Poems of James Stephens By Prof. Adrian Frazier

Adrian Frazier is a graduate of Pomona College (BA 1971), Trinity College Dublin (Diploma in Anglo Irish Literature, 1973), and Washington University in St. Louis (MA 1976; Ph.D 1979). He has been on the faculty at Nanjing Teachers University (1979-81), Union College in New York (1981-2000), and the National University of Ireland at Galway (2000-), where he is the Director of the MA in Drama and Theatre Studies and the MA in Writing He has published on Irish poetry, drama, and fiction of the 20th century.

Adrian Frazier’s current teaching at NUI Galway includes courses in the history of the sonnet, Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Irish literary revival, Irish drama, creative nonfiction, and reviewing. His research interests take in biography, nonfiction, literary history, the teaching of writing, 20 th century literature, Irish fiction, poetry, and drama, contemporary poetry, movies of ’Golden Age of Cinema,’ John Ford, W. B. Yeats, George Moore, J. M. Synge, and critical approaches rooted in Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, and Darwin. Enquiries about postdoctoral work on any of these areas are welcome.

Poems of James Stephens

By Prof. Adrian Frazier

From: English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920  Volume 52, Number 1, 2009 , pp. 112-114 | 10.1353/elt.0.0028
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The Irish author James Stephens (1882–1950) is most famous for his novel, The Crock of Gold (1912), a children’s classic, and in its time a mighty influence on the fiction of Eimar O’Duffy, Austin Clarke, and Flann O’Brien. Stephens wrote a number of other novels too, The Charwoman’s Daughter (a nice combination of romance and realism), Deirdre, and Here Are Ladies among them. His 1916 volume The Insurrection in Dublin is a valuable piece of reportage. He possessed remarkable verbal dexterity and was a brilliant impromptu raconteur. George Moore paid Stephens to improve the Hiberno-English flavor of A Story Teller’s Holiday and Ulick and Soracha. But what Stephens most wanted to be was a poet.

As A. Norman Jeffares explains in his excellent biographical introduction to this edition of Stephens’s poetry, he was not, as sometimes mistakenly assumed, an Irish Catholic peasant. Like O’Casey, he was born into an unpropertied Dublin Protestant family, son of a vanman, and was sent to Meath Industrial School. Employed as a scrivener and clerk by solicitors, he aspired to authorship.

In terms of style, his early verses are in harmony with the inheritance of nineteenth-century English poetry. From Insurrections (1909), “Nature” echoes In Memoriam, 56; “The Whisperer” whispers forms and themes of Thomas Hardy; “Hate” is one of Stephens’s many rewritings of Blake’s “Poison Tree”; stabs at monologues à la Robert Browning abound; “A Prelude and a Song” runs very close to Keats in imagery and diction. Apart from personal names, little of the poetry in Stephens’s first collection is Irish in any way; stylistically, it is an exercise book.

The poet’s attitude to life is that of a lapsed Christian. He angrily suspects that God (“the Power that frowns along the sky”) is not godly, and that what is called evil is just as good as good. He bounced back and forth between the Protestant Bible and Blake’s bible of hell.

In his second collection, The Hill of Vision (1912), some of the influences drop away, and the subjects of the poems are more explicitly attributed to Irish sources. Browning remains a guide, as in “Nora Criona.” Here are the last four of the eight stanzas, with the English poet’s signature morbid twist:

For I love him, and I seek,
Every evening of the week,

To peep behind his frowning eye
With little query, little pry,

And make him, if a woman can,
Happier than any man.

—Yesterday he gripped her tight
And cut her throat. And serve her right!

The other enduring influence is that of Blake. “Secrets,” for instance, moves from its opening—

When I was young I used to think,
That every eye peered through a chink,

to its conclusion by way of Stephens’s own little “auguries of innocence”:

And though I’m older still I see
In every face a mystery.

In “Songs from the Clay” (1915), his third collection, Stephens cultivates the childlike, naïve, sometimes almost blankly idiotic tone of Songs of Innocence. “The Masterless Man” (109) is an example that does not work. The simple visionary exclamations of his poem to AE (a friend and mentor), “The End of the Road,” are better:

This is a thing is true,
Everything comes to an end!
The loving of me and you,
The walking of friend and friend!

The child and the mother will die!
The wife and the husband sever!
The sun will go out of the sky!
The rain will be falling for ever!

For ever! Until the waves rear
To the skies, with a terrible tune!
And cover the earth and the air!
And wash up the beach of the moon!

Then go, for all things must end!
And this is true, as I say—
A friend will be leaving a friend!
And a man will be going away!

For once, his frequent overreliance upon the exclamation mark is a significant enhancement of the poem.

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