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Victorian Poetry 40.1 (2002) 55-69

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Colonial Canons:
The Case Of James Brunton Stephens

Barbara Garlick

WHEN W. T. STEAD, PIONEERING ENGLISH EXPONENT OF THE "NEW journalism," included eleven poems by James Brunton Stephens in the 1897 Penny Poets Volume 50, he was endorsing what appeared to be an established, if sparse, colonial hierarchy of literary figures. He stated in his introductory remarks that Stephens, together with Adam Lindsay Gordon and Henry Kendall, were pre-eminent in the "luxuriant growth that clothes the slopes of the Australian Parnassus." 1 At the time of this lavish praise and recognition Stephens 2 had not published any collections of new poems for over fifteen years. Nevertheless, from his magisterial position at the other end of the world from this particular Parnassus, Stead reiterates for his largely British audience a commonly held opinion of the time, fostered in large part by journalist-critics who, though they might have had personal experience of Australia, were no longer resident there. Eleven years earlier, for instance, Arthur Patchett Martin, a London-based writer and critic, had asserted that Stephens was "the most gifted of all the writers of verse in Australia," 3 an opinion which continued to be accepted wisdom until the early years of the twentieth century. Stead also endorses the opinion of Martin and of Douglas Sladen, the widely respected editor of Australian Poets 1788-1888, in his choice of the major figures in that "luxuriant growth": Gordon, Kendall, and Stephens. 4

At the time of the publication of Stead's anthology and after nearly two decades of only minor literary activity, Stephens' reputation was thus still high, partially nurtured by a foreign critical establishment. New editions of some of his poems from the early 1870s had been published in the late 1880s, and his literary criticism and occasional journalism in daily newspapers and, sporadically, in the Bulletin "Red Page" maintained his standing in literary circles and in Australian literary culture generally at the end of the century. In addition, his daily contributions to the corpus of state documents through his position as Chief Clerk and Acting Under-Secretary in the Queensland Chief Secretary's Department earned him respect for his writing skills and intelligence. For some years after his death [End Page 55] in 1902, a year which also saw the publication of his collected poems, he continued to be widely and highly regarded as a major Australian poet.

By the 1950s, however, it is clear that "the academy began to accept a canon from which the majority of verse published in the nineteenth century was missing, and in which formerly acclaimed poets held a very minor place." 5 This has particularly held true for Stephens, unlike Gordon and Kendall who, with Charles Harpur, 6 continue to be noticed and anthologized for their supposedly authentic and distinctive "Australian voice." Stephens is harder to classify, and his position in the tradition or canon is considerably more tenuous. His work has not been republished in separate volumes since the early twentieth century 7 and is noticeably absent from major recent anthologies of Australian literature. 8 Even in more specialized anthologies of poetry he rarely makes an appearance; the occasional inclusions do not demonstrate his range or his standing at the time he was writing, but rather evince an attempt at chronological inclusiveness by the particular editor or stand as an illustration of the thematic scope of the anthology. 9 This neglect is replicated for the most part in post-World-War-Two criticism. There has only been one full-length study, Cecil Hadgraft's James Brunton Stephens, published in 1965, a largely biographical rather than critical assessment; 10 one essay by Clement Semmler on "Brunton Stephens as Literary Critic" in 1965; and cursory allusions in the standard literary histories which appeared in the 1980s and 90s. 11 Within this pattern of neglect the most glaring because the most recent indication of the fragility of a place in the literary hierarchy is the absence of any mention of Stephens or his work from the Cambridge Companion to Australian...


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