Victorian Poetry 43.2 (2005) 189-204
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Edmund Clarence Stedman's Black Atlantic
Like Matthew Arnold, of whose commanding precedent he was only too well aware, Edmund Clarence Stedman began his literary career as a poet only to refashion himself at midlife, quite successfully, as a critic. Stedman's breakthrough work in criticism, his 1875 survey of the Victorian Poets, went through at least fifteen editions before the end of the century, including a major updating in 1887, the year of Victoria's Jubilee; by 1895, Stedman could claim—in the introduction to his massive new anthology of British Victorian poetry—that the circulation of his Victorian Poets had popularized, if not coined outright, the adjective "Victorian" as what he called the "master epithet" of a master age in "England's intellectual activity."1 Stedman's follow-up volume to Victorian Poets, his 1885 Poets of America, launched into circulation another critical master term that may strike us today as more prescient still: there Stedman declared that his survey of American writers was "formulated [in] . . . consideration of the transatlantic field" of nineteenth-century Anglo-American poetry.2
His two great anthologies, A Victorian Anthology and its successor An American Anthology (1900), expressed in a different way Stedman's organization of Anglo-Victorian poetry as a broadly interrelated field. As the Atlantic Monthly observed of An American Anthology, Stedman's editorial practice was "distinctly influenced by the modern evolutionary conception of the history of literature"; "not content . . . with the triangulation of the peaks," Stedman remained interested in "whatever is significant in the detail of the contour."3 Like Victorian Poets, which "remains one of the most inclusive pieces of research ever to map English poetry published between the mid-1830s and mid-1870s" (Bristow, p. 91), A Victorian Anthology and An American Anthology together remain striking today not only for the sheer range of their contents (including their relative generosity to Stedman's contemporaries among women writers), but also as anthologies oriented to scenes of cultural transmission rather than to autochthonous myths of national literatures.4 Stedman's comparative and "evolutionary" transatlantic perspective, along with his troubled awareness of the tensions between American sectionalism and American nationalism in the post-Civil War United States, shaped his [End Page 189] representation of British literature: A Victorian Anthology was the first major anthology of nineteenth-century British poetry or British literature to feature selections from "colonial poets," and the problem of American regionalism seems to have made Stedman conscious of Great Britain's nearer divisions—its avowedly Scottish and Irish poets—as well.5
Although his professional lines were well set in criticism and editing by the 1890s, Stedman made a small return to poetry between the publication of A Victorian Anthology and An American Anthology: a volume of Stedman's fugitive and occasional verse, Poems Now First Collected, appeared from Houghton Mifflin in 1897. This otherwise miscellaneous volume closes with two interrelated sections: "The Carib Sea," a sequence of fifteen lyrics and ballads on Stedman's extended voyage to the Caribbean Islands in 1892, followed by "Ariel," a longer poem—written while Stedman was still at sea, returning from the Caribbean—marking the centenary of Percy Bysshe Shelley's birth. By the 1880s and 1890s, as Joseph Bristow observes, "an explicitly spatial understanding of 'Victorian' would lend the term expressly global range," both in Stedman's work and among British critics of Victorian literature; "on this view Victorian poetry not only embodied the age but also possessed the agency to direct the era's imperial prospects" (Bristow, pp. 96, 97). My intention in this essay is to explore how the transatlantic poetic field that Stedman dubbed "Victorian" in his critical work and helped bring into being with his anthologies informs his sequence on the Caribbean, published as the United States was on the verge of the intervention in Cuba and the Philippines that would soon become known popularly as the Spanish-American War and—to later U.S. historiography—as the opening of "the American Century."
Formally, "The Carib Sea" is a high Victorian...