STEPHENS, James Brunton (1835-1902)

STEPHENS, James Brunton (1835-1902)
was born at Borrowstounness, on the Firth of Forth, on 17 June 1835. His father, John Stephens, was the parish schoolmaster, and the boy was educated at his father's school and at Edinburgh university. Three years were then passed as a travelling tutor on the continent, which was followed by a period of school teaching in Scotland. In 1866 he migrated to Queensland for reasons of health. He was a tutor with the family of a squatter for some time and in 1873 entered the Queensland education department. He had experience as a teacher at Stanthorpe and was afterwards in charge of the school at Ashgrove, near Brisbane. Representations were then made to the premier, Sir Thomas McIlwraith, that a man of Stephens's ability was being wasted in a small school, and in 1883 a position was found for him as a correspondence clerk in the colonial secretary's department. He afterwards rose to be undersecretary to the chief secretary's department. Before coming to Australia Stephens had done a little writing for popular magazines, and in 1871 his first volume of poems, Convict Once, was published by Macmillan and Company, which immediately proclaimed him to be an Australian poet of importance. Two years later a long poem, The Godolphin Arabian, was published. These were followed by The Black Gin and other Poems, 1873, and Miscellaneous Poems, 1880. The first collected edition of his poems was published in 1885, others followed in 1888, 1902 and 1912. Of these the 1902 edition is the most complete. After Stephens entered the colonial secretary's department in 1883 he was unable to do much literary work though he wrote occasionally for the press. He was suffering for some time from angina pectoris before his sudden death on 29 June 1902. He married in 1876, Rosalie Donaldson, who survived him with four daughters and one son.
Stephens was a somewhat spare man of medium height "with the face of a poet". Simple and natural in manner, modest about his own work, he hated anything in the nature of lionizing. His over-sensitiveness to the sufferings of others made it difficult for him to resist appeals for charity to the extent of injuring his own fortunes. He was a charming companion in congenial company, sometimes exuberant and full of humour, though occasionally the pendulum swung the other way. His sense of duty kept him working during his last illness to the end. No doubt his official papers exercised his literary talent, but it was not the best preparation for poetry of which he wrote little in later years. However, though new men were arising, he remained the representative man of letters in Australia until his death. His witty and humorous light verse is very good. Despite all changes of fashion, such poems as "The Power of Science" and "My other Chinese Cook", can still evoke laughter. The Godolphin Arabian in the metre and style of Byron's Beppo goes on its pleasant rhyming way for about three thousand lines and can still be read, but as it is not included in any collected edition, will be forgotten. Convict Once, remains one of the few long Australian poems of merit, technically it is a lesson to those writers who think it is easy to write in a long metre. Much of his other verse is admirable in its simplicity and dignity. He remained a Briton and there is little trace of his adopted country in his poetry, but his poems on federation "The Dominion of Australia" and "The Dominion" have the restrained enthusiasm that belongs to true patriotism. Possibly if there had been less restraint and more of the surge of emotion, Stephens might have been a better poet, but his place among nineteenth century Australian men of letters will always be an honoured one. Apart from his poetry, he published a readable short novel, A Hundred Pounds, the libretto of an opera, and a few poetry pamphlets not already mentioned are listed in Serle's Bibliography of Australasian Poetry and Verse.
The Brisbane Courier, 30 June 1902; F. K. The Bulletin, 3 September, 1903; J. Howlett-Ross, Miles, Poets and Poetry of the Century, vol. 9; H. A. Kellow, Queensland Poets.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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  • James Brunton Stephens — (17 June 1835 – 29 June 1902) was a Scottish born Australian poet, author of Convict Once .Early lifeStephens was born at Borrowstounness, on the Firth of Forth; the son of John Stephens, the parish schoolmaster. Stephens the younger was educated …   Wikipedia

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