Mr. Stedman's Poetry

OF the younger American poets, let me say those under forty-five years of age, Mr. Stedman may fairly he held to rank among the very few foremost (just now I shall not vex the reader or myself to decide what poets deserve to be placed before him, or who is to follow nearest after him) in native gift, poetical accomplishment, and public reputation. Without turning at once to his writings, I may observe that his name alone has come to suggest to many an atmosphere of manly effort and wholesome achievement,— not always of the nicest poetic art, but nearly always in the direction of the best and most lasting. As a general thing he seems to think that to stay at home is to go far enough, for his representative subjects are American, although he does not disguise his knowledge of the long-builded supremacy and authority of English literature, his chief foreign sin appearing in a too frequent betrayal of Tennyson’s floating musk in his singing-garments. His voice is oftenest, I believe, in the major key; there are few small sentimentalities to be observed in his poems, early or late; we feel in them the assurance of full-grown, vigorous, and courageous, though tender and gentle, manhood.

Mr. Stedman began life as a journalist; this may account for the ready disposition shown by him to take up contemporary interests and events as themes for his verse, — his habit from the first, — to which, doubtless, he owes much of the familiar currency of his poetry, for he has generally written of such subjects in an intelligible and attractive manner. Yet he has always or nearly always retained a proper sense of the dignity of the poet’s office in treating them; and he has also cherished a scholar’s nice pride in holding himself aloof from the vulgar devices that secure some writers the quick newspaper rounds of applause to - day, at the price of dead silence beyond the jurisdiction of those hurried censors of the daily press whose voice is forgotten at midnight.

Before the appearance of his recent volume,1 Mr. Stedman had published, in all, three distinct books of verse, the contents of which were comprehended in a single - volume edition of his poems issued four years ago. In this collective volume the poems of his first book, Lyrics and Idyls, are embraced under the head of Early Poems. These early poems include several among the most attractive that he has written : the first of the collection, however, The Diamond Wedding, seems hardly worthy of remark, except that while it was among the earliest of its author’s occasional pieces it created what is called “ a sensation ” in the city journals when it first appeared. It had reference to a certain marriage at New York, in 1860, between a wealthy Cuban and a young American lady. It is a light satire, written in the stanza and style of Hood’s Miss Kilmansegg, with considerable vivacity, a slight infusion of wit, and, of course, a moral. Mr. Stedman preserved it, perhaps, not because of his own mature approval, but because its ghost would haunt him anyhow; and besides, his older friends and early readers would probably have insisted on missing it.

Among the most satisfactory of Mr. Stedman’s early pieces is Bohemia: A Pilgrimage, which, slightly recalling Tennyson’s Recollections of the Arabian Nights in its form of stanza, is a pleasing, imaginative picture, full of airy, shifting landscapes and of kaleidoscopic changes, with the joys and sorrows, lights and shadows, of that sort of literary sojourn in fairyland, — a life where the conventional laws of society and many other uncomfortable things do not until the day after to-morrow obtrude themselves. The Ballad of Lager Bier is a bright and joyous piece, full of gay humor and pleasant German-romantic suggestions. The Freshet, especially in its outward frame-work, recalls the manner of Tennyson’s college-student idyls, in which well-cultivated Mother Nature is approached face to face by young gentlemen in kid gloves; but the inside poem has a real New England flavor of experience, being the pathetic story (doubtless a true one) of a young husband and wife’s death, in sight of all their companions powerless to save them, by the sweeping away of a bridge from which they were watching the breaking up of ice in a spring freshet. This is related, for the most part, in simply good strong blank verse, very effectively. Mr. Stedman’s Penelope was manifestly taken out of the side of Tennyson’s Ulysses wide-awake; yet it may be said of Ulysses itself that it would never have been written if Dante had not given the suggestions on which it is founded. Mr. Stedman’s poem has merit of invention within itself : it is nowhere recorded, I believe, that the long-waiting wife of Ulysses, in her old age, perceived the restlessness of her much - wandering husband, and desired the privilege of accompanying him upon any last adventure. Penelope celebrates the constancy and heroic devotion of woman; it presents an ideal of proper wifehood, just as Ulysses supplies one of far-seeking, restless manhood, determined

“ To sail beyond the sunset and the baths
Of all the western stars.”

Another piece with a classical subject, but treated in a more strictly classical manner, with no modern application or moral, may here be mentioned, although it occurs in a somewhat later period of Mr. Stedman’s writing; I mean Alectryôn. It is a rendering, with full details of incident, of the Greek fable, wherein, for his remissness as a sentinel, the youth Alectryôn is changed by the god Arês, his master, into the

“ Cock,
That evermore, remembering his fault,
Heralds with warning voice the coming Day.”

Alectryôn, throughout, is well and vigorously wrought, containing fine imaginative passages and such strong, resonant lines as these spoken by Arês: —

“ Hêphcestos, the lame cuckold, unto whoso
Misshapen squalor Zeus hath given my queen,
To-night seeks Lemnos, and his sooty vault
Roofed by the roaring surge ; wherein, betimes,
He and his Cyclops pound the ringing iron,
Forging great bolts for Zeus, and welding mail,
White-hot, in shapes for Heroes and the Gods.”

No more sincerely classical piece than Alectryôn, in manner and feeling, occurs, so far as I know, in English poetry.

How Old Brown took Harper’s Ferry is another of the early poems by Mr. Stedman; it shows his youthful sympathy with the “ blind old Samson of our land,” and with the wrongs which goaded John Brown to the final movement which, it may be believed, largely helped to precipitate the Southern rebellion and the downfall of slavery. It is nervous and forcible, not without pathos, but with some humorous touches natural at the time, and it ends with a prophetic strain which — since it was written before the Charlestown execution—was informed with genuine second-sight; it proves that to Mr. Stedman, if to any one, must be attributed the suggestion of the song describing the marching on of John Brown’s soul: —

“ But, Virginians, don't do it! for I tell you that the flagon,
Filled with blood of Old Brown’s offspring, was first poured by Southern hands ;
And each drop from Old Brown’s life-veins, like the red gore of the dragon,
May spring up a vengeful Fury, hissing through your slave-worn lands !
And Old Brown,
Osawatomie Brown,
May trouble you more than ever, when you 've
nailed his coffin down ! ”

Mr. Stedman’s two longest poems are Alice of Monmouth: an Idyl of the Great War, and The Blameless Prince; each of which gave the title to a separate volume (both including collections oF briefer poems) in its original publication. The story in Alice of Monmouth was invented, doubtless, in order that the author might present some war-experiences of his own eyes and ears, at Washington and in Virginia, during the first and second years of the Southern rebellion, in the second winter of which the poem was written. The story is well conceived and well adapted for poetic treatment.

Many years after my first reading of this poem, in the atmosphere which gave it birth, it seems, on newly reading it, very touching in parts, and it must be found strongly moving by many, to whom it will bring back old trials and awaken the tenderness of old griefs. The story is unfortunately told, however, in a series of poetic chapters or divisions in various measures; in this respect bearing a resemblance to Tennyson’s Maud, which is also Occasionally echoed. It therefore fails somewhat of continuous narrative interest and effect. Some of the divisions of the poem are vigorously and vividly written; some of them have much delicate beauty of feeling and description; others are carelessly, indeed flimsily, constructed. The peace and quietness of the New Jersey life and landscape (with which Mr. Stedman was also familiar) is contrasted finely with the strange and novel life, landscapes, and experiences in the region of war.

This poem reproduces more truly than it is found elsewhere, so far as I know, the atmosphere of Washington during the first and second winters of the war: its neighboring battles and rumors of battles; the moving back and forth of troops, with artillery; its great outlying camps; its life, and the death-in-life of the hospitals, etc. There is good realistic power shown in one or two battle scenes: for example, the color-sergeant’s camp-fire history of the cavalry skirmish in which Colonel Hugh van Ghelt was wounded. It is an accurate report, I should say, of the movement of cavalry, throughout. It interests one strongly, and stirs the latent soldier’s blood in him. There are some short, crisp trochaic rhyme lines which give the very jolt of the brisk night-trot they describe. How much better Mr. Stedman might have made the entire poem we can imagine with regret. He was in too great haste to produce a long poem founded on the war, and during the heat and hurry of the time itself. The story presents, as has been said, a good ground-work of material, but its best use is suggested rather than fully accomplished.

The Blameless Prince is hardly pleasing in its story, yet this is, perhaps, not one that can be called improbable. Doubtless many princes, as well as many men in humbler public position or in private life, go extolled for virtues that show themselves on the well-dressed surface,— indeed, with lives for the most part beneficent, —while they are themselves aware of, and not always inwardly shamed by or remorseful of, an undertow of vice which even their friends and families do not suspect. The queen of Mr. Stedman’s Blameless Prince does not discover, until she is about to eonser crate a costly memorial in honor of his blameless character, and make it the witness of her lasting grief and love, that another woman (whom he had met when first on his way to marry herself, then unknown by him, or only vaguely remembered from his childhood) has all along possessed in private the love pledged in public to her own royal person. The passage in which the poet relates the meeting in the abbey between the queen and the penitent, dying paramour of the dead prince, and receives her terrible confession, is perhaps the most powerful in the poem; it has much dramatic force. The queen’s faith in the dead prince’s love for herself alone holds out long; it gives way only when the dying woman produces, first, a signetring, given her by the prince at their last parting (which was intended as a final one, he having grown weary of his inward reproach; his accidental death at once made it final), and, after that, his youthful miniature, hung about her neck at their first parting many years previous and before his marriage. Now, the poor queen, convinced, curses the paramour, flies from her presence, and as her chariot moves away the passing-bell is heard tolling for the other’s death. The shock of her dreadful knowledge overwhelms the queen, who returns to her palace skeptical of all goodness and truth, and shuts herself up with her absorbing misery. But when the morrow comes she nerves herself to act her part in the ceremony of unveiling the prince’s statue. Her assumed calm is credited to a proper royal pride, and “ Upon her front the people only read Pale grief that clung forever to the dead.”

But when at length she draws the veil and her husband’s image stands forth, and she reads an unexpected inscription which says, —

“ Of all great things this prince achieved his part, Yet wedded love to him was worth them all,''

she is unable to endure the burden of her woe, her heart breaks, she falls dead; and the poem ends with a single stanza, saying,—

“ Her people made her beauteous relics room
Within the chamber where her consort slept.
There rest they side by side. Around the tomb
A thousand matrons solemn vigil kept.
Long ages told the story of her reign,
And sang the nuptial love that had no stain.”

The story of The Blameless Prince is fairly well managed throughout, holding the reader with interest, though perhaps it is impeded too much here and there by the author’s own reflections on love, marriage, and morals. The verse, in six-line stanzas, iambic pentameter, throughout, like those I have quoted, is generally well wrought, rich, and strong, though sometimes needlessly harsh; and occasionally the rhyme which often steers a line to happy results compels an unhappy one, here and there creating an obscurity which makes it necessary to read and re-read the stanza to he assured of the poet’s meaning; even then one does not always get it. Mr. Stedman seems to have been most successful in those parts of his work that required the more passionate and dramatic expression; the whole latter half of the poem is much superior to the other half. In the first part he is dealing with sentiment and romance; afterwards he is possessed with the stronger forces of passion, and the elements of romance are mixed with tragedy. We find tender landscapes and all the gentle charms of sight and sound in the earlier stanzas; later, we lose sight of these and become interested simply in the persons of the story. The Blameless Prince suggests, by its manner somewhat, and somewhat by its matter, one or two of William Morris’s renditions of old legends; but I think that, while Mr. Stedman is perhaps hardly so rich as that English poet in his diction, he has handled parts of his poem with a power which Alorris has not indicated in any of his “ stretched metre of an anticpie song.” Morris’s people are misty; they " come like shadows, so depart.” Mr. Stedman’s personages, on the contrary, are realized with vital distinctness. His story is hardly a pleasing one, I have said, yet it is highly poetical; and though closed in the atmosphere of distance and placed in another age, its real human element is not foreign nor of the past. The moral is disheartening, to say the least.

With one class of his poems, it seems to me, Mr. Stedman has earned the title of poet - laureate of our great commercial metropolis, as no other, unless it were Halleck, who did it in a lesser and slighter manner, has ever done. In two or three pieces he has given charming glimpses into the background of New York city history. Peter Stuyvesant’s New Year’s Call celebrates a feigned social episode in the reign of Peter the Headstrong (celebrated in prose by Irving), in the course of which the old Holland soldier is represented as having a vision of the municipal glory yet to be. The picture of the colonial manners and customs is sketched in a light and very pleasant manner.

Another piece, entitled Fuit Ilium (I am not sure but an English title would have been more desirable, though one recognizes the peculiar flavor of the Latin phrase from Virgil), is a poem which, at the same time that it describes the destruction of a colonial mansion in the city to make room for the progress of modern business, happily conveys the romantic aspects of New York society during the Revolutionary period, and. in the passing away of the old house materially, finely hints the downfall of a family and the evanescence of its associations and traditions with the social system contemporary. I know of no poem of the kind comparable to this one.

Pan in Wall Street, another of these poems of the commercial metropolis, may be said to be the one classic inspiration of the great money market. It is full of brightness and vivacity; it is sweet with all happy, far-off suggestions which are the remotest opposites of modern business; it contains, it is true, the motley crowd of Wall Street, the loud, obstreperous roar of bulls and bears, — those financial beasts of prey, —with the gentle intrusion, however, of Sicilian shepherds out of Theocritus and the strain of old-world music from the “ sweet donothing days ” of pastoral poetry. Readers of The Atlantic are familiar with this poem, as it was originally printed in these pages.

The three poems last named, indeed, appear to me among the very best of Mr. Stedman’s productions; they are thoroughly his own, and each in its way is delightful. I do not pretend to understand Israel Freyer’s Bid for Gold; it is also a New York city piece.

Of Mr. Stedman’s Poems of Nature it may be said that Mr. Stedman is hardly ever at his best as a poet of nature. One of these is introduced with a quotation, saying, —

“ 0 ye valleys ! 0 ye mountains !
0 ye groves anil crystal fountains !
How I love, at liberty,
By turns to come aipl visit ye ! “

It is not the poet’s fault, perhaps, that he has not lived with Nature, and only visits her at fitful seasons. The poems in the class above named are often artificial in tone, with constant allusion to the world, not forgetting it and reposing in the repose of nature. I dare say that, like Lamb, Hood, and others, our poet loves better “ the sweet security of streets.” Yet there is a true sense of natural beauty and delight in Woods and Waters, a melodious and eloquent piece. Holyoke Valley is a tender and pensive reminiscence of early life and schooldays. Perhaps Refuge in Nature — not classed with the above, however—is tlie best piece having reference to a love for and satisfaction in nature.

Among Mr. Stedman’s Miscellaneous Poems are several of a strikingly imaginative character: Spoken at Sea, The Assault by Night, and The Hillside Door, for example. The first named has a weird, ghostly impression, like Uhland’s The Black Knight, translated by Longfellow; it refers to the sudden appearance of the cholera on board the steamship Virginia, in 1866. The Assault by Night recalls, by likeness of subject (the poems are entirely different in treatment) Forceythe Willson’s poem of The Enemy, once quoted in The Atlantic.

Of other mentionable poems, The Duke’s Exequy suggests Longfellow’s treatment of a mediæval theme; the subject is finely picturesque, and it is fitly presented. Montagu is a pretty ballad from a romantic incident in the life of Henry VIII. ’s queen, Katherine; it is brightly and lightly told, with a touch of gay pathos at the close. I will also name The Doorstep as a lovely little romance of boyhood love, recalled with the fond regret of lost youth; and Country Sleighing, which presents a good, wholesome picture of rustic winter enjoyments.

Of the very few sonnets Mr. Stedman has written, one addressed to Bayard Taylor, with a copy of Homer’s Iliad, has a touch of heroic vigor, and moves to its close with the resonance of a man in armor. Another, which I shall beg leave to repeat here, is found among his Early Poems; it is beautiful and touching; few sweeter words were ever addressed by a poet to his mother: —


SHE seemed an angel to our infant eyes !
Once, when the glorifying moon revealed
Her who at evening by our pillow kneeled,—
Soft-voiced and golden-haired, from, holy skies
flown to her Loves on wings of Paradise,—
We looked to see the pinions half concealed.
The Tuscan Vines and olives will not yield
Her back to me, who loved her in this wise,
And since have little known her, but have grown
To see another mother tenderly
Watch over sleeping children of my own.
Perchance the years have changed her: yet alone
This picture lingers; still she seems to me
The fair young angel of my Infancy.

I have already spoken generally of Mr. Stedman’s Occasional Poems. That on Fort Sumter has, I believe, the distinction of being the first piece of value written on the earliest aggression of the Southern rebellion. Wanted—a Man had a popular appositeness at the time it appeared (in September, 1862); it was the cry of a whole anxiously impatient people; and it is a fair example of Mr. Stedman’s clear and vigorous treatment of current political themes.

Hitherto, only such poems have been named as occur in Mr. Stedman’s collective volume; but into its last-mentioned class, Occasional Poems, would properly fall, in a new edition, the principal contents of his recent volume; for, besides its initial poem, Hawthorne,— written to be read before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University last June,—the pieces entitled News from Olympia, Kearney at Seven Pines, Custer, The Comedian’s Last Night, and The Lord’s-Day Gale, making, with two or three others, the larger bulk of the volume, were each the result of some contemporary suggestion in person, incident, or event. In the poem on Hawthorne the poet invites his muse — accompanied by the Harp of New England Song, which he apostrophizes—to perform the critic’s function in sketching the life, character, and work of the New England novelist, concerning whom it is not happily or truly said that “ prose like his was poesy’s high tone.” Prose is prose always, no matter how poetical, and Hawthorne’s prose was not, whether or not it sometimes had the tone of poetry. There is a stately movement throughout this production ; it has strong, terse, imaginative lines and passages; but as a poem it is rather in passages than as a whole that it pleases.

The loneliness, seclusion, obscurity, of Hawthorne’s earlier life are well suggested, and his education in the presence of New England nature is happily indicated. The different aspects of Hawthorne’s character, too, are fairly illustrated with reference to certain of his persons in whom those aspects are reflected. Still, it is in the frequent-graphic allusions to the figures from early New England history and life pictured in the novelist’s works that one finds the best of Mr. Stedman’s poems: for example, such lines as follow, describing generally the New Englanders upon Hawthorne’s pages: —

“ A quaint and stately throng :
Grave men of God who made the olden law,
Fair maidens, meet for love, —
All living types that to the coast belong
Since Carver from the prow thy headlands saw.”

That last line is a fine, clear-cut one, condensing a whole chapter of history. And here is a stanza in which Hawthorne’s wizard power over the ancient New England ghost-world is very strikingly illustrated: —

“ What sibyl to him bore
The secret oracles that move and haunt ?
At night’s dread noon he scanned the enchanted glass,
Ay, and himself the warlock’s mantle wore,
Nor to the thronging phantoms said Avaunt,
But waved his rod and bade them rise and pass ;
Till thus he drew the lineaments of men
Who fought the old colonial battles three,
Who with the lustihood of Nature warred
And made her docile, — then
Wrestled with Terror and with Tyranny,
Twin wardens of the scaffold and the sword.”

Another striking stanza well condenses the weird memories that Hawthorne’s tales of the Province House and some of his witch-stories leave in the reader’s mind, while the succeeding one indicates the dark and haunting influence of the novelist’s genius: —

“ Within the Province House
The ancient governors hold their broidered state,—
Still gleam the lights, the shadows come and go ;
Here once again the powdered guests carouse,
The masquerade lasts on, the night is late.
Thrice waves a mist-invoking wand, and lo,
What troubled sight! What summit bald and steep
Where stands a ladder 'gainst the accursed tree ?
What dark processions thither slowly climb ?
Anon, what lost ones keep
Their midnight tryst with forms that evil be,
Around the witch-fire in the forest grim !
“ Clearly the master’s plan
Revealed his people, even as they were :
The prayerful elder and the winsome maid,
The errant roisterer, the Puritan,
Dark Pyncheon, mournful Hester,—all are there
But none save he in our own time so laid
His summons on man’s spirit ; none but he,
Whether the light thereof were clear or clouded,
Thus on his canvas fixed the human soul,
The thoughts of mystery,
In deep hearts by this mortal guise enshrouded,
Wild hearts that like the church-bells ring and toll.”

The close of the poem recalls the beginning, with its assumption that Hawthorne was " the one New Englander; ” and, whether or not this is disputable, it seems hardly fit that the several elder living New England poets should be so reviewed and dwarfed by comparison. Of other occasional poems in Mr. Stedman’s new volume, that on Kearney at Seven Pines has his usual vigor of tone, with quickening touches of heroic spirit. The Comedian’s Last Night is more in Mr. Stedman’s acknowledged demesne; it is lively and has something of the gay-surfaced pathos that associates itself with an actor who finds his part must pass into other hands, and is loath to give it up; that for him the play is finally played, but yet the last applause rings in his ears and is sweet. Here are the closing stanzas: —

“ Yes, thank you, boy, I ll take your chair
One moment, while I catch my breath.
D' ye hear the noise they ’re making there ?
’T would warm a player’s heart in death.
How say you now ? Whate’er they write,
We 've put that bitter gibe to shame ;
J know, I knew there burned to-night
Within my soul the olden flame ! Stand off a bit: that final round,
I 'd hear it ere it dies away
The last, last time ! — there’s no more sound :
So end the player and the play.

“ The house is cleared. My senses swim ;
I shall be better, though, anon, —
One stumbles when the lights are dim, —
'T is growing late: we must be gone.
Well, braver luck than mine, old friends !
A little work and fame are ours
While Heaven health and fortune lends,
And then — the Coffin and the flowers!
The scattered garments ? let them he :
Some fresher actor (I ’m not vain)
Will dress anew the part; but I —
I shall not put them on again.''

A more ambitious piece is The Lord’sDay Gale, in which the poet describes, with realistic power, a storm which occurred in the Bay of St. Lawrence, in August, 1873, destroying many fishingvessels from Gloucester, Massachusetts, with their crews. The coming on of the storm and its terrible progress, with resulting shipwreck, are vividly pictured in several of its stanzas. This terrible stroke of Providence far away is pathetically and finely contrasted, in a stanza which follows, with the peace and gentleness of the Sabbath evening at the home of the lost fishermen: —

“ The bedtime bells in Gloucester Town
That Sabbath night rang soft and clear;
The sailors’ children laid them down, —
Dear Lord! their sweet prayers couldst thou hear ?
’Tis said that gently blew the winds;
The good wives, through the seaward blinds,
Looked down the bay and had no fear.”

The piece called The Discoverer may also be called an occasional poem, if, as would seem, it had its origin in the death of a " little kinsman ” of the poet; it is one of the most simply pleasing pieces in Mr. Stedman’s new book. It is written with a sort of happy, wayward artlessness that is very winning, and it is singularly cheerful and sweet in its suggestion of a child’s gentle removal, when

“ A wingèd pilot steered his bark
Through the portals of the dark,
Past hoary Mimir’s well and tree,
Across the unknown sea.”

I do not know who first called Mr. Stedman the American Praed. Somebody, I dare say, who had never read more than one piece of Mr. Stedman’s and probably two by Praed. I should venture to select the piece entitled Edged Tools as the one specimen used to misname the American poet. But I have never read anything in Praed to prove that he was anything more than a clever and witty versifier. Mr. Stedman is, undoubtedly, a poet, — a poet whose most original vein is, perhaps, in light and essentially lyrical poems, but possessing occasional imaginative power, fine fancy, some dramatic vigor, true and tender sentiment, the quality of poetic passion, with knowledge to command and artistic skill to treat worthily many of the higher themes of poetry.

J. J. Piatt.

  1. Hawthorne and other Poems. By E. C. Stedman. Boston: J. R. Osgood & Co. 1878