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A Long Winter of Oblivion: On the Forgotten Genius of Irish Literature

By posted at 6:00 am on February 2, 2016 4

James Joyce discarded Catholicism, but he religiously observed Groundhog Day. February 2 was his birthday, and Joyce took his birthday seriously throughout his adult life. He didn’t look for the groundhog’s shadow, however. He looked for his own, and believed he’d found it in the person of another, lesser-known Irish writer who he came to consider his spiritual twin. Joyce claimed the other man had also been born on Groundhog Day in Dublin in 1882, just like him, though scholars have been unable to verify the exact birthdate of this other, lesser-known scribe. Little of the other man’s biography is in fact known with certainty.

The man may have been two years old when his father died and possibly six when he entered a Dublin orphanage, never to return home. It’s all a bit unclear; a fog of rumor hangs over his origins as it does over John Henry or Jesus Christ. This much is known: he was very small as a child; when he grew up he was still so short that one journalist said he was no taller standing than sitting; others called him a leprechaun, and he didn’t much like that; he told a cartoonist, “Eh, you want to caricature me, eh? Well, the Almighty beat you to it.” This too is known: notwithstanding his diminutive beginnings, great men would come to worship at his feet.

coverThe Irish playwright Seán O’Casey called him “the jesting poet with a radiant star in his coxcomb.” Eugene O’Neill asked him to name his children and so Oona and Shane O’Neill got their names. James Joyce asked him to complete Finnegans Wake should Joyce himself go blind. He published plays, novels, stories, and poems, including a series of them in The New Yorker in 1929, and his voice once pervaded the Irish airwaves like rainbows south of Skibbereen. This so-called leprechaun with a voice “nimble as a goat’s foot,” as one commentator puts it, was called James Stephens.

coverSome evidence suggests Stephens was born not on February 2, 1882 like Joyce, but rather on February 9, 1880. Perhaps Joyce asserted they were twins because he regarded Stephens as a particularly worthy rival, and because Joyce conquered his rivals by appropriating them — and because, after being enemies, they became good friends. In a letter dated May 31, 1927, Joyce reports that for years he carried three portraits in his pocket: one of his father, one of himself, and one of James Stephens. When Ulysses was published on February 2, 1922 — on Joyce’s 40th birthday, by his own design — he inscribed a copy to his poetical twin. Stephens in turn wrote a theosophical poem called “Sarasvati” for Joyce’s birthday and for the rest of Joyce’s life gave him the kind of respect that Joyce demanded of every animal, mineral, and vegetable. Stephens called Joyce a king, encouraged him to carry on with Finnegans Wake, and when it was published, told Joyce that its last chapter was the “greatest prose ever written by a man” — praise that deeply moved Joyce, and with which he surely concurred.

coverBut the two men didn’t like each other at first, and one senses that their rivalry forever chafed at Stephens, beginning with their first meeting in 1912, when Joyce feared and envied Stephens. In 1907, Joyce had published a small volume of poetry called Chamber Music that garnered its author little attention; Stephens’s poetry meanwhile had so impressed the famous Irish poet AE (a.k.a., George Russell) that in 1907 Russell adopted Stephens as his protégé. Stephens had by 1912 furthermore upstaged Joyce in prose. When the two first met on Dawson Street in Dublin, Stephens’s second novel The Crock of Gold was already at the printer, while Joyce was still struggling to publish his first prose work, Dubliners. According to Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann, Joyce dumped his publishing frustrations on Stephens, the writer whom Joyce described to his brother as “my rival, the latest Irish genius.” Stephens had of course faced trials and difficulties himself, but Joyce neither knew nor cared. Stephens says that Joyce gazed down at him in Pat Kinsella’s pub with blues eyes so magnified by his spectacles as to be “nearly as big as the eyes of a cow” before commencing a verbal assault. Stephens narrated the meeting thus on the radio in 1946:

He turned his chin and his specs at me, and away down at me, and confided the secret to me that he had read my two books; that, grammatically, I did not know the difference between a semi-colon and a colon: that my knowledge of Irish life was non-Catholic and, so, non-existent, and that I should give up writing and take to a good job like shoe-shining as a more promising profession.

I confided back to him that I had never read a word of his, and that, if Heaven preserved me to my protective wits, I never would read a word of his, unless I was asked to destructively review it.

Stephens had had the upper hand in 1912, but by 1946 Joyce had thoroughly overshadowed his old rival. The word “non-existent” in the foregoing passage calls out the name of another of Stephens’s wounds, a possible turning point in the Stephens-Joyce rivalry. It was in a 1915 essay in The New Age entitled “The Non-Existence of Ireland” that Joyce’s influential champion Ezra Pound dismissed Stephens as “a mild enough writer.” It enraged Stephens, who wrote a bitterly funny letter to The New Age deriding Pound in doggerel form. Stephens concludes that having written Pound’s name, he had to go “fumigate” his sullied pen.

Such injuries were perhaps fresh in Stephens’s mind when, in a 1917 letter, he conceded to his American publisher that Joyce was “a clever, competent writer, but…by no means a great writer.” Stephens went on in that letter to slag Joyce as “a disappointed, envious man” and Joyce’s work as “unpleasant” and “thin.”

In later years, after Stephens and Joyce had become close friends, and after Stephens had affably accommodated himself to Joyce’s international fame, he repented of those criticisms and praised Joyce at every opportunity. And the two friends celebrated their shared birthday together. On February 2, 1933, Stephens wrote from Paris to thank his children Iris and Seumas for their birthday wishes. His letter calls February 2 “that most noble of dates.” “Tis Candlemas,” he writes, “and it is also the end of most things, and the beginning of everything…[W]ill go thence at 8.30 to the Joyces where a party of some kind is to be held to celebrate our mutual birthday…It was bitterly cold here until three days ago, and I had a cold — your mother has it now, but I didn’t need it anyway.”

Stephens was famous for his wit, and Richard Ellmann and others have observed that his humor depended on his modesty and self-deprecation. Being under five feet tall, he identified with the little guy. An editor of Stephens’s letters, Richard Finneran, asserts that Stephens celebrated his birthday on February 2 long before his acquaintance with Joyce; if so, perhaps that’s because, as Ellmann speculates, “Stephens was invariably sympathetic to the intrusions of small creatures into the universe.” Those sympathies are plainly evident in Stephens poems like 1924’s “Little Things” in which Stephens writes, “Little things that run and quail, / And die in silence and despair. / Little things that fight and fail, / And fall on earth and sea and air.”

Ellmann notes that unlike Joyce, Stephens “often chose to appear as elfin.” He was unlike Joyce in his temerity before the possibility of oblivion. David McCord wrote in 1962 of Stephens: “the man put his books out the way one would plant a tree, each to grow to its own size, each to gather in its shade those who have traveled a long way through the mire, the dust and the anxiety of the world.” There is something sagacious and honorable in Stephens’s retiring attitude to posterity, but one sad outcome may be that “the readers of Joyce — a big lot of them too — have overlooked a fellow genius,” as McCord says. Stephens is for one thing much funnier than Joyce, McCord contends, and it’s impossible to disagree with him. “The surrealist in Stephens is always spacious,” McCord goes on, “his hells and heavens (for me at least) have both an altitude and depth that I do not find even in Finnegans Wake.”

Could it be that the shabby, out-of-print volumes that keep custody of Stephens’s legacy are, as McCord argues, “vintage wine in a rain barrel?” Could it be that underneath a homely title like Irish Fairy Tales, which Padraic Colum notes was “never sufficiently praised” and which is now mislabelled as children’s literature, there lies a work of true genius?

Having read Irish Fairy Tales, I add my voice to those who sing in praise of the long-lost leprechaun of Irish literature. For Irish Fairy Tales is more than good. It’s a work of genius on the Joyce and W.B. Yeats level, though stylistically different in almost every way from that of his taller and more famous peers. Stephens writes in that work:

I became the king of the salmon, and, with my multitudes, I ranged on the tides of the world. Green and purple distances were under me: green and gold the sunlit regions above. In these latitudes I moved through a world of amber, myself amber and gold; in those others, in a sparkle of lucent blue, I curved, lit like a living jewel: and in these again, through dusks of ebony all mazed with silver, I shot and shone, the wonder of the sea.

No wonder no one ever wrote Stephens a fitting epitaph; no one could say it quite as well as him! But perhaps what Stephens wrote of the king of the salmon is good enough for himself. He is brave, skilled, honorable, and as unconcerned with either fame or revenge as his hero Fionn.

In “The Boyhood of Fionn,” a piece of magical realism in Irish Fairy Tales to stand aside Gabriel García Márquez and Franz Kafka, Fionn encounters a wise poet sitting on the bank of a wild, remote river. He asks the poet, “Why do you live on the bank of a river?” The poet answers:

‘Because a poem is a revelation, and it is by the brink of running water that poetry is revealed to the mind.’
‘How long have you been here?’ was the next query.
‘Seven years’ the poet answered.
‘It is a long time,’ said wondering Fionn.
‘I would wait twice as long for a poem,’ said the inveterate bard.

Retiring into Joyce’s shadow, Stephens remarked that Finnegans Wake is both “unreadable” and “wonderful.” His own works are readable and wonderful. Groundhog Day seems a fitting time for Stephens to step back out into the light after a long winter of oblivion in Joyce’s shadow. Or, if that’s not to be just now, later then. However long it takes. Stephens would wait twice as long for a poem.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.





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4 Responses to “A Long Winter of Oblivion: On the Forgotten Genius of Irish Literature”

  1. Tony M
    at 2:20 pm on February 2, 2016

    Stephens is probably most read today for his The Insurrection in Dublin, his eye witness account of the Easter Rising. It is not a political book – it is a well observed, fascinating account. It should be read by anyone interested in either Stephens or the Rising.

    (Fearghal McGarry’s The Rising, based on archived accounts of particpants on both sides as well as civilians would be a great companion piece. It is masterly history.)

  2. D. Paris
    at 2:42 pm on February 2, 2016

    There is something incredibly moving and exciting about reclaiming a lost piece of history, reviving a lost voice. This piece serves as a resurrection, and as reassurance to artists that their work and their words can have meaning and effect beyond their own time.

  3. Andy
    at 6:57 pm on February 5, 2016

    Thanks very much for the revival of a great Irish author. I was unaware of Stephens’ The Insurrection in Dublin, which I look forward to reading as we approach the centenary.

  4. Evelyn Walsh
    at 11:33 pm on February 5, 2016

    Splendid article– what a picture you’ve made of this man and his work. Gorgeous quotes! Only know Stephens from the beautiful folk-y albums Bill Crofut made with poems by Stephens and others, including Shakespeare, Blake, Yeats, Reid (and even Joyce). So forgive this digression– if it is indeed a digression–but I’d like to make a case for less of a distinction between what constitutes children’s literature and well, literature. I’m going on instinct here, but maybe this habit that has a lot to do with why work like Irish Fairy Tales gets overlooked. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Crofut albums are children’s records that I found when my kids were babies. But they mean as much to me now as they did then, and I’m as likely to listen to them side by side with “grown up” music, just as I might pick up Travers or Sendak after reading Rankine or Chaucer.

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