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  • E. C. Stedman and the Invention of Victorian Poetry
  • Michael Cohen (bio)

Critics Have Long Despised "The Genteel Tradition" of the American nineteenth century. According to the vast majority of American literary histories written since 1915 (when Van Wyck Brooks published his polemic America's Coming of Age), the genteel tradition (and nineteenth-century America more generally) derived its poetic norms and ideals from the forms, imagery, and language of foreign sources, and it expressed a sentimental, bourgeois ideology at odds with the subversive work of truly great American writers. Only after the liberating Modernist revolution of the early twentieth century would America have its own poetic tradition. As Andrew DuBois and Frank Lentricchia tell the story, "to many appreciative American readers at the end of the nineteenth century," the genteel writers

were synonymous with poetry. Other readers—Eliot, Frost, and especially Pound among them—saw things differently, saw these displaced late Victorians, this genteel cabal, filling the day's major magazines of culture, saw these fat old hens styling themselves as wise old owls . . . saw these men squatting out the inadequate eggs of the day, their boring poems. Against this intolerable situation, the modernists made their attack. When the feathers finally settled, a handful of expatriates and the scattered nativist and homebody had already proved that the young century might be an American century, for poetry at least. . . . The day was won by this historical movement, this modernism.1

The Modernists, then, resented not only the "boring poems" of the genteel writers but more significantly the cultural control they exercised, and by breaking the power of this "cabal," Modernism effected much more than a revolution in taste. In other words, the key target of Modernist rage was not genteel poems but genteel poetics, a system of "values," which DuBois and Lentricchia indict without really specifying. But the phrase "displaced late Victorians" is telling: not only do the genteel poets hold on to a set of values hopelessly out of date (hence "late"), they also mistakenly endorse a tradition that is not even theirs (hence they are "displaced Victorians"). Looking to Britain, the Victorian American "cabal" endorsed a sense of American poetry [End Page 165] that only (and weakly) met the terms of a foreign poetics, and in so doing they missed the vital work being created at home, so that only in the twentieth century would the real American literature (Walden, Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass) be recognized. Besides being generally incorrect, this thesis fails to acknowledge an important implication of its terms, namely that "looking eastward" from America might be creative and productive as well as derivative. Americans did not look eastward to an autonomous or pre-existent field or discourse of Victorian poetry; rather, their looking eastward called that field into being. In other words, Americans did look to Britain during the Victorian era, but these Americans did not imitate, they created Victorian poetry. Rather than merely adopting pre-existing British poetic models as paradigms for American poetry, American writers helped to create those models by theorizing and defining Victorian poetry.2

The first modern critical work on the field—the first work to treat nineteenth-century British poetry as a field, separate and separable from the poetry of earlier times and places—was Edmund Clarence Stedman's 1875 Victorian Poets. Shortly after its publication, Stedman wrote to Moncure Conway that "it is the first attempt thus far to survey the whole course of recent British poetry, from the rise of Tennyson, down to the latest aspirants, upon a consistent method—with analysis of the period, etc., etc., including careful study into both the works and the lives of the leading poets."3 Not only was it the first professional book on the subject, prior to it "the prefix 'Victorian' had not previously become familiar" (LL, p. 1; emphasis in the text). And while Victoria would reign nearly thirty more years, Stedman emphasized that he had been led "to complete the present work" because "I saw that what I term the Victorian period is nearly at an end, and that no consecutive and synthetic examination of its schools and leaders had yet been made."4 The striking...


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