The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.X. Later Poets
§ 7. Richard Henry Stoddard
While Shelley was Taylor’s poet, Richard Henry Stoddard found in Keats, as he says in a verse tribute, the Master of his soul. As a boy, he “lived for Song,” and throughout his life, in surroundings essentially alien and “an age too late,” he dedicated himself to poetry with a happiness and dignity, and with a degree of success in his own day, quite out of proportion to the merit of his achievement.
A New Englander like Aldrich and Stedman, he was born in the same year with Taylor (1825), in Hingham, Massachusetts, where his ancestors were hardy sailors. In his Recollections he tells of his grandfather’s house by the sea, where his mother sang melancholy hymns at nightfall, and of the ancient church and cemetery that gave tone to the family life—“dying seemed to be the most laudable industry of the time.” His father being lost at sea, the pale widow and her delicate boy removed to Boston, and later to New York, where she married again. After a few years of schooling, Richard was set to work, first as errand-boy, as shop-boy, and as legal copyist,—spending part of his petty earnings in the purchase of the English poets,—later as blacksmith and as moulder in an iron foundry. On the threshold of manhood, he worked in the foundry for three hard years, with ever one consolation: “the day would end, night would come, and then I could write poetry.” In 1849 he published his first volume, Footprints, of which he tells us one copy was sold before the edition was given to the flames. Leaving the foundry, he supported himself, like Aldrich and Taylor, as a journalist, becoming in time literary editor of the World and Mail and Express. Meanwhile he had married Elizabeth Barstow, of Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, “one of those irrepressible girls,” says her husband, “who are sometimes born in staid Puritan families,” who later attained some distinction as novelist and poetess (“for she became,” says Stoddard, “the best writer of blank verse of any woman in America”), and had secured a clerkship in the New York Custom House which he held till 1870. He lived in New York through many of its varied decades till 1903, a prominent figure in the literary life, a close friend of Taylor, Stedman, and the others. In his somewhat austere devotion to beauty he was far removed from the Bohemians; he states specifically with regard to Pfaff’s “I never went inside the place.” His life lacked the advantages—and disadvantages—of much travel, though, like his friends, he poetized the magical Orient (in The Book of the East). His personality was that of a somewhat angular individualist, outspoken, vigorous, inflexible in his support of the right. He was a product of Puritan New England as well as a disciple of Keats.
New England didacticism, however, is all but absent from his poetry. Here and there is a trace, now and then a whole poem, such as On the Town, a harlot’s plea for justice, which has also, it is true, a modernly realistic aspect; but otherwise the world of sin that Hawthorne loved to brood over and the New England poets sought to improve, is far away. He began his career as a palpable imitator of Keats’s sensuousness, magical epithet, and praise of beauty. His Autumn is little more than a frank copy of the ode by Keats. Other early poems are full of echoes of Milton and Wordsworth. Though he soon passed into his own manner, which was never highly individualized, one can discern his masters everywhere. Some of his best narrative poetry, such as Leonatus and Imogen, is agreeably reminiscent of Keats. His blank verse, as in the tribute to Bryant, The Dead Master, often has power and accomplished variety, but it is not individual. Indeed, it may not be unfair to say that Stoddard was mainly a passionate lover of poetry, more passionate than the others of the New York group, and not so much a natural creator of it. Creation was, to him, an inevitable accident; enjoyment of others’ poetry was a leading function of life. Most of his work is the expression of commonplace sentiment and tame emotion. Its merit is melody and deftness, in phrasing, in rhyming, in imagery. Consequently his best work is doubtless that which the public of his day knew him by, his lyrics, as in the pleasant volume Songs of Summer, diverse snatches of song without attachment to time or place, also without much meaning or purpose, but so well fashioned that one can understand why Stoddard was once a prominent poet. His Lincoln, an Horation Ode, however, still has power.