

Literary Devices in Petit, the Poet

Masters makes use of several literary devices in ‘Petit, the Poet’. These include but are not limited to repetition, alliteration, caesura, and enjambment. The first of these, repetition, appears in the first and second lines of the poem when Masters use the word “tick” three times in a row and then three more times in the second line.

 Alliteration is another kind of repetition, one that’s focused on the use and reuse of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple lines of verse. The “t” in “tick” is a good example, as is “Courage, constancy” in line eleven and “rondels, rondeaus” in line fifteen. 

Enjambment is another formal device. It is concerned with the transition between lines—for example, between lines three and four. 

 

Analysis of Petit, the Poet

Lines 1-6 

Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick,

Tick, tick, tick, like mites in a quarrel—

Faint iambics that the full breeze wakens—

But the pine tree makes a symphony thereof.

Triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus,

Ballades by the score with the same old thought:

In the first six lines of ‘Petit, the Poet,’ the speaker begins by using alliteration and repetition to create the sound of seeds in a  seed pod. The pod is dry, suggesting that the seeds are dried up on the inside. The “tick” indicates the opposite though, that something is going to emerge from the seedpods, there is something rattling around. In order to help the reader better understand what this noise is like, the speaker compares it to “mites in a quarrel”. These tiny bugs would, if fighting, make tiny noises that would likely be completely impossible to hear and therefore impossible to take note of. It’s an insignificant fight. 

Another comparison comes into the third line. here, Masters uses a metaphor to connect the rattling to “Faint iambics that the full breeze wakens”. This is the first clear reference to the main subject of this poem, poetry itself. An iamb is a type of common metrical foot in poetry. It refers to two beats, one unstressed and one stressed 

The breeze wakens these iambs and then the “pine tree makes a symphony” out of them. 

The speaker brings in several other poetic terms in the next line. These are referring to different structures that have been popular throughout time, some more dated than others. 

 

Lines 7-12 

The snows and the roses of yesterday are vanished;

And what is love but a rose that fades?

Life all around me here in the village:

Tragedy, comedy, valor and truth,

Courage, constancy, heroism, failure—

All in the loom, and oh what patterns!

Each of the poetic forms that he mentions in the previous sections of lines turns out to be thinking the same thing, that time moves on unstoppably. What is love, he wonders, but a ‘rose that fades”. No matter what kind of poem one is writing, they all use the same kind of figurative language (metaphors, similes, etc). 

The speaker’s point in these lines is to emphasize the sameness of traditional poetic forms. Each of these forms tries to accomplish the same thing, and he’s bored with it. This is empathized in lines eleven and twelve. “Oh what patterns,” the speaker explains. The tapestry that’s woven on the loom in line twelve is a part of his life. In fact, it depicts all parts of everyone’s life. 

 

Lines 13-18 

Woodlands, meadows, streams and rivers—

Blind to all of it all my life long.

Triolets, villanelles, rondels, rondeaus,

Seeds in a dry pod, tick, tick, tick,

Tick, tick, tick, what little iambics,

While Homer and Whitman roared in the pines?

On the tapestry, there is some beautiful scenery. There are majestic landscapes and many noteworthy sights, but, the speaker was “blind” to it all. He couldn’t see it “all [his] life long”. In the last lines of ‘Petit, the Poet’, Masters brings back in the familiar lines that started the poem. This is part of the “pattern” of poetry that he mentioned earlier as well. The various poetic forms are saying nothing but the ticking of iambs, one after another, over and over for all of time. 

In contrast to the dull, monotonous ticking of rondels and rondeaus, there is “Homer and Whitman”. This is, of course, a reference to Walt Whitman and the Homer, whose name is forever tied to the Iliad and the Odyssey. They are the ones whose work roars through the pine trees of the world. In comparison, every other writer is tiny and soundless, like the mites fighting. 

 

Similar Poems 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some of Masters’ other poems from Spoon River Anthology. For example, Minerva Jones,’ ‘Fletcher McGee,’ and Conrad Siever’. Other related poems, ones that focus on the art of writing poetry, include ‘Digging’ by Seamus Heaney and Making a Poemby Vihang Naik. The former, ‘Digging,’ is a semi-autobiographical poem that depicts the poet sitting at his desk preparing to write. At the same time, his father is outside working. ‘Making a Poem’ is another exciting poem that describes the process of writing. 

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