James Brunton Stephens was a Scottish-born Australian poet, author of Convict Once.
Stephens was born at Borrowstounness, on the Firth of Forth, Scotland; the son of John Stephens, the parish schoolmaster, and his wife Jane, née Brunton. J. B. Stephens was educated at his father's school, then at a free boarding school and at the University of Edinburgh from 1849 to 1854 without obtaining a degree. For three years he was a travelling tutor on the continent, and from 1859 became a school teacher in Scotland. While teaching at Greenock Academy in Greenock, Stephens wrote some minor verse and two short novels ('Rutson Morley' and 'Virtue Le Moyne') which were published in Sharpe's London Magazine in 1861-63.
Career in Australia
Stephens migrated to Queensland, Australia, in 1866 possibly for health reasons. He was a tutor with the Barker family of squatters at Tamrookum station for some time and in 1870 entered the Queensland education department. He had experience as a teacher at Stanthorpe and was afterwards in charge of the school at Ashgrove, near Brisbane. Representations were then made to the premier, Sir Thomas McIlwraith, that a man of Stephens's ability was being wasted in a small school, and in 1883 a position was found for him as a correspondence clerk in the colonial secretary's department. He afterwards rose to be undersecretary to the chief secretary's department. Before coming to Australia Stephens had done a little writing for popular magazines, and in 1871 his first volume of poems, Convict Once, was published by Macmillan and Company, which immediately proclaimed him to be an Australian poet of importance. In 1873 a long poem, The Godolphin Arabian, was published. These were followed by The Black Gin and other Poems, 1873, and Miscellaneous Poems, 1880. The first collected edition of his poems was published in 1885, others followed in 1888, 1902 and 1912. Of these the 1902 edition is the most complete. After Stephens entered the colonial secretary's department in 1883 he was unable to do much literary work though he wrote occasionally for the press. He was suffering for some time from angina pectoris before his sudden death on 29 June 1902. He married on 10 November 1876, Rosalie Mary Donaldson, who survived him with four daughters and one son.
Stephens was a man of medium height "with the face of a poet". Simple and natural in manner, he was modest about his own work. His over-sensitiveness to the sufferings of others made it difficult for him to resist appeals for charity to the extent of damaging his own fortunes. He was sometimes exuberant and full of humour, though occasionally the pendulum swung the other way. His sense of duty kept him working during his last illness to the end. No doubt his official papers exercised his literary talent, but it was not the best preparation for poetry of which he wrote little in later years. However, though new men were arising, he remained the representative man of letters in Australia until his death. His witty and humorous light verse is very good. Despite all changes of fashion, such poems as "The Power of Science" and "My other Chinese Cook", can still evoke laughter. The Godolphin Arabian in the metre and style of Byron's Beppo goes on its pleasant rhyming way for about three thousand lines and is still readable, but as it is not included in any collected edition, will be forgotten. Convict Once, remains one of the few long Australian poems of merit, technically it is a lesson to those writers who think it is easy to write in a long metre. Much of his other verse is admirable in its simplicity and dignity. He remained a Briton and there is little trace of his adopted country in his poetry, but his poems on federation "The Dominion of Australia" and "The Dominion" have the restrained enthusiasm that belongs to true patriotism. Perhaps if there had been less restraint and more of the surge of emotion, Stephens might have been a better poet, but his place among nineteenth century Australian men of letters will always be an honoured one. Apart from his poetry, he published a short novel, A Hundred Pounds, the libretto of an opera, and a few poetry pamphlets not already mentioned are listed in Percival Serle's Bibliography of Australasian Poetry and Verse. ..