Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, DOMESDAY BOOK: THE CORONER, by EDGAR LEE MASTERS



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DOMESDAY BOOK: THE CORONER, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Merival, of a mother fair and good
Last Line: Tells merival this story:
Subject(s): Death; Life; Marriage; Undertakers; Dead, The; Weddings; Husbands; Wives


Merival, of a mother fair and good,
A father sound in body and in mind,
Rich through three thousand acres left to him
By that same father dying, mother dead
These many years, a bachelor, lived alone
In the rambling house his father built of stone
Cut from the quarry near at hand, above
The river's bend, before it meets the island
Where Starved Rock rises.

Here he had returned,
After his Harvard days, took up the task
Of these three thousand acres, while his father
Aging, relaxed his hand. From farm to farm
Rode daily, kept the books, bred cattle, sheep,
Raised seed corn, tried the secrets of DeVries,
And Burbank in plant breeding.

Day by day,
His duties ended, he sat at a window
In a great room of books where lofty shelves
Were packed with cracking covers; newer books
Flowed over on the tables, round the globes
And statuettes of bronze. Upon the wall
The portraits hung of father and of mother,
And two moose heads above the mantel stared,
The trophies of a hunt in youth.

So Merival
At a bay window sat in the great room,
Felt and beheld the stream of life and thought
Flow round and through him, to a sound in key
With his own consciousness, the murmurous voice
Of his own soul.

Along a lawn that sloped
Some hundred feet to the river he would muse.
Or through the oaks and elms and silver birches
Between the plots of flowers and rows of box
Look at the distant scene of hilly woodlands.
And why no woman in his life, no face
Smiling from out the summer house of roses,
Such riotous flames against the distant green?
And why no sons and daughters, strong and fair,
To use these horses, ponies, tramp the fields,
Shout from the tennis court, swim, skate and row?
He asked himself the question many times,
And gave himself the answer. It was this:

At twenty-five a woman crossed his path --
Let's have the story as the world believes it,
Then have the truth. She was betrothed to him,
But went to France to study, died in France.
And so he mourned her, kept her face enshrined,
Was wedded to her spirit, could not brook
The coming of another face to blur
This face of faces! So the story went
Around the country. But his grief was not
The grief they told. The pang that gnawed his heart,
And took his spirit, dulled his man's desire
Took root in shame, defeat, rejected love.
He had gone east to meet her and to wed her,
Now turned his thirtieth year; when he arrived
He found his dear bride flown, a note for him,
Left with the mother, saying she had flown,
And could not marry him, it would not do,
She did not love him as a woman should
Who makes a pact for life; her heart was set
For now upon her music, she was off
To France for study, wished him well, in truth --
Some woman waited him who was his mate. . . .
So Merival read over many times
The letter, tried to find a secret hope
Lodged back of words -- was this a woman's way
To lure him further, win him to more depths?
He half resolved to follow her to France;
Then as he thought of what he was himself
In riches, breeding, place, and manliness
His egotism rose, fed by the hurt:
She might stay on in France for aught he cared!
What was she, anyway, that she could lose
Such happiness and love? for he had given
In a great passion out of a passionate heart
All that was in him -- who was she to spurn
A gift like this? Yet always in his heart
Stirred something which by him was love and hate.
And when the word came she had died, the word
She loved a maestro, and the word like gas,
Which poisons, creeps and is not known, that death
Came to her somehow through a lawless love,
Or broken love, disaster of some sort,
His spirit withered with its bitterness.
And in the years to come he feared to give
With unreserve his heart, his leaves withheld
From possible frost, dreamed on and drifted on
Afraid to venture, having scarcely strength
To seek and try, endure defeat again.

Thus was his youth unsatisfied, and as hope
Of something yet to be to fill his hope
Died not, but with each dawn awoke to move
Its wings, his youth continued past his years.
The very cry of youth, which would not cease
Kept all the dreams and passions of his youth
Wakeful, expectant -- kept his face and frame
Rosy and agile as he neared the mark
Of fifty years.

But every day he sat
As one who waited. What would come to him?
What soul would seek him in this room of books?
But yet no soul he found when he went forth,
Breaking his solitude, to towns.

What waste
Thought Merival, of spirit, but what waste
Of spirit in the lives he knew! What homes
Where children starve for bread, or starve for love,
Half satisfied, half-schooled are driven forth
With aspirations broken, or with hopes
Or talents bent or blasted! O, what wives
Drag through the cheerless days, what marriages
Cling and exhaust to death, and warp and stain
The children! If a business, like this farm,
Were run on like economy, a year
Would see its ruin! But he thought, at last,
Of spiritual economy, so to save
The lives of men and women, use their powers
To ends that suit.

And thus when on a time
A miner lost his life there at LeRoy,
And when the inquest found the man was killed
Through carelessness of self, while full of drink,
Merival, knowing that the drink was caused
By hopeless toil and by a bitter grief
Touching a daughter, who had strayed and died,
First wondered if in cases like to this
Good might result, if there was brought to light
All secret things; and in the course of time,
If many deaths were probed, a store of truth
Might not be gathered which some genius hand
Could use to work out laws, instructions, systems
For saving and for using wasting spirits,
So wasted in the chaos, in the senseless
Turmoil and madness of this reckless life,
Which treats the spirit as the cheapest thing,
Since it is so abundant.

Thoughts like these
Led Merival to run for coroner.
The people wondered why he sought the office.
But when they gave it to him, and he used
His private purse to seek for secret faults,
In lives grown insupportable, for causes
Which prompted suicide, the people wondered,
The people murmured sometimes, and his foes
Mocked or traduced his purpose.

Merival
The coroner is now two years in office
When Henry Murray's daughter Elenor
Found by the river, gives him work to do
In searching out her life's fate, cause of death,
How, in what manner, and by whom or what
Said Elenor's dead body came to death;
And of all things which might concern the same,
With all the circumstances pertinent,
Material or in anywise related,
Or anywise connected with said death.
And as in other cases Merival
Construed the words of law, as written above:
All circumstances material or related,
Or anywise connected with said death,
To give him power as coroner to probe
To ultimate secrets, causes intimate
In birth, environment, crises of the soul,
Grief, disappointment, hopes deferred or ruined.
So now he exercised his power to strip
This woman's life of vestments, to lay bare
Her soul, though other souls should run and rave
For nakedness and shame.

so Merival
Returning from the river with the body
Of Elenor Murray thought about the woman;
Recalled her school days in LeRoy -- the night
When she was graduated at the High School; thought
About her father, mother, girlhood friends;
And stories of her youth came back to him.
The whispers of her leaving home, the trips
She took, her father's loveless ways. And wonder
For what she did and made of self, possessed
His thinking; and the fancy grew in him
No chance for like appraisal had been his
Of human worth and waste, this man who knew
Both life and books. And lately he had read
The history of King William and his book.
And even the night before this Elenor's body
Was found beside the river -- this he read,
Perhaps, he thought, was reading it when Elenor
Was struck down or was choked. How strange the hour
Whose separate place finds Merival with a book,
And Elenor with death, brings them together,
And for result blends book and death! . . . He knew
By Domesday Book King William had a record
Of all the crown's possessions, had the names
Of all land-holders, had the means of knowing
The kingdom's strength for war; it gave the data
How to increase the kingdom's revenue.
It was a record in a case of titles,
Disputed or at issue to appeal to.
So Merival could say: My inquests show
The country's wealth or poverty in souls,
And what the country's strength is, who by right
May claim his share-ship in the country's life;
How to increase the country's glory, power.
Why not a Domesday Book in which are shown
A certain country's tenures spiritual?
And if great William held great council once
To make inquiry of the nation's wealth,
Shall not I as a coroner in America,
Inquiring of a woman's death, make record
Of lives which have touched hers, what lives she touched;
And how her death by surest logic touched
This life or that, was cause of causes, proved
The event that made events?

So Merival
Brought in a jury for the inquest work
As follows: Winthrop Marion, learned and mellow,
A journalist in Chicago, keeping still
His residence at LeRoy. And David Borrow,
A sunny pessimist of varied life,
Ingenious thought, a lawyer widely read.
And Samuel Ritter, owner of the bank,
A classmate of the coroner at Harvard.
Llewellyn George, but lately come from China,
A traveler, intellectual, anti-social
Searcher for life and beauty, devotee
Of such diversities as Nietzsche, Plato.
Also a Reverend Maiworm noted for
Charitable deeds and dreams. And Isaac Newfeldt
Who in his youth had studied Adam Smith,
And since had studied tariffs, lands and money,
Economies of nations.

And because
They were the friends of Merival, and admired
His life and work, they dropped their several tasks
To serve as jurymen.

The hunter came
And told his story: how he found the body,
What hour it was, and how the body lay;
About the banner in the woman's pocket,
Which Coroner Merival had taken, seen,
And wondered over. For if Elenor
Was not a Joan too, why treasure this?
Did she take Joan's spirit for her guide?
And write these words: "To be brave and not to flinch"?
She wrote them; for her father said: "It's true
That is her writing," when he saw the girl
First brought to Merival's office.

Merival
Amid this business gets a telegram:
Tom Norman drowned, one of the men with whom
He planned this trip to Michigan. Later word
Tom Norman and the other, Wilbur Horne
Are in a motor-boat. Tom rises up
To get the can of bait and pitches out,
His friend leaps out to help him. But the boat
Goes on, the engine going, there they fight
For life amid the waves. Tom has been hurt,
Somehow in falling, cannot save himself,
And tells his friend to leave him, swim away.
His friend is forced at last to swim away,
And makes the mile to shore by hardest work.
Tom Norman, dead, leaves wife and children caught
In business tangles which he left to build
New strength, to disentangle, on the trip.
The rumor goes that Tom was full of drink,
Thus lost his life. But if our Elenor Murray
Had not been found beside the river, what
Had happened? If the coroner had been there,
And run the engine, steered the boat beside
The drowning man, and Wilbur Horne -- what drink
Had caused the death of Norman? Or again,
Perhaps the death of Elenor saved the life
Of Merival, by keeping him at home
And safe from boats and waters.

Anyway,
As Elenor Murray's body has no marks,
And shows no cause of death, the coroner
Sends out for Dr. Trace and talks to him
Of things that end us, says to Dr. Trace
Perform the autopsy on Elenor Murray.
And while the autopsy was being made
By Dr. Trace, he calls the witnesses
The father first of Elenor Murray, who
Tells Merival this story:





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