James Brunton Stephens

James Brunton Stephens (1835-1902)

Queensland’s first substantial poet.

No early Queensland poet seems more out of touch with contemporary values than James Brunton Stephens. But in his time he James Brunton Stephenswas easily Queensland’s best known poet, and one of the most popular in Australia.

Stephens was born in Scotland in 1835, and educated at the University of Edinburgh. He worked as a teacher and tutor, traveling extensively through Europe and north Africa before migrating to Australia in 1866 on an assisted passage. He settled in Brisbane, then a town of 13,000. In the words of his biographer:

‘To this new, sprawling, vigorous, depressed, independent, uncultivated town Stephens brought a considerable fund of education, intelligence, and experience of people and places’. [1]

He didn’t stay in Brisbane long, however. He took a tutoring post at a cattle station some 100 kilometres south of Brisbane and supplemented his income by publishing poetry. He published 6 books of verse between 1871 and 1881.

His poems show the preoccupations and prejudices of his day. ‘The Famine in Ireland’ is not so much concerned with the plight of the starving as with encouraging migration to ‘Queensland’s, Australia’s opportunity!’. ‘The Gentle Anarchist’  portrays an anarchist who ‘wouldn’t hurt a fly’ but who would ‘Blow Parliament sky high’.

It is in the race poems that Stephens is seen at his worst. ‘To a Black Gin’ which is discussed elsewhere on this web site is the most notorious of them. But it is not the only one. ‘My Chinee Cook’ features an excellent Chinese station cook who turns out to be a jewel thief.  ‘My other Chinee Cook’, is a sequel. It tells the story of a different kind of Chinese cook: ‘he was lazy, he was cheeky, he was dirty, he was sly’. However, he cooks a delicious ‘rabbit pie’, which turns out to be made of puppies!  In a sense the joke is on the people who eat the pies, but it begins with an attitude to the cook.

However other poems show Stephens as sensitive (For my Sake, about a children’s hospital), interested in contemporary science (The Power of Science a comic take on the theory of evolution)and as engaged in the preoccupations with time and mortality of which poets in their darker moments are so fond (Cape Byron). 

Stephens the Scottish immigrant became a strong nationalist. ‘The Dominion of Australia (a Forecast) 1877’  is one of the first of a series of Federationist verses published by Stephens and other poets, which show poetry as a means of progressing public debate that we don’t see so often now.

All of his work shows a good deal of technical skill and deep learning. It is however in general too prone to the kind of 19th century poetic diction (‘empurpled ranges’, ‘boreal lustres’ etc) that scare students away from poetry if they are forced to read it at school. The poems that have been selected for this website are, it should be noted, among the simpler and more accessible examples of his work.

FAW letterBy 1881, Stephens had published most of his important poetry. He had served periods as a teacher in Brisbane and Stanthorpe before becoming the principal of the newly established Ashgrove State School. He became a public servant in the Colonial Secretary’s office and rose until he became chief clerk to the Premier (who ironically, was one of his former pupils). He worked until the day he died, at the age of 67. Plus ca change.  

Until the rise of Paterson and Lawson in the mid 1890s Stephens was one of the 2 or 3 best known poets in Australia. Many of his books were reprinted, and a number of collected and selected editions of his poetry were published between 1885 and 1925. As late as the 1960s the members of the Fellowship of Australian Writers made a pilgrimage to his grave, on certain anniversaries of his death.

Best book to buy: Stephens, J.B., Selected Poems of Brunton Stephens, Sydney, Cornstalk, 1925.

Further reading: Hadgraft, C James Brunton Stephens, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1969.

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[1]Hadgraft, C James Brunton Stephens, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1969, 51