October 18, 2011

Stedman: Ring! ring the bells

On October 18, 1859, the New York Tribune published a poem that nearly cost Edmund Clarence Stedman his life. Only a few days earlier, the wealthy Cuban landowner Don Esteban Santa Cruz de Oviedo married the 18-year old Frances Amelia Bartlett, nearly four decades his junior. The lavish ceremony was held in New York, and the young bride was showered with jewelry and other gifts. In the days leading up to the great event, the media began to call it "The Diamond Wedding."

Within a day and a half of the wedding, Stedman wrote a 218-line satirical poem he named "The Diamond Wedding." The struggling poet admitted that, at the time, he was "at that happy period of obscurity," and expected the "piece of trash" would either never get published or not draw attention if it did. Upon its publication in the New York Tribune, however, it was a local sensation. Stedman's name was not withheld and it was reprinted as early as a few hours later in the evening paper. This stanza comes about halfway through:

Ring! ring the bells, and bring
The people to see the marrying!
Let the gaunt and hungry and ragged poor
Throng round the great cathedral door,
To wonder what all the hubbub's for,
    And sometimes stupidly wonder
At so much sunshine and brightness which
Fall from the church upon the rich,
    While the poor get all the thunder.

The wealthy and influential family of the new Mrs. Oviedo had been annoyed by the press coverage of the wedding. As one newspaper put it, Stedman's poem was the straw that broke the camel's back. When her father (a former Navy lieutenant/captain named Washington A. Bartlett) expressed his rage, Stedman did not deny he wrote the poem. Captain Bartlett called it a "gross libel" full of "licentious allusions." Stedman's immediate response was to defend the humor of the poem; he refused the apology demanded of him. A duel was threatened and, for a time, Stedman sincerely feared for his life. The threat was never carried out.

Only a few years later, during the Civil War, Stedman and Bartlett crossed paths. Stedman now admitted it was his "careless pen" that led to the poem. Bartlett noted that "in a time of public grief, private differences may well be forgotten." And so was "The Diamond Wedding," though it forever remained Stedman's most (in)famous poem.

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