November 6, 2013

Victorian poets: sing more sweetly there

I am very glad to have a copy of your " Victorian Anthology." It is another monument to your learning, judgment, and taste. You certainly have done great service to the Victorian Age and to its bards. I had no idea there were so many singers—but the woods of England are full of birds and the birds sing more sweetly there than anywhere else.

Above is the letter from poet William Winter to editor Edmund Clarence Stedman, November 6, 1895. The book in question, Victorian Poets, was one of several editions of compilations; originally published in 1875, it had a companion in Stedman's popular anthology of American poets. The book was more than just a compilation, however, as it included lengthy discussions of the poets, their verses, and the period. These sorts of critical anthologies, and a few others, helped Stedman earn a place as the preeminent scholar of poetry by the turn of the century. His books regularly went into 30th editions and beyond. Fellow anthologist and poet Richard Henry Stoddard called his work "the most important contribution ever made by an American writer to the critical literature of the English poets."

But Stedman also took an odd step backward in the development and understanding of American poetry. Some 50 years earlier, Rufus Wilmot Griswold had established himself in the similar role of the arbiter of poetic taste and he clearly emphasized a need to improve American poetry, to celebrate distinctly American topics, and to overtake the assumption that English writers were inherently superior. Stedman reversed that, as Winter's letter shows.

To his credit, Stedman was open-minded and broad in his assessment. He considered somewhat controversial poets like Algernon Charles Swinburne, newer poets like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and several women poets like the politically charged Augusta Webster. Perhaps most importantly, Stedman was able to establish the term for the period, the Victorian period, as the accepted term.

No comments:

Post a Comment