‘The Circuit Judge’ is an epitaph, one of the many that make up Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. This collection depicts the broader nature of “Spoon River,” a fictionalized town based on Masters’s own hometown. Each poem in the collection is told from the perspective of someone who has passed away. Some rage at the town and its inhabitants while others profess sorrow and disappointment in their lives.
Explore The Circuit Judge
Summary of The Circuit Judge
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker describes how the wind has become his nemesis. It batters his grave, along with the rain, as though it’s trying to destroy all memory of him. He asks it to stop before turning to describes his life and the choices he made as a judge. Not all were fair or correct. Now, he has to sit in his grave and think over everything he’s done in his life and how guilty he is in comparison to those he condemned to death.
Themes in The Circuit Judge
In ‘The Circuit Judge,’ the poet engages with themes which include solitude and regret. The latter only comes into play at the end of the poem, and even then, it’s not entirely clear. The speaker expresses something close to it as he thinks about the sentences he handed out while working as a judge. He’s forced to brew in the darkness of his grave and feel guilty about the choices he’s made.
Structure and Form
‘The Circuit Judge’ by Edgar Lee Masters is a fifteen line poem that is contained within a single stanza. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, but that doesn’t mean the poem is without either. For example, “me” and “memory” are perfect rhymes at the end of lines four and five. There are also examples of half-rhymes at the end of lines, as well as within them (known as internal rhyme). “Clear” and “murderer” is one example of a half-rhyme.
Masters makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Circuit Judge.’ These include but are not limited to alliteration, caesura, and enjambment. The latter, enjambment, is a common formal device that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before the conclusion of a phrase or sentence—for example, the transition between lines one, two, and three.
Alliteration is a type of repetition, one that helps to create the feeling of them and rhyme when there is little within the structure. It is concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “memory” and “maker” in lines five and six as well as “right” and “rain” in lines eight and nine.
Caesurae are pauses in the middle of the lines. For example, line twelve reads: “Was to lie speechless, yet with vision clear,” or line nine, which reads: “O wind and rain, leave my head-stone alone!” These pauses might appear in the very middle of a line, at the beginning, or at the end. They’re sometimes noted with punctuation and other times with metrical breaks.
Analysis of The Circuit Judge
Take note, passers-by, of the sharp erosions
Eaten in my head-stone by the wind and rain
Almost as if an intangible Nemesis or hatred
Were marking scores against me,
But to destroy, and not preserve, my memory.
In the first lines of ‘The Circuit Judge,’ the speaker, the judge whose name is used in the title, asks the passer-by who is the listener of the poem, to pay attention to what he has to say. He wants them to notice how the wind and rain have eaten into his headstone. In case the reader was not already aware, these opening lines provide a critical piece of information—the speaker is dead. He describes the elements as though they are some personal “Nemesis” of his. As if the wind is taking out its hatred on the stone that marks the speaker’s resting place. It is “marking scores against” him to “destroy…[his] memory.”
I in life was the Circuit Judge, a maker of notches,
Deciding cases on the points the lawyers scored,
Not on the right of the matter.
O wind and rain, leave my head-stone alone!
The speaker provides the reader with more details about their life in the next lines. As the title stated, they were a “Circuit Judge” in their lifetime. He decided cases on “the points that lawyers scored.”Through this description, he makes it sound as though the thing was a game. “Right” didn’t matter. What did matter was how well the lawyers argued. The ninth line is an exclamation, turning the reader’s attention back to the wind and rain. He asks them to leave his headstone alone and go elsewhere.
For worse than the anger of the wronged,
The curses of the poor,
Was to lie speechless, yet with vision clear,
Seeing that even Hod Putt, the murderer,
Hanged by my sentence,
Was innocent in soul compared with me.
In the final lines, the speaker expresses his belief that he is suffering enough, lying in silence in his grave, looking back at the wrong he did in his life. He believes that this silence, and the weight of innocence lives on his conscience, is worse than the “anger of the wronged” of the “curses of the poor.” The wind is there to remind him of his wrongdoing, but he doesn’t need it to. It’s on his mind constantly. He now sees himself as far more sinful and guilty than those he committed to hanging, specifically Hod Putt, someone he knew was innocent but condemned anyway.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Circuit Judge’ should also consider reading some of Masters’s other best-known poems. For example, ‘Fletcher McGee,’ ‘Minerva Jones,’ and ‘Conrad Siever.’ All of these are part of Masters’ well-loved Spoon River Anthology. The first, ‘Minerva Jones,’ describes the terribly sad life of a young woman and her lonely death. She was the “village poetess,” but her work was never respected. ‘Fletcher McGee’ is a confessional poem in which the speaker talks about the man responsible for the death of his wife, Ollie McGee. ‘Conrad Siever’ presents the liveliness of the northern-spy apple tree and the impact of autumn on the surroundings.