Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1140
“Butch Weldy,” by the American poet Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950), describes the events leading up to and following an industrial accident in which the title character suffers the loss of his sight but seems unlikely to be compensated by his employer.
The title of the poem already suggests the kind of character the poem presents. The name Butch Weldy implies a speaker who is common, unpretentious, and probably lower class in economic background. “Butch” is probably his nickname rather than the formal name he was born with, and the fact that he is identified by this name suggests that he is unassuming, down-to-earth, and (at least before the accident) physically strong. By the time the poem was written in the early twentieth century, the noun butch had already come to suggest a “tough young man” and was also an abbreviation of butcher (see the Oxford English Dictionary). In both cases, the name implies physical strength, while the last name Weldy not only sounds like wieldy (and was an early spelling of that word) but perhaps also suggests the idea of welding. For all these reasons, the very title of the work implies a central character who is sturdy, robust, and willing to work hard. Of course, all these implications seem appropriate to the first half of the poem, even as they seem highly ironic in light of the poem’s tragic outcome.
The language of the work is simple, clear, straightforward, and accessible—exactly the kind of language one might expect a person named Butch Weldy to speak. Masters avoids rhyme (which might have made the poem seem more artificial than it now is), and he also avoids predictable line lengths or obvious metrical patterns. Thus the syllable count for the first five lines is 11, 10, 9, 9, and 8, and the meter is decidedly not iambic pentameter (the kind of meter a reader might have expected). Masters steers clear of the long, sprawling lines associated with the verse of Walt Whitman, but he is clearly a poet, like Whitman, who is interested in American vernacular speech. In that respect, this poem also resembles many poems by Carl Sandburg, and the fact that the work is a monologue makes it also resemble many of the writings of Robert Browning.
The poem’s opening line suggests that Butch Weldy was once a youthful, undisciplined free spirit. At some point, however, he “got” religion—a verb that suggests no great spiritual, psychological, or intellectual endeavor but, instead, simply an acceptance of the cultural norm. Weldy then “steadied down” (a nice example of colloquial slang), so that an impersonal “They” gave him “a job in the canning works” (2). The poem reflects a time when many people (men in particular) performed manual labor in factories for wages that were by no means generous. Line 3 introduces us to the idea of Weldy’s daily routine—a routine that will soon be disrupted by the accident. Indeed, the first few lines are all ironic in light of what will be described later in the poem: Weldy has no sooner “steadied down” and achieved a regular routine than his life is disrupted forever.
The reference to “soldering irons” suggests the process of welding and thus echoes the poem’s title, and the fact that Weldy is assigned to work with fire and gasoline reinforces our sense that he is a strong man who is unafraid of hard labor. By the time we reach the end of line 6, we have also reached the end of the poem’s first full sentence and know most of what we need to know about Weldy’s distant and recent past. Although the poem is spoken in Weldy’s own first-person voice, his tone is neither angry nor self-pitying, a fact that makes him all the more credible and worthy of admiration. Much of the interest of the poem is narrative rather than lyrical. In other words, we are as interested in the story Weldy tells as in his reactions to (or reflections on) the story. The poem is anecdotal, and part of the interest it generates is simply the interest of knowing what will happen next.
For the most part, the language of the poem is dry, unemotional, and plainly descriptive, but just before the accident occurs, the phrasing becomes more figurative and “poetic,” as when Weldy reports, “The air grew still and seemed to heave” (10). The first half of this line implies a subtlety of perception that Weldy has not displayed before now, while the second half (with its striking verb and assonance emphasizing long e sounds) is variously memorable. It is, for instance, the first line in the poem so far that seems to use a completely regular iambic pattern, in which odd syllables are unaccented and even syllables are accented: “The air grew still and seemed to heave.” It is as if Weldy has thought many times about that crucial turning point in his life and now describes it in ways that make it as hard for the reader to forget as it is for him to do so. It is also the very first line so far to use nothing but monosyllables, and indeed, it is the only line in the poem to do so. Thus, the iambic beat seems especially pronounced. In all these various ways, then, this line is particularly hard to overlook or forget.
Even when describing the accident, Weldy’s tone is steady, unemotional, and lacking in melodrama, anger, or self-pity. He simply tells his story, without adding much commentary. The image of his eyes as fried eggs is vivid and striking (13), and throughout the poem, Weldy uses the kind of realistic, concrete imagery that adds to the authenticity of the poem’s tone. Meanwhile, the parallel uses of "someone" and "something" in lines 14 and 15 adds to the mystery of the accident’s causes, and here again, Weldy expresses no anger or indignation or desire to finger a specific culprit. He is a stoic man, and the tone of the poem is therefore stoic as well. He is a generally passive character to whom things happen and who simply accepts the results.
Part of the poignancy of the poem results from realizing, at the very end, that not only is Butch now blind but that he will not be compensated for his injuries. His reference to the fellow worker (who created the conditions for the accident) as a “fellow-servant” (17) makes their working environment sound almost feudal. The poem amounts to an implicit condemnation of industrial “wage slavery,” but Masters’ points are made by implication rather than by overt propagandizing and seem all the more effective as a result. The poem’s final lines imply an entire economic and social system that is rigged in favor of people like “Old Rhodes’ son” (18) and against people like Butch Weldy.