"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, August 12, 2013

William Nathan Stedman, Poet Laureate of The Weird

The Champion of Protestantism

As any quick skim through literary magazines will prove, anybody can be a bad poet. It takes special genius to be a uniquely, memorably bad one. And when you happen to find such a person who is also a deranged crank, political malcontent, stalker of female novelists, and con man with a fondness for ingenious invective, well, all a blogger can say is, "William Nathan Stedman, come on down!"

When I first discovered the subject of this post, I learned, to my great joy, that Stedman also plagiarized from Edgar Allan Poe. Ladies and gentlemen, here is “The Bells,” Stedman style:

“The Bell! Ah, yes, the bell,
What fate may it foretell?
Birth, death, marriage, dinner,
News—for saint or sinner:
The youth in office, lanky grown,
Is rung up on the telephone.
The young man on commercial trip
Knows that it signals through the ship
From start to finish life is largely hung with bells,
And in them sounds quick summonses and funeral knells.”

He carried on the theme in another masterpiece:
"Ring, ingle, dang, dong
My hard iron song
In the old belfry sung.
Dong, dangle, ring, ding
With flustering wing
Sped by each iron tongue.
Ring, ding, ding, ring, ring, ding, dang, dong.
Ring, ding, dang, dong.
Ding, dang, dong.
Dang, dong.
D-O-N-G."

Stedman’s most famous lines are:

“And where upon your dainty breast I lay
My wearied head—more soft than eiderdown.”

But I personally think Stedman outdid even himself with this one:

“The mongrel has the snarling sauce to sneer
His ‘own idears’ ‘gainst Truth: the gas to rear
Big pronoun talk, so full of ‘I’s that he
Seems like a bad potato, which can’t see
That ‘I’s are no eyes when bunged up with ‘me.’”

Or:

“To tea! And tête-à-tête! The snowdrop white
With Mephistopheles just face to face!
…O it was marvelous! Comparison
Doth please my dext’rous mind, my poet’s wit,
He and she! He—a corpse—in unison
With ‘fame’ and ‘tea,’—just She and he and ‘it’
I stay to think, to frown at him—and SPIT.”
Stedman was a man of many varied obsessions. One was that lurid, immensely popular novelist, Marie Corelli, whom he called “Queen Marie,” and his “Bride Elect.” (The two of them, alas, never met, although Stedman saw that as no obstacle in his plans to marry her.) He gallantly dismissed her plentiful amount of detractors as “white-livered parsons,” "bottle-nosed editors," "pawnshop reviewers," “hatchet-faced scribblers,” “grub-street lepers,” “syphilis-veined critics,” “scrofulous swine-hounds” and “bull-browed bastards.” In a poem about Corelli, he declared, “My lance against the world for its Greatest Lady…Any Man, Beast, or Buffoon want SMASHING?” He elsewhere threatened to send “one of my 7-foot Zulus” after her critics “with his sjambok and FULL INSTRUCTIONS WHAT TO DO.”

Among his many poetic tributes to the Bride Elect were the lines:
"I've heard men say--one said it to my face--
'Think what she know, and what she writes about'
I laughed aloud, at merry gleesome pace,
Which made him stare, and then retorted, 'Lout
Wouldst measure wit with her? Heyday!
As well compare thy dullard self and mind
Against the sun.'"
He was not particularly tolerant of his own critics and poetic rivals, either. (“I know that I have MORE clean sound sense in my backside than is in all the squirming lot of these Foul Slugs.”)

The Bride Elect


Stedman was, to put it delicately, a man of strong religious convictions. (“Perchance within my countenance thou’lt see/The shade of Him, The Man of Galilee.”) He believed that "the only way, and the best, sometimes, to convince a fool that the power of God is in you is to knock him down first and reason with him afterwards."  Knock them down he did, although the quality of reason seemed memorably absent.  Fittingly for someone who billed himself as “The Great Champion of Protestantism,” he loathed Roman Catholicism. Here is a sample of what he had to say about the Vatican:

“I’ve read the histories of all mankind,
Yet do I swear that I could never find
Such guilty guilt as stinks in gilded Rome:
Nor crafty craft as creeps beneath her dome.
I’ve travelled earth and sea, yet never seen
Such crimson sin as ‘Her who sits a Queen.’
The brain of man can not conceive a sin
Which SHE’S not done, abroad, without, within—
Still reeling DRUNK—SHE’S ‘ready to begin.’”

However, there was no one or nothing Stedman despised more than William Ewart Gladstone, whom he denounced as being not only Jack the Ripper, but the Great Beast described in the Book of Revelations—not to mention “a protoplasm from the abyss of nowhere” “smelling of satanic gloze.” (Anyone disagreeing with this assessment was dismissed as "a silly hump-backed, boss-eyed, slobbering and ghastly IDIOT.")  Evidently, Stedman saw Gladstone as a secret foe of “the true religion,” for reasons that had something to do with Gladstone’s promotion of Home Rule for Ireland.  (Stedman liked to boast that he had rejected an offer to become Poet Laureate, as "The beautiful gift of poetical genius was ever intended for the service of God and not for prostitution to mammon, not for the antics of a court-paid wee-piping buffoon."  I for one think he would have been an excellent choice for the role.  Considering their similar views about Gladstone, he and Queen Victoria would have gotten along famously.)

Amazingly, Stedman’s poetry was among his lesser literary crimes. A researcher in the British Library recently dug up the charming information that Stedman was involved in what this writer described as “one of the most notorious literary swindles of the 1890s.” He co-created various utterly bogus vanity presses, literary agencies, and a God-knows-what called “The International Society of Literature, Science, and Art.” Aspiring writers and artists would give Stedman and his cohorts sizable “entrance fees,” and “subscription fees,” in the expectation of getting their work sold. A contemporary article in the New York Times noted, “A large number of persons were thus despoiled, losing everything they put in the societies, and getting absolutely nothing in return.” This wholesale fraud earned Stedman a stretch of fifteen months of hard labor.  (For anyone morbidly curious enough to want further details, the record of his trial at the Old Bailey can be found here.)

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any more biographical information about this splendid lunatic. He was born around 1861. At some point after his release from prison, he relocated to Australia, but eventually returned to England. His last published work, “Sky Blue Ballads,” came out in 1916, and it is assumed he died soon afterwards.

Although he once assured us that Lord Salisbury and Queen Alexandra were great admirers of his, Stedman added that it was only “the beautiful gilt-edged programme of extra-superfine double-action donkey-power ignorance” that kept his verses from the worldwide acclaim they so truly deserved. I hope this blog post plays some minor part in rescuing this astonishing character from obscurity.

[A footnote: Many thanks to the British Library blog Untold Lives for introducing me to the Wonders of Stedman.  I hope they don't object that I took the subject and ran with it, so to speak.]

1 comment:

  1. wow. I think the ´Ring ingle dang dong´ poem is my favourite, along with 'extra super fine double-action donkey-power ignorance' as a phrase.

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