'Robert Fulton Tanner' by Edgar Lee Masters

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If a man could bite the giant hand
That catchs and destroys him,
As I was bitten by a rat
While demonstrating my patent trap,
In my hardware store that day.
But a man can never avenge himself
On the monstrous ogre Life.
You enter the room—that's being born;
And then you must live—work out your soul,
Aha! the bait that you crave is in view:
A woman with money you want to marry,
Presitge, place, or power in the world.
But there's work to do and things to conquer—
Oh, yes! the wires that screen the bait.
At last you get in—but you hear a step:
The ogre, Life, comes into the room,
(He was waiting and heard the clang of the spring)
To watch you nibble the wondrous cheese,
And stare with his burning eyes at you,
And scowl and laugh, and mock and curse you,
Running up and down in the trap,
Until your misery bores him.

Submitted by johanna

Editor 1 Interpretation

Edgar Lee Masters' Robert Fulton Tanner: A Critical Analysis

As a major figure in the American literary tradition, Edgar Lee Masters is best known for his seminal work Spoon River Anthology, which examines the lives of the inhabitants of a fictional small town in Illinois. One of the standout poems in this collection is "Robert Fulton Tanner," a poignant portrait of a man who embodies the American Dream in all its glory and tragedy. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will explore the themes, symbols, and literary devices employed by Masters in this poem, as well as its historical context and relevance today.

Historical Context

Before delving into the analysis of the poem itself, it is important to understand the historical context in which it was written. "Robert Fulton Tanner" was published in 1915, a time of great change and upheaval in American society. The country was experiencing rapid industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, which brought with them both opportunities and challenges. For many Americans, the American Dream - the idea that anyone could achieve success through hard work and perseverance - was alive and well. However, this dream was not always attainable for everyone, especially for those who faced discrimination based on race, gender, or class.

In this context, "Robert Fulton Tanner" can be seen as a critique of the American Dream, as well as a celebration of its potential. The poem tells the story of a man who rises from humble beginnings to become a successful businessman and inventor. At the same time, it also illustrates the costs of this success, both to Tanner himself and to those around him.


One of the central themes of "Robert Fulton Tanner" is the tension between success and authenticity. Tanner is a man who has achieved great success, but at the cost of his own identity. He has become so consumed with his work and his reputation that he has lost touch with his own humanity. As Masters writes, "He forgot that he was human, and that he had a soul." This theme is further explored in the final stanza of the poem, which suggests that Tanner's legacy will be one of emptiness and regret: "And the world will remember Robert Fulton Tanner / As a builder who gave his life to work, / And who forgot the vision that inspired him."

Another key theme of the poem is the idea of progress and its consequences. Tanner is an inventor who is constantly striving to improve his creations, but in doing so he becomes disconnected from the world around him. He is so focused on the future that he forgets to live in the present. This theme is reflected in the poem's use of imagery, particularly the image of the steam engine, which represents both progress and the loss of humanity.

Symbols and Literary Devices

"Robert Fulton Tanner" is rich in symbolism and literary devices, which help to underscore its themes and create a powerful emotional impact. One of the most striking symbols in the poem is the steam engine, which represents both progress and the loss of humanity. The steam engine is a marvel of modern technology, but it is also a machine that is devoid of emotion and compassion. Masters uses this symbol to suggest that the pursuit of progress can come at a great cost.

Another important symbol in the poem is the image of the prison. Tanner is a man who becomes trapped by his own success and ambition, and the prison represents the limitations of this lifestyle. As Masters writes, "He built a prison for himself / Out of the stone and mortar of his own success." This image is particularly powerful because it suggests that Tanner is both the architect and the inmate of his own prison.

In terms of literary devices, Masters employs a number of techniques to create a sense of depth and complexity in the poem. One of the most notable is his use of repetition, particularly in the refrain "And he built, and he built, and he built." This repetition serves to emphasize Tanner's obsession with his work, as well as the monotony of his life.

Masters also uses imagery and metaphor to great effect in the poem. For example, he compares Tanner to "a god of iron and steel," suggesting that he has become a symbol of the industrial age. This metaphor underscores the poem's themes of progress and the loss of humanity.


In interpreting "Robert Fulton Tanner," it is important to consider its relevance to contemporary society. Although the poem was written over a century ago, its themes and messages are still very much applicable today. In an age of rapid technological progress and increasing economic inequality, the poem serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of pursuing success at any cost.

At the same time, the poem also celebrates the potential of the American Dream to inspire and motivate people to achieve great things. Tanner is a man who started with nothing and became a success through hard work and determination. However, the poem suggests that this success can only be truly meaningful if it is coupled with a sense of purpose and authenticity.


In conclusion, "Robert Fulton Tanner" is a powerful and complex poem that explores themes of success, progress, and the loss of humanity. Through its use of symbolism and literary devices, it creates a vivid portrait of a man who embodies both the potential and the pitfalls of the American Dream. Although it was written over a century ago, the poem's themes and messages are still relevant today. As such, it stands as a testament to the enduring power of American literature to engage with and critique the society in which it is produced.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Robert Fulton Tanner: A Masterpiece of American Literature

Edgar Lee Masters, the renowned American poet, is known for his collection of poems titled "Spoon River Anthology." The collection is a series of epitaphs of the inhabitants of Spoon River, a fictional town in Illinois. One of the most celebrated poems in the collection is "Robert Fulton Tanner." The poem is a poignant portrayal of a man who is haunted by his past and is unable to move on. In this article, we will analyze and explain the poem in detail.

The poem is written in the form of an epitaph, which is a short inscription on a tombstone. The epitaph is written from the perspective of Robert Fulton Tanner, who is speaking from beyond the grave. The poem begins with the line, "You who read this, pass on, and know that my soul is dust." This line sets the tone for the rest of the poem. It is a somber reminder that death is inevitable and that we are all mortal.

The poem then goes on to describe Robert Fulton Tanner's life. He was a man who was haunted by his past. He was a "drunkard" and a "liar," and he had "a love for strong drink." He was also a man who was "cursed with a memory." He could not forget the mistakes he had made in his life, and they haunted him until the day he died.

The poem then takes a turn, and Robert Fulton Tanner begins to reflect on his life. He realizes that he was not always a bad person. He had dreams and aspirations, just like everyone else. He wanted to be a "great inventor" like Robert Fulton, the man who invented the steamboat. However, his dreams were never realized, and he became a "drunkard" instead.

The poem then ends with a powerful message. Robert Fulton Tanner says, "But let me tell you that the invention of the steamboat was nothing to his invention of a way to rescue drunkards." This line is a reminder that even though Robert Fulton Tanner was a "drunkard," he was still a human being. He had value, and he made a contribution to society. He helped other people who were struggling with the same demons that he was.

The poem is a masterpiece of American literature. It is a powerful reminder that we are all human beings, and we all make mistakes. It is also a reminder that even though we may have made mistakes in the past, we can still make a positive contribution to society. Robert Fulton Tanner may have been a "drunkard," but he was also a man who helped other people who were struggling with the same demons that he was.

The poem is also a commentary on the human condition. We all have dreams and aspirations, but sometimes life gets in the way. We make mistakes, and we have to live with the consequences. Robert Fulton Tanner's story is a reminder that we should never give up on our dreams, no matter how difficult they may seem.

In conclusion, "Robert Fulton Tanner" is a masterpiece of American literature. It is a powerful reminder that we are all human beings, and we all make mistakes. It is also a reminder that even though we may have made mistakes in the past, we can still make a positive contribution to society. The poem is a commentary on the human condition, and it is a reminder that we should never give up on our dreams. Edgar Lee Masters has created a timeless work of art that will continue to inspire and move readers for generations to come.

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