Edmund Clarence Stedman

THE sudden death of Edmund Clarence Stedman came with a strange pathos upon the readers of his many writings, especially as following so soon upon that of his life-long friend and compeer, Aldrich. Stedman had been for some years an invalid and had received, in his own phrase, his “three calls,”that life would soon be ended. He was born at Hartford, Connecticut, on October 8, 1833, and was the second son of Colonel Edmund Burke Stedman and his wife Elizabeth Clement (Dodge) Stedman. His great-grandfather was the Reverend Aaron Cleveland, Jr., a Harvard graduate of 1735, and a man of great influence in his day, who died in middle life under the hospitable roof of Benjamin Franklin. Stedman’s mother was a woman of much literary talent, and had much ultimate influence in the training of her son, although she was early married again to the Honorable William B. Kenney, who was afterwards the United States Minister to Turin. Her son, being placed in charge of a great uncle, spent his childhood in Norwich, Connecticut, and entered Yale at sixteen, but did not complete his course there, although in later life he was restored to his class membership and received the degree of Master of Arts. He went early into newspaper work in Norwich and then in New York, going to the front for a time as newspaper correspondent during the Civil War. He abandoned journalism after ten years or thereabouts and became a member of the New York Stock Exchange without giving up his literary life, a combination apt to be of doubtful success. He married, at twenty, Laura Hyde Woodworth, who died before him, as did one of his sons, leaving only one son and a granddaughter as his heirs. His funeral services took place at the Church of the Messiah on January 21, 1908, conducted by the Reverend Dr. Robert Collyer and the Reverend Dr. Henry van Dyke.

Those who happen to turn back to the volume of the Atlantic Monthly for January, 1898, will read with peculiar interest a remarkable paper entitled “ Our Two Most Honored Poets.” It bears no author’s name, even in the index, but is what we may venture to call, after ten years, a singularly penetrating analysis of both Aldrich and Stedman. Of the latter it is said: “ His rhythmic sense is subtle, and he often attains an aerial waywardness of melody which is of the very essence of the lyric gift.” It also remarks most truly and sadly of Stedman that he “is of those who have suffered the stress of the day.” The critic adds, “Just now we felt grateful to Mr. Aldrich for putting all this [that is, life’s tragedies] away in order that the clarity and sweetness of his art might not suffer; now we feel something like reverence for the man [Mr. Stedman] who, in conditions which make for contentment and acquiescence has not been able to escape these large afflictions.” But these two gifted men have since passed away, Aldrich from a career of singular contentment, Stedman after ten years of almost constant business failure and a series of calamities relating to those nearest and dearest.

One of the most prominent men in the New York literary organizations, and one who knew Stedman intimately, writes me thus in regard to the last years of his life: “ As you probably know, Stedman died poor. Only a few days ago he told me that after paying all the debts hanging over him for years from the business losses caused by—’s mismanagement, he had not enough to live on, and must keep on with his literary work. For this he had various plans, of which our conversations developed only a possible rearrangement of his past writings; an article now and then for the magazines (one, I am told, he left completed); and reminiscences of his old friends among men of letters — for which last he had, for eight months past, been overhauling letters and papers but had written nothing. He was ailing, he said — had a serious heart affection which troubled him for years, and he found it a daily struggle to keep up with the daily claims on his time. You know what he was, in respect of letters, — and letters. He could always say ‘ No ’ with animation; but in the case of claims on his time by poets and other of the writing class, he never could do the negative. He both liked the claims and did n’t. The men who claimed were dear to him, partly because he knew them, partly because he was glad to know them. He wore himself quite out. His heart was exhausted by his brain. It was a genuine case of heart-failure to do what the head required.”

There lies before me a mass of private letters from Stedman, dating back to November 2, 1873, when he greeted me for the first time in a kinship we had just discovered. We had the same greatgrandfather, though each connection was through the mother, we being alike greatgrandchildren of the Reverend Aaron Cleveland, Jr., from whom President Grover Cleveland is also descended. At the time of this mutual discovery Stedman was established in New York, and although I sometimes met him in person, I can find no letters from him until after a period of more than ten years, when he was engaged in editing his Library of American Literature. He wrote to me afterwards, and often with quite cousinly candor, — revealing frankly his cares, hopes, and sorrows, but never with anything coarse or unmanly. All his enterprises were confided to me so far as literature was concerned, and I, being some ten years older, felt free to say what I thought of them. I wished, especially, however, to see him carry out a project of translations from the Greek pastoral poetry of Theocritus, Bion, and Moschus. The few fragments given at the end of his volumes had always delighted me and many other students, while his efforts at the Agamemnon of Æschylus dealt with passages too formidable in their power for any one but Edward FitzGerald to undertake.

After a few years of occasional correspondence there came a lull. Visiting New York rarely, I did not know of Stedman’s business perplexities till they came upon me in the following letter, which was apparently called out by one of mine written two months before.

71 West 54th Street,
NEW YORK, July 12th, ’82.
MY DEAR COLONEL, — I had gone over with “the majority” [that is, to Europe], when your friendly card of May 9th was written, and it finally reached me at Venice. In that city of light, air, and heavenly noiselessness, my son and myself at last had settled ourselves in ideal rooms, overlooking the Grand Canal. We had seclusion, the Molo, the Lagoon, and a good cafe, and pure and cheap Capri wine. Our books and papers were unpacked for the first time, and I was ready to make an end of the big and burdensome book which I ought to have finished a year ago. Dis aliter insum ! The next morning I was awakened to receive news, by wire, of a business loss which brought me home, through the new Gothard tunnel and by the first steamer. Here I am. patching up other people’s blunders, with ihe thermometer in the nineties. I have lived through worse troubles, but am in no very good humor. Let me renew the amenities of life, by way of improving my disposition: and I ’ll begin by thanking you for calling my attention to the error in re Palfrey — which, of course, I shall correct. Another friend has written me to say that Lowell’s father was a Unitarian — not a Congregationalist. But Lowell himself told me, the other day, that his father never would call himself a Unitarian, and that he was old-fashioned in his home tenets and discipline. Mr. L. [Lowell] was under pretty heavy pressure, as you know, when I saw him, but holding his own with some composure —for a poet. Again thanking you. I am,
Always truly yrs.,

This must have been answered by some further expression of solicitude, for this reply came, two months later, —

University Club, 370 Fifth Avenue,
NEW YORK,Sunday, Sept. 16, 1883.
MY DEAR HIGGINSON, — There is a good deal, say what you will, in “ moral support.” I have proved it during the last few weeks: ’t would have been hard to get through with them, but for just such words as yours. And I have had them in such abundance that, despite rather poor displays of human nature in a sample of my own manufacture, I am less than ever a pessimist.
As for that which Sophocles pronounced the father of meanness — πϵνιɑ — both my wife and myself have been used to it nearly all our lives, and probably shall have, now, to renew our old acquaintance with it. Though somewhat demoralized by a few years of Philistine comfort — the Persicos apparatus. &c. — I think we shall get along with sufficient dignity.
We have suffered more, however, than the money-loss, bad as that is. And hence we are doubly grateful to those who, like yourself, send a cheery voice to us at just this time.
Ever sincerely yrs.,

During the next few years we had ample correspondence of a wholly literary and cheerful tone. He became engaged upon his Library of American Literature with a congenial fellow-worker, Miss Ellen Hutchinson, and I was only one of many who lent a hand or made suggestions. He was working very hard, and once wrote that he was goine for a week to his boyhood’s home to rest. During all this period there was, no doubt, the painful business entanglement in the background but there was also in the foreground the literary work whose assuaging influence only one who has participated in it can understand. Then came another blow in the death of his mother, announced to me as follows: —

44 East 26th St.,
NEW YORK,Dec. 8th, 1889.
MY DEAR HIGGINSON. — Yes: I have been through a kind of Holy Week, and have come out in so incorporeal a state that I strive painfully, though most gratefully, to render thanks to some, at least, of my beautiful mother’s friends and mine who have taken note of her departure. I have always wished that she and you could know more of each other — though nothing of yours escaped her eager taste and judgment for she was not only a natural critic, but a very clanswoman. with a most loyal faith in her blood and yours. Most of all, she was a typical woman, an intensely human one, to the last, though made of no common clay. She was of an age to die, and I am glad that her fine intelligence was spared a season of dimness. Still, I have suffered a loss, and doubtless one that will last a lifetime.
Sincerely yours,

There followed another long period of mere literary correspondence, from which I take only this passage from a letter written April 9, 1889, which has a pathetic interest for me at least because it indicates in advance the music selected by himself for his funeral and actually given there.

“ I must copy for you now the Song which you have kindly remembered so many years. In sooth, I have always thought well of your judgment as to poetry since you intimated (in the Commonwealth, was it not ?) that these three stanzas of mine were the thing worth having of my seldom-written verse ” Then follows the poem, under the same title it had always borne, “ Stanzas for Music,” closing with that exquisite verse, rising to its highest height at its very end.

Thou art mine, thou hast come unto me !
But thy soul, when I strive to be near it —
The innermost fold of thy spirit —
Is as far from my grasp, is as free
As the stars from the mountain tops be,
As the pearl, in the depths of the sea,
From the portionless king that would wear it.

The Laborious volumes of literary selections having been completed, there followed still, under the same pressure, another series of books yet morp ambitions. His Victorian Poets (1875, thirteenth edition 1887) was followed by the Poets of America (1885). A Victorian Anthology (1895). and An American Anthology (1900). These books were what gave him his fame, the two former being original studies of literature, made in prose; and the two latter being collections of poetry from the two nations.

If we consider how vast a labor was represented in all those volumes, it is interesting to revert to that comparison between Stedman and his friend Aldrich with which this paper began. Their literary lives led them apart; that of Aldrich tending always to condensation, that of Stedman to expansion, As a consequence Aldrich seemed to grow younger and younger with years and Stedman older; his work being always valuable but often too weighty, “ living in thoughts, not breaths.” to adopt the delicate distinction from Bailey’s Festus. There is a certain worth in all that Stedman wrote, be it longer or shorter, but it needs a good deal of literary power to retain the attention of readers so long as some of his chapters demand. Opening at random his Poets of America, one may find the author deep in a discussion of Lowell, for instance, and complaining of that poet’s prose or verse. “ Not compactly moulded,” Stedman says even of much of Lowell’s work. “ He had a way. moreover, of ‘ dropping ’ like his own bobolink, of letting down his fine passages with odd conceits, mixed metaphors, and licenses which, as a critic, he would not overlook in another. To all this add a knack of coining uncouth words for special tints of meaning, when there are good enough counters in the language for any poet’s need.” These failings. Stedman says, “have perplexed the poet’s friends and teased his reviewers ” Yet Lowell’s critic is more chargeable with diffuseness than is Lowell himself in prose essays, which is saying a good deal. Stedman devotes forty-five pages to Lowell, and thirty-nine even to Bayard Taylor, while he gives to Thoreau but a few scattered lines and no pretense at a chapter. There are, unquestionably, many fine passages scattered through the book, as where he keenly points out that the first European appreciation of American literature was “almost wholly due to grotesque and humorous exploits — a welcome such as a prince in his breathing-hour might give to a new-found jester or clown;" and when he says, in reply to English criticism. that there is “ something worth an estimate in the division of an ocean gulf, that makes us like the people of a new planet.”

Turning back to Stedman’s earlier book, the Victorian Poets, one finds many a terse passage, as where he describes Landor as a “ royal Bohemian in art.” or compares the same author’s death in Florence at ninety, a banished man, to “ the death of some monarch of the forest, most untamed when powerless.” Such passages redeem a book from the danger of being forgotten, but they cannot in the long run save it from the doom which awaits too great diffuseness in words. During all this period of hard work, he found room also for magazine articles, always thoroughly done. Nowhere is there a finer analysis, on the whole, of the sources of difficulty in Homeric translation than will be found in Stedman’s review of Bryant’s translation of Homer, and nowhere a better vindication of a serious and carefully executed book {Atlantic Monthly, May, 1872). He wrote also an admirable volume of lectures on the Nature and Elements of Poetry for delivery at Johns Hopkins University.

As years went on, our correspondence inevitably grew less close. On March 10, 1893, he wrote, “ I am so driven at this season, ‘ let alone ’ financial worries, that I have to write letters when and where I can.” Then follows a gap of seven years; in 1900 his granddaughter writes on October 25, conveying affectionate messages from him ; two years after, April 2, 1903, he writes himself in the same key, then adds, “ Owing to difficulties absolutely beyond my control, I have written scarcely a line for myself since the Yale bicentennial ” [1901] ; and concludes, " I am very warmly your friend and kinsman.” It was a full, easy, and natural communication, like his old letters; but it was four years later when I heard from him again as follows, in a letter which I will not withhold in spite of what may be well regarded as its oversensitiveness and somewhat exaggerated tone

2643 Broadway, NEW YORK CITY,
Evening, March 20th, 1907.
MY DEAR KINSMAN, — Although I have given you no reason to be assured of it, you are still just the same to me in my honor and affection — you are never, and you never have been, otherwise in my thoughts than my kinsman (by your first recognition of our consanguinity) and my friend; yes, and early teacher, for I long ago told you that it was your essays that confirmed me, in my youth, in the course I chose for myself.
I am going on to Aldrich’s funeral, and with a rather lone and heavy heart, since I began life here in New York with him before the Civil War, and had every expectation that he would survive me: not wholly on the score of my seniority, but because I have had my “ three calls ” and more, and because he has ever been so strong and young and debonair. Health, happiness, ease, travel, all “ things wauregan,” seemed his natural right. If I, too, wished for a portion of his felicities, I never envied one to whom they came by the very fitness of things. And I grieve the more for his death, because it seems to violate that fitness.
Now, I can’t think of meeting you on Friday without first making this poor and inadequate attempt to set one thing right. Your latest letter — I was, at least, moved by it to address myself at once to a full reply, but was myself attacked that day so sorely by the grippe that I went to bed before completing it and was useless for weeks; the letter showed me that you thought, as well you might, that I had been hurt or vexed by something you had unwittingly done or written. I can say little to-night but to confess that no act, word, or writing, of yours from first to last has not seemed to contain all the friendship, kindness, recognition, that I could ever ask for. . . . Perhaps I have the ancestral infirmity of clinging to my fealties for good and all; but, as I say, you are my creditor in every way, and I constantly find myself in sympathy with your writings, beliefs, causes, judgments. — Now I recall it. the very choice you made of a little lyric of mine as the one at my “ high-water ” mark gave me a fine sense of your comprehension — it seemed to me a case of rem acu tetigit, I am thoroughly satisfied to have one man — and that man you — so quick to see just where I felt that I had been fortunate. . . .
For some years, I venture to remind you, you have seen scarcely anything of mine in print. Since 1900 I have had three long and disabling illnesses, from two of which it was not thought I could recover. Between these, what desperate failure of efforts to “ catch up.” Oh, I can’t tell you, the books, the letters, the debts, the broken contracts. Then the deaths of my wife and my son, and all the sorrows following; the break-up of my home, and the labor of winding up so much without aid. But from all the rack I have always kept, separated on my table, all your letters and remembrances — each one adding more, in my mind, to the explanation I had not written you. . .
Your attached kinsman and friend,

Stedman came from Mount Auburn to my house after the funeral of Aldrich, with a look of utter exhaustion on his face such as alarmed me. A little rest and refreshment brought him to a curious revival of strength and animation: he talked of books, men, and adventures, in what was almost a monologue and went away in seeming cheerfulness, with his faithful literary associate, Professor George E. Woodberry. Yet as I bade him good-by, there came to me the memory of those brief and touching words which he had sent with an ivy wreath to Walt Whitman’s funeral — and which needed but a slight change of name to be appropriate at the funeral of Stedman himself: Good-bye, Walt!

Good-bye, from all you loved of earth —
Rock, tree, dumb creature, man and woman—
To you, their comrade human.
The last assault
Ends now ; and now in some great world has birth
A minstrel, whose strong soul fills broader wings,
More brave imaginings.
Stars crown the hilltop where your dust shall lie,
Even as we say good-bye,
Good-bye, old Walt!