A Man of Words

James, Seumas and Jacques: Unpublished Writings of James Stephens

edited by Lloyd Frankenberg
Macmillan, 228 pp., $6.95

James Stephens: His Work and an Account of His Life

by Hilary Pyle
Barnes & Noble, 196 pp., $6.00

James Stephens
James Stephens; drawing by David Levine

“Joyce was strangely in love with his own birthday and with mine. He had discovered somehow that he and I were twins, born in the same hour of the same day of the same year in the same city. The bed it seemed was different, and that was the only snag in our relationship.” The city was Dublin, the year 1882, the day February 2nd, the hour six in the morning, the Joyce James, the speaker James Stephens. The truth of the matter is probably less poetic. Hilary Pyle tries to show that Stephens was born on February 9th, 1880, but I am happy to report that the evidence is inconclusive. In any event Joyce believed in the poetry; so much so that in 1927 when things were going badly with Finnegans Wake he thought of having Stephens finish the work. Stephens’s qualifications were indisputable. His name, like Joyce’s, was James, he was a poet, a Dubliner, fortunately born, nominally close to the Stephen of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and he had good eyesight. Finally, the lettering on the book would be JJ and S, as Joyce wrote to Harriet Weaver, “the colloquial Irish for John Jameson and Son’s Dublin whisky.” The auspices were unimpeachable. Two years later Joyce and Stephens were still discussing the notion. So it petered out.

The first meeting of these Dubliners was a sharp encounter.

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.

The speaker is again Stephens in one of the B.B.C. talks with which he filled the vacancy of his last years. Lloyd Frankenberg has brought these and other memorabilia together and they are well worth having. As a critic Stephens was no T. S. Eliot but he was worth listening to while he recalled his friends, men like George Russell (AE), Yeats, Joyce, Synge, and Stephen MacKenna. The tone of these reminiscences is always genial: Stephens did not traffic in mockery. An occasional slyness keeps the judgment alert. “Still, I’m inclined to believe that Yeats and I were the only poets with good manners that ever lived. When he had finished a poem I always asked him to say it again and when I had finished one he as scrupulously invited me to repeat the last verse.” Of Stephens’s sing-song method of reading his poems Yeats said: “Stephens has a very original talent, he has discovered Gregorian Chant.”

Not that the poems are very good, however you sing them. Stephens wrote a few…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.