The Use of Allegory and Figurative Language in the Poem "Carl Hamblin" by Edgar Lee Masters
"Carl Hamblin" by Edgar Lee Masters is one in a series of poems first written for the Mirror, and later published as the Spoon River Anthology. These poems are epitaphs spoken by the dead themselves, who were members of the fictional town of Spoon River, IL. In the first three lines of "Carl Hamblin", the speaker relates that he has been "tarred and feathered" for publishing a note in Spoon River's newspaper "on the day the Anarchists were hanged in Chicago." The subsequent lines reproduce that note. The most striking feature of the poem is the use of the allegory of justice. The interpretation of this allegory plays a central role in the reader's understanding as well as the final impact of the poem. Therefore, it seems only natural to make allegory and figurative language the central theme of this article.
Allegory was most commonly used in medieval times, and rose again in popularity in the 17th century. With regard to "Carl Hamblin," there are two closely related points I want to consider. Firstly, there is the question of why Masters, a modern poet, chose allegory as a backbone for this poem. Secondly, there are striking differences between the personification of justice in "Carl Hamblin" and its 17th century model "Justitia."* These differences seem to provide an indication why Masters chose to use allegory. Therefore, and in order to find possible answers to that question, I want to examine how Masters uses allegory and figurative language. I shall look at the metaphors and symbols used and interpret them in the historical context to which the poem alludes.
In other words, I want to examine the question of why Masters chose allegory by considering how he uses it. To enable a later discussion of the historical context of the poem, I shall begin with a brief discussion of the historical setting. Next I want to discuss the personification of justice and her attributes, such as the blindfold, the scales and the sword, as well as the "man in a black gown", who also belongs to the "beautiful woman". From there I shall move to the individuals affected by the "beautiful woman:" the "child," the "laborer," the "slinking woman," the "lunatic" and, finally, the "youth wearing a red cap." In this part I will demonstrate the importance of a historical awareness for the understanding of the poem. Furthermore, I want to discuss the significance of lines 19 to 23, in which the woman's eyes are described. In the final paragraphs I will offer possible answers to the question of why Masters chose to use allegory in "Carl Hamblin".
"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:"
The historical context** is indicated in line 3. "[T] he day the Anarchists were hanged in Chicago" refers to November 11th, 1887, when four anarchists were hanged. They had been convicted for being "accessories to murder" after a bomb had been thrown into the ranks of police who were trying to disperse a peaceful gathering during strikes for 8 hour working days. In the November trials, eight leading men of workers' movements were stood before a biased jury; some of them had not even been present during the incident. In the end, five of them were sentenced to death, three to life imprisonment. One of the convicted committed suicide before his execution. Six years later, the remaining three were set free by the Governor, who pointed out that "[t]hey and the hanged men had been victims of 'hysteria, packed juries and a biased judge'." Keeping these events in mind, it is easy to make the connection between them and the poem. However, since a literary text should mainly stand on its own, I am going to give the textual interpretation more space than the historical.
Let us now consider the central symbol of the poem, the "beautiful woman." The mention of her "bandaged eyes" in the introductory line of the note, and the later occurrences of other traditional attributes such as the sword and the scales, make it clear that the woman is a personification of justice. However, because of the manner in which she uses her accessories, it becomes clear that she more likely stands for injustice rather than justice.
"I saw a beautiful woman with bandaged eyes
Standing on the steps of a marble temple."
Let us begin by considering her blindfold. In the traditional interpretation, the blindfold symbolises impartial justice, the judgment of men without regard to person or rank. Here, as we learn in the final part of the poem, it is used to hide the fact that the woman is sick, that the judicial system is not working. She is truly blind, physically and spiritually, and therefore delivers her sentences guided by chance, or by money, rather than by reason.
"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."
The scales are a traditional symbol for balanced and fair trials. Justice, i.e. a jury and judge, are to listen to both sides of an argument and weigh them against one another. After careful consideration, they must reach a conclusion as to which side's arguments and evidence are more convincing and deliver their sentence. In "Carl Hamblin," the scales are being swayed, not by arguments or evidence, but by "pieces of gold" that are "tossed/ By those who dodged the strokes of the sword." Therefore, the former symbol of equity is perverted into a symbol of corruption. In "Carl Hamblin," those who dodge the strokes of the sword are those who escape justice; they are the ones who can afford to escape, the ones with enough "pieces of gold" to tip the scales to their favour.
"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."
While the bandage and the scales are traditional symbols of impartial and balanced justice, the sword stands for justice's executive power, the power to deliver sentences of consequence. Most depictions of Justitia show her with the sword pointed downwards, symbolising well-considered judgement and reluctance to punish, except as a last resort. By contrast, the beautiful woman is "brandishing the sword", striking random people, delivering random sentences. There is nothing well-considered or reluctant about her actions.
"A man in a black gown read from a manuscript:
'She is no respecter of persons.'"
Let us now move to the "man in a black gown." He is standing near the "beautiful woman" and reads "from a manuscript:/ 'She is no respecter of persons." He is one of the more puzzling images of the poem. The black gown identifies him as a judge, ideally a servant of justice. In court the judge reads out the verdict spoken by the jury. So in this scene, the "man in a black gown" might be pronouncing a verdict on the beautiful woman: "She is no respecter of persons." Here Masters is playing with the ambiguity of the word "respecter". Traditionally, Justitia was to make her judgement neutrally, "sine respectu", without regard for rank or person (Emblemata 1503). The quote can also be found in the Bible, where God, as the final judge, is said to be "no respecter of persons" (Acts 10: 34). However, the context of the poem clearly shows that the "beautiful woman" has no respect for persons as human beings, though she "respects" "pieces of gold." Therefore, we can read these lines as an ironic scene where there the judicial system condemns the ideal of justice.
"She was brandishing the sword,
Sometimes striking a child, again a laborer,
Again a slinking woman, again a lunatic."
I shall now consider the people struck by Justice. Traditionally, Justitia is meant to protect the weak from the strong. However, Masters writes that Justice is "[s]ometimes striking a child, again a laborer,/ Again a slinking woman, again a lunatic." Each of these individuals represents a socially disadvantaged group needing special protection and consideration by the law. The child represents persons under the legal age who need protection from any kind of child abuse. The slinking woman may be standing for prostitutes. The lunatic is representing the group of mentally ill or handicapped people. In the given historical context the "laborer" is probably the most important person to consider, since he is standing for the working class that was striking for more rights. However, when considering the poem outside this context the four groups are of equal importance. As we can see, they are the very groups of people that law and justice should protect equally; yet, in "Carl Hamblin," they are her victims.
"Then a youth wearing a red cap
Leaped to her side and snatched away the bandage."
Let us now move to the last allegorical figure of the poem, the "youth wearing a red cap." The red cap, together with the mention of "[a]narchists" in line 3, is an indication that the youth stands for something related with communism or anarchism. However, a conclusive interpretation of this figure is only possible with the historical background in mind. He is very clearly standing for the anarchistic movement. The fact that he is a youth represents the radical energy of the movement. He is needed to rip "away the bandage" so that "the multitude" can see why Justice wore it. These two lines imply that it took the anarchistic movement to show the people just how corrupt their judicial system had become. In the following paragraph we shall look at this corruption more closely.
"And lo, the lashes had been eaten away
From the oozy eye-lids;
The eye-balls were seared with milky mucus;
The madness of a dying soul
Was written in her face"
Lines 19 to 23 give a description of the woman's eyes. Here, imagistic language conveys the extent of the sickness of Justice to the reader. The description moves from the outside in, beginning with the eyelashes ("the lashes had been eaten away"), moving to the eyes, and finally to the very core: "[t]he madness of a dying soul." The sequence of descriptions slows to a crawl, with several intermittent steps from the "lashes," through the "eye-lids" and "eye-balls," to the "dying soul." Whereas the previous lines 4 to 18, developing the allegory of Justice, offer a barrage of impressions, with every line presenting a new image, now, as the poem closes, the image is developed over several lines. Combined with graphic descriptions of the state of decay, this slowness produces an uneasy feeling in the reader. Thus, the degradation of the judicial system becomes intuitively and emotionally clear to the reader: the judicial system is rotten to the core. Together with the "multitude," the reader now sees why Justice wore the bandage.
"But the multitude saw why she wore the bandage."
We have now had a closer look at the differences between the traditional allegory of justice and the way Masters employs it in "Carl Hamblin." By analysing those differences we have seen that the beautiful woman is a symbol of injustice rather than justice. We have also seen to what degree awareness of the historical background adds another dimension to our understanding of the poem. In the case of Justice's victims, historical awareness mainly added a certain stress to the injustice done to a specific group of people, namely labourers. In the case of the "youth wearing a red cap," however, awareness of the historical context was essential. Finally, we have observed a movement from the outside to the inside in the part of the poem on the woman's eyes. Let us now consider our first question, as to the possible reasons Masters used the old poetic device of allegory.
The first reason is closely related to allegory's nature of standing for an abstract concept. In Poetry – An Introduction Miller defines allegory "as a structured narrative in which a system of abstract concepts is represented by persons, objects and events" (98). Since it has to be clear to the reader what the allegory stands for, those concepts tend to be of a timeless nature. In "Carl Hamblin," this timeless concept is the liability of a judicial system to become corrupt.
The second possible reason is connected to allegory being an established poetic device, most often used by traditionalists. Masters takes this device, applies it to the conventional allegory of justice and perverts and corrupts it. This simultaneously attacks what the allegory stands for, i.e. the judicial system, and mocks the class of people generally using that allegory, i.e. traditionalists, the very people the "youth wearing a red cap" fought against.
The third and probably most important reason is related to allegory being a formal element. Masters uses it as a device for reader guidance. Allegory is used where an intellectual response is wanted from the reader. Masters's use of allegory makes sense here, as the reader constantly has to interpret it and compare the depicted personification of injustice to her model Justitia. However, where the note is making its final point regarding the corruption of the judicial system, it is not allegory, but plain figurative language that is used. The description of the woman's eyes is very graphic, appealing to the reader's physical senses, and therefore more directly elicits an emotional response. Here the reader is meant to feel, rather than think.
To me the last reason mentioned seems the most important, as it is responsible for the final (emotional) impact of "Carl Hamblin." In any event, we have seen how close analysis of allegory and figurative language have helped to highlight possible reasons as to why these elements of style were used by Masters.
* In order to distinguish clearly between the personification of justice in "Carl Hamblin" and justice in the traditional sense I shall make use of the following convention: "the beautiful woman" or Justice always refers to the personification used in "Carl Hamblin", while the name Justitia is only used when talking about the traditional personification.
** All information on the hanging of the anarchists in Chicago, including citations, has been obtained from the webpage: "An anarchist celebration of May Day - origins and current events." (cf. May Day)
- An anarchist celebration of May Day - origins and current events. Date of access: May 10, 2003.
- Bible Gateway. The Holy Bible. King James Version. Date of access: May 10, 2003.
- Henkel, Arthur, and Albrecht Schöne, eds. Emblemata. Handbuch zur Sinnbildkunst des XVI. und XVII. Jahrhunderts. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1978
- Miller, Ruth, and Robert A Greenberg. Poetry. An Introduction. New York: Palgrave, 1981
This essay was written for "Writing Skills2" in May 2003.
Thanks for feedback in all stages of production go to: Oolong, Cletus the Foetus, GrouchyOldMan, adebaumann, and others...
Short note re copyright issues: since the the Spoon River Anthology was published in 1914/15 this poem is public domain. Due to the explications my use of the poem also constitutes fair use.