October 13, 2013

Edward Rowland Sill: like a fly on a pin

When Edward Rowland Sill heard that the well-known and highly-respected editor Edmund Clarence Stedman intended to include him in a book of poetry, he was hesitant. On October 13, 1885, he wrote to their mutual friend Thomas Bailey Aldrich:

Can you not tell Mr. Stedman (if his book is not yet beyond proofcorrecting) that one, at least, of the "twilight" poets, namely, "Sill," would much prefer to be left out of his enumeration? He had me in his "Century " article. I am not a publishing author (the booklet of verses of which I think I sent you a copy — "The Venus of Milo," etc., was never published, and never will be), and so might escape being stuck in his catalogue, like a fly on a pin. Don't you think?

Sill, Connecticut-born but widely-traveled, apparently refused to call himself an author or, perhaps more likely, refused to live up to the scrutiny of national exposure which Stedman's book would have drawn. Sill was not exaggerating. At the time of his letter, he had only published one book — a translation of another person's book. The manuscript he had shown Stedman was intended only for his friends, never for publication. He claimed many of his poems — "the confounded little things" he burned in manuscript. He died two years later, having never published a book. The poem he mentioned to Aldrich, however, "The Venus of Milo," was collected posthumously. From that poem:

  Before the broken marble, on a day,
There came a worshiper: a slanted ray
Struck in across the dimness of her shrine
And touched her face as to a smile divine;
For it was like the worship of a Greek
At her old altar. Thus I heard him speak: —

  Men call thee Love: is there no holier name
Than hers, the foam-born, laughter-loving dame?
Nay, for there is than love no holier name:
All words that pass the lips of mortal men
With inner and with outer meaning shine;
An outer gleam that meets the common ken,
An inner light that but the few divine.

Thou art the love celestial, seeking still
The soul beneath the form; the serene will;
The wisdom, of whose deeps the sages dream;
The unseen beauty that doth faintly gleam
In stars, and flowers, and waters where they roll;
The unheard music whose faint echoes even
Make whosoever hears a homesick soul
Thereafter, till he follow it to heaven.

Ultimately, Sill received only a passing comment, and not even his full name, in Stedman's book, which turned out to be a much more significant undertaking than a mere compilation. Stedman, in fact, produced a massive, all-encompassing, running catalogue of American poetry. Poets of America (1885) was meant to prove the important role that poetry played in defining American cultural and intellectual development. The book was a sort of historic record which meant to add to the more typical record of politics and war that end up in history books. Stedman believed that, with the advancement of the United States in general, with its power and wealth in particular, one would see it best reflected in its imaginative creations, with poetry as "its highest forms of expression." After all, he said, "The song of a nation is accepted as an ultimate test of the popular spirit."

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