December 6, 2011

Stedman: the Guest of the Evening

When the New York-based Authors Club honored Edmund Clarence Stedman on December 6, 1900, it was done specifically to recognize the completion of his An American Anthology. The book was meant as an exhaustive study of American poetry in the century just ended; it remains impressive today. Even so, by then the Connecticut native had already left an impressive trail of literary criticism, biography, scholarship, copyright advocacy — and a few poems of his own.

That evening, Stedman addressed the rumor that the night marked his retirement from literature. "This would be exceptionally hard to do," he noted, admitting that he finally had enough leisure time to think about future writings. He never dreamed that he would ever "voluntarily cease from trying to perform the labor" — even now in his elder years. He went on:

Which of us toiler of the pen, if born with the art to write, does not know that it is as the last analysis of his love, his wealth, his religion, his solace, and that to it he must return, for better or worse, again and again, so long as breath is in him?

During this reception, a toast in the form of a poem was written by Stedman's friend Charles Henry Webb (who was but a few months younger than Stedman). It was titled "To the Guest of the Evening":

Dear Edmund, when I count the years
    That over us have rolled,
It seems to me I must be young,
    And only thou art old.
For, yet a private in the ranks,
    At best I close the rear,
Whilst thou dost ride in front bestarred, —
    A mounted Brigadier...

Ah, dearest friend and poet, best
    Of all who woo the muse,
I am not envious, but I'd like
    To stand there in thy shoes.
While all this mighty guild press round
    With words of love and praise,
None baying at thy heels, but all
    Enwreathing thee with bays.

And well they may, for hast thou not
    Been generous to them,
To each extending the glad hand
    And not thy garments' hem?
To thee they twang their rusty harps,
    Old men, and wonder why
Thou stretchest too the helping hand
    To youngsters such as I.

If asked, Webb writes, why Stedman performs these duties, offering always "the helping hand" or "words of cheer," he should be compared to zoo animals: Why do lions and tigers bark and bite? It is in their nature. Further, Stedman is presented as someone who is kind to all ("women as well as men"). Webb concludes that "I will drink":

A cup to him who from his heart
    Pours Poesy's choicest wine,
And as a critic never wrote —
    Or thought — one unkind line.

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