The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.X. Later Poets
§ 8. Edmund Clarence Stedman
If Bayard Taylor’s handicap was travel, and Stoddard’s uncongenial labour, Stedman’s was business. Though born of an old New England family in Hartford, Connecticut, and educated at Yale, he immersed himself so thoroughly in Wall Street that he belongs to New York. Probably he owed less to his father, lumber merchant and devout Christian, than to his mother, Elizabeth Dodge Stedman, a poetess notable chiefly for her ardent emotional life. Of her son she wrote: “As soon as he could speak he lisped in rhyme, and as soon as he could write, which was at the age of six years, he gave shape and measure to his dreams. He was a sedate and solemn baby.” In college, as the youngest in a class of more than one hundred, he developed his infantile devotion to poetry, winning prizes, but losing his sedateness and solemnity. According to the Faculty Records, “Stedman, Soph. was dismissed for having been present at a ‘dance house’ near the head of the wharf,” this being apparently his culminating indiscretion. As soon as he realized his error, he said in applying for his degree years later, he “resolved to obtain a higher culture”; and, taking himself in hand, he transformed his raw, strong-willed, highspirited youth to an attractive type of energetic, idealistic manhood. In 1855 he became a broker in New York. Associating himself with Greeley’s Tribune, he presently found himself the popular author of three lively, rather journalistic poems— The Diamond Wedding, The Ballad of Lager Bier, and How Old Brown Took Harper’s Ferry. In 1860, the year of his first volume, Poems, Lyric and Idyllic, he joined the staff of the World. For this newspaper he went to the front, in 1861, as war correspondent. A man of thirty years when the war was over, he turned to the life of Wall Street, becoming, six years later, an active member of the Stock Exchange. He held his seat till 1900. “There was no such market for literary wares at that day as has since arisen, and I needed to be independent in order to write and study.” Perhaps so; it was a bitter problem to solve; yet there is little question that Stedman’s choice limited his literary achievement in quality as well as quantity. To be sure, he could not have foreseen the financial misfortunes that beset his way to independence. At the same time, he had a talent for business that might better not have been developed, since it flourished at the expense of a rarer talent that he possessed for literary criticism and for poetry. With more knowledge and the discipline of hard thinking, his literary criticism, at its best in Poets of America (1885), might have contributed much to a department of our literature that is all too weak. He had high, if not the highest, seriousness, without the admixture of sentimentalism that often accompanies ideality and range.
His distinction as a literary critic and as an editor of anthologies and other works seems to have given rise to an unwarranted presumption in his favour as a poet. If he had a voice of his own, he spoke in uncertain tones; in the main his poetry is an echo of the romantic poets and Tennyson. He seems to have written frequently in cold blood; at least he told Winter that “it was his custom to select with care the particular form of verse that he designed to use, and sometimes to invent the rhymes and write them at the ends of the lines which they were to terminate,—thus making a skeleton of a poem, as a ground-work on which to build.” Aside from his war verse he wrote poems on New York themes, the best of which is Pan in Wall Street; on New England life and ideals, including the charming lines entitled The Doorstep; on The Carib Sea; on special occasions, including poems on Greeley and several of the New England poets; and on various other themes, notably in The Hand of Lincoln and Stanzas for Music. In most of this work—limited in quantity to a single volume—Stedman’s muse is decorously uplifted rather than elevated of its own nature; it rarely sings freely, and, if it never offends, also never stirs deeply. At a public meeting in his memory, his friend William Winter expressed Stedman’s literary faith in a compact phrase when he said: “He steadfastly adhered to the stately, lovely, ancient traditions of English poetry.” Undidactic, devoted to the dignity and beauty of letters, he expressed himself in the idiom of the tradition of beauty in literature, both classical and modern. His protracted studies in Theocritus and the other early idyllists were typical of his scholarly love of literature. He himself is the Pan in Wall Street of one of his few fascinating poems: among the bulls and bears he too held
Though subordinate in genius to the greater New Englanders, —Emerson, Lowell, Whittier, and the rest,—the poets of the New York school made a positive contribution to our literature. Aside from the intrinsic merit of their work, they are important on account of their influence. Holding that poetry is amply justified through its beauty and the happiness produced in us by its beauty, and that the moral element is ancillary, if not accidental or irrelevant, they prepared the way for the highly accomplished versecraft that is characteristic of the declining years of the century. Whether this highly accomplished, often precious, poetry is itself admirable is scarcely open to question: it is not great, but it provided a discipline that American poets had never had and that they needed.