Worse than McGonagall? The poems of William Nathan Stedman
It’s safe to say that not many people are familiar with the poems of William Nathan Stedman. Like William McGonagall, however, he does have a certain notoriety among connoisseurs of really bad verse. His best-known lines appear in one of his sonnets – ‘And when upon your dainty breast I lay / My wearied head, more soft than eiderdown’ – but if I had to pick one specimen of his poetic oeuvre, it would be ‘Bells’, a particular favourite of Stedman’s which, he claimed, had been ‘recited by myself many times, before large and critical audiences’:
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.
Like other unsuccessful poets, Stedman blamed his failure on the critics, ‘a clique of unmitigated scoundrels, fools, would-be-somebodies, white-livered parsons, hatchet-faced scribblers, grub-street lepers, bottle-nosed editors, pawnshop reviewers, syphilis-veined critics and bull-browed bastards’. However, his special venom was reserved for the former Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, who he believed to be both Jack the Ripper and the Great Beast (666) foretold in the Book of Revelation.
It was this that drew Stedman’s writings to the attention of Herbert Gladstone, son of the Great Beast and Home Secretary under Asquith. Alarmed by the violent language of Stedman’s Antichrist and the Man of Sin (1909), Gladstone wrote to Sir Melville Macnaghten, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, requesting a confidential investigation. The subsequent police report, which survives today among the Gladstone Papers in the British Library, revealed a fascinating story. Stedman, it turned out, had been involved in one of the most notorious literary swindles of the 1890s, as secretary to a series of fraudulent joint-stock companies including the City of London Publishing Company (a vanity press), the Authors Alliance (a bogus literary agency), and the International Society of Literature, Science and Art, which charged its members the sum of eight guineas for the privilege of putting the letters FSL after their name and wearing a special hood and gown on formal occasions. For his part in these schemes, Stedman had been convicted of fraud at the Old Bailey in September 1892 and sentenced to fifteen months’ hard labour.
Gladstone and Macnaghten concluded that Stedman was a harmless crank rather than a dangerous lunatic, and agreed to take no further action. Stedman went on writing poetry, and the British Library holds several of his later productions, including ‘His Majesty the King’, an attack on Irish Home Rule in Shakespearian blank verse:
Ireland is beautiful, in spite of bogs,
And holds her own great natural ‘vantages.
Hard-headed businessmen of State proclaim
That many parts of Ireland should be drained,
So that the soil in part be put to plough,
In part to build, and railways opened up.
I see the busy hum of factories,
And giant engines groaning in their strength.
Harbours arise; the Mercantile Marine
Finds many ports round Ireland’s rugged coasts.
If landowners will but begin their work,
The Government its duty will not shirk.
Nicholas Parsons, in The Joy of Bad Verse (1988), sums up Stedman’s poetry as ‘completely unhinged’. But it is only fair to leave the last word to Stedman himself, who remained serenely confident that despite ‘all the beautiful gilt-edged programme of extra-superfine double-action donkey-power ignorance’, his true poetic genius would one day be recognised.
Curator, Modern Historical Manuscripts