Edgar Lee Masters

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What is the meaning or message of Edgar Lee Masters' poem "Cassius Hueffer"?

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One meaning or message of the poem "Cassius Hueffer" is that any attempt to sum up a life with a neat quotation or phrase is certain to be inadequate and inaccurate.

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In "Cassius Hueffer," the subject of the poem comments ironically on his own epitaph. The epitaph in question is

His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him

That nature might stand up and say to all the world,

This was a man.

This is the end of Mark Anthony's encomium to Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Hueffer says that it is entirely inappropriate for his life, and he suggests an alternative, pointing out that "life was not gentle to him." On the contrary, it was a constant state of warfare in which he failed to cope with the "slanderous tongues" of those around him. He angrily dismisses the man who chose the epitaph as a fool.

One might draw several messages from this. One is that, after death, the conflicts, tribulations, and faults of the dead tend to be glossed over. The epitaph chosen for Hueffer is vague enough to fit many people, but it still fails to fit him. The convention that one should not speak ill of the dead leads to many such evasions.

Another meaning of the poem is that it is impossible to encapsulate the life of anyone, living or dead, into a neat little quotation. Such a trite description will always seem absurd to some people, generally including the subject, who will have a much more complex and complete picture of his or her life.

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