Reprint: Fifty Years of Brunton Stephens

| No TrackBacks

Fifty years ago James Brunton Stephens, destined to become famous in later years as Queensland's greatest poet, and one of the most charming writers of official despatches and newspaper specialities that Australia has ever had, published his first book of poetry, entitled "Convict Once." Up to that time Australia had produced little creative artistic work; in fact, the same applied to the other parts of the British colonies, as they were then called. Gordon, dead a few months before "Convict Once" was published, had laid the foundation of what subsequently became a particular school of poetry; Kendall, struggling against black adversity, had written the first of his arcadian gems; "Rolf Boldrewood" was writing "The   Squatter's Dream" as a serial for the old ''Town and Country Journal"; and Marcus Clarke was completing the last chapters of "For the Term of his Natural Life" for the old "Australian Journal." A few other writers were struggling for expression, but, in the main, the work was not above mediocrity. Even the brilliant Kendall and the erratic Gordon, like Deniehy, Harpur, and other poetic pioneers, had found little encouragement for their artistic souls. Brunton Stephens, a Scotsman by birth, and educated at Edinburgh University, arrived in Queensland in the year 1866, and spent nearly six years as tutor at Tamrockum station, on the Logan River, where he wrote his famous poem, "Convict Once," and many other verses. Though "Convict Once" was his first published poem, there is hardly any doubt that it was also his greatest, because the poems of his later years never eclipsed the grandeur, the beauty, and the dramatic continuity which runs throughout the exultant, yet heart-broken, cry of the woman who was freed from a seven years' transportation, and then despairingly realised that the world for her was a lonely, homeless blank. The poem, of course, will never be so popular as his humorous and miscellaneous pieces, such as, for instance, "Marsupial Bill," which,     when published in a Christmas number of the "Queenslander," became the literary event of the year in Australia. Few poets in the English language have handled the difficulties of hexameter verse so effectively as Brunton Stephens did in "Convict Once'' but it seems a pity that, fine classical scholar as he was, he did not follow the example of some of the tragic writers of Athens and vary the heroic measures with short lyrical metres, as Tennyson did in "Maud." Had he done so "Convict Once" would have claimed its place among the really great epics of the nineteenth century, and would have been worthy even of Swinburne himself, who exercised such an influence overour Queensland poet.

The most astonishing feature about Brunton Stephens was his amazing versatilty. Whether he dipped for his inspiration into classics, into mediaeval lore, or into philosopical or political subjects, and whether he treated them in the heroic grandeur of ancient Greece, as in "Convict Once," in the beautiful lyrical sweetness of "Fayette," in the frolicsome banter of "The Godolphin Arabian," or in the exquisite humour of "Stenograms," which was such a delightful feature of the "Queenslander," to which he contributed under the name of "Allegretto," the reader is always conscious of being in the presence of a highly-cultured, keenly observant, and kind-hearted genius. Nothing could illustrate more thoroughly the   versatility of a poet who could turn from the passionate love and the fierce untamed defiance of the strong-willed woman in "Convict Once" to the circus adventures of a Barbary thoroughbred, or to the humorous subtleties of a Chinese cook.  The reader may take up a volume of Brunton Stephens' poems and be charmed in one page with lyrics as sweet as those of Longfellow, grow sympathetic in another page with epic grandeur that would not be unworthy of a place in Swin-burne, and laugh hilariously in still another with banter in the facile metre of Byron's "Don Juan." He was writing in the days of some of England's literary giants, yet his fame spread across the oceans, and in one famous gazetteer, published by a celebrated firm, the single reference to the city of Brisbane is "The home of Brunton Stephens." Could poet ask for greater fame? Unlike Kendall, allowed almost to starve until relieved by Sir Henry Parkes a couple of years before Kendall's death, Brunton Stephens had not to contend against heart-breaking disappointment and uncertainty. For years he filled a trusted and important office in the Department of the Chief Secretary, and if that did not mean liberty and affluence, at least it placed him above that pessimism which springs from hardship and poverty. On the whole, his country treated him better than George Essex Evans, the singer of a later date. Most of our poets have found inspiration at one time or another in the future destiny of Australia, but none have handled the subject with the literary skill, the artistry, the foresight, and the prophetic vision of Brunton Stephens. He does not expend his force on its delightful valleys, on its long mountain range, on its endless miles of sand, or in the beauty of some harbour scenery. Brunton Stephens touches the human aspect, realises the aspirations of the people, dips into the future "where footfalls of appointed things, reverberant of days to be, are heard in forecast echoings, like wave-beats from a viewless sea," and sings of the Australian Dominion. His forecast was written nearly thirty-five years before Federation was consummated, and was pitched in the noblest key of patriotic and prophetic fervour. The prediction has been fulfilled, and the glory is being achieved.

Among the patriotic gems must be included that beautiful contrast which was inspired by an ancient Roman coin bearing the image and superscription of the Imperial Trajan on his throne. After moralising over the vicissitudes of that "glory-tissued vision" of pictured history, the poet thunders aloud that --  

   This is the only land beneath heaven's roof
   Where never yet hath manhood bent the knee
   To man --- the one sole continent whose sod
   The foot of regnant knighthood ne'er hath trod.

Brunton Stephens, however, with that prevision that characterises so much of his writings, uttered a warning note, which has become very appropriate in this democratic, yet distinctly proud, age, when he went on to sing:

   Is there among us aught that justifies
   The scorn of ancient things? Can we repeal
   The union 'twixt the present and the past,
   And place ourselves as first whom God made last?

In estimating the merits of Brunton Stephens, as well as our other writers, it must not be forgotten that both verse and prose are often beaten out at white heat for the daily Press, which waits neither for polish nor final touch. Just as our wines -- admittedly the best in the world -- often suffer from want of maturity, so the efforts of our writers have suffered to a considerable extent because the authors have lacked the time in which to polish them. Brunton Stephens, despite that handicap -- the handicap of every busy man -- produced both verse and prose that touch the high-water mark of literary excellence, whilst his official documents, written at a time when charm of diction meant even more than it does to-day, are worthy of a place with those of the most cultured officials of the Colonial Office. It is just fifty years since Brunton Stephens published his first poem, yet we believe that his fame to-day is greater as an Australian poet than it was a score of years ago, and also that according as Queensland progresses into that splendid future predicted for her, so shall her people hail Brunton Stephens as the father and the master of her song. 

First published in The Queenslander, 5 February 1921

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

The subject of this essay is J. Brunton Stephens (1835-1902).

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL:

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on April 29, 2011 10:23 AM.

Australian Literary Monuments #28 - John Shaw Neilson was the previous entry in this blog.

Poem: Brunton Stephens by George Essex Evans is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Monthly Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.23-en