Founders of Our Literature: James Brunton Stephens

There is an important centenary to celebrate next year. On June 17, 1835, was born James Brunton Stephens, one of our earliest poets, and one whose rich imagery thrills Australian readers today.

Stephens was a Scot and an Edinburgh University man. He adopted teaching as a profession, seemingly because he liked it, but he discovered early that it did not fill his life. Such a colorful mind was shaded in the land of his birth, and there was an unconscious yearning for a richer background. Accordingly at the age of 31 he landed in Brisbane, and Queensland claimed him for the rest of his life.

In that land of sunshine he found just the background that he needed. He pursued teaching as a profession, but the sunlight wakened a rich mind, and his pen began to write poetry colored with the reds and greens of a sunny land.

Linger, O Sun, for a little, nor close yet this day of a million!
   Is there not glory enough in the rose-curtained halls of the West?
Hast thou no joy in the passion-hued folds of thy kingly pavilion?
   Why shouldst thou only pass through it? Oh, rest thee a little while, rest!
Rest thee at least a brief hour in it! 'Tis a right royal pavilion.
   Lo, there are thrones for high dalliance, and gloriously canopied o'er!
Lo, there are hangings of purple, and hangings of blue and vermillion,
   And there are fleeces of gold for thy feet on the diapered floor!

Stephens taught private pupils in Queensland, both in the city and the bush. "Convict Once," by which he is probably best remembered, and of which the foregoing is an extract, was written in the bush as can easily be imagined, for it is only there that Nature fully reveals herself.

Seven years after his arrival in Queensland he joined the Education Department and became a headmaster. His poems brought him many friends and admirers, and after 10 years of State school teaching he was drafted into the Colonial Secretary's Office. He was chief clerk and acting under-secretary when he died on June 29, 1902.

A rather commonplace life for one so susceptible to color, but Stephens had two sides to him. All his unusualness came out in his poetry. That which was commonplace -- and all of us have some of it -- went into his job. In these circumstances one can imagine James Brunton Stephens a happy man living a life well sorted out and even meticulously catalogued.

A great deal of emotion went into the writing of "Convict Once," which is a very long poem. It contains most of his best work. Fortunately or unfortunately, he possessed a keen sense of humour, which he displayed in his "Chinee Cook" verses which have been recited by humorists all over Australia and are probably still recited.

"Convict Once" was not published first in Australia. It is a tribute to its quality that a London publisher found merit in it and brought it out in 1871. It has since been reprinted here, and the poet has come to be regarded as one of Australia's literary pioneers.

Curiously enough, the most patriotic, or perhaps, the most readable patriotic odes ever written in Australia came from Queensland. Both Brunton Stephens and George Essex Evans wrote odes to Federation, and did them extremely well -- so well, in fact, that they are still associated by many readers with our first step in nationhood. Stephens as far back as 1877 forecast Australia's Federation and Dominion status in lines which are beautiful and apt:-

She is not yet; but he whose ear
Thrills to that finer atmosphere,
   Where footfalls of appointed things,
      Reverberant of days to be,
   Are heard in forecast echoings,
      Like wave-beats from a viewless sea,
Hears in the voiceful tremor of the sky
Auroral heralds whispering, "She is nigh."

Who could do it better than that?

Stephens probably wrote the first Australian Anthem, and the lines are good. The sentiment is excellent, but the tune is obviously that of "God Save the King," and Australians are original enough to want a national song of their own.

Who among his contemporaries, not knowing who he was, would have sensed in this dry-as-dust public servant a poet of romance and color? None, possibly, but the color and romance were there, and they persist long after the brain which saw and recorded them ceased to work.

First published in The Herald, 14 July 1934

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on March 28, 2008 9:07 AM.

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