James Stephens Essay - Critical Essays

Stephens, James


James Stephens 1882–-1950

(Pseudonyms include James Esse, Shemus Beg, Samuel James, Seuman James, and Stephen James) Irish short story writer, novelist, poet, and playwright.

Designated “the Leprechaun of Irish literature,” Stephens is counted among the great short fiction writers of the Irish Literary Revival. His work was much admired by contemporaries such as poet George William Russell (known as AE), James Joyce, and William Butler Yeats. Stephens's stories are known for their wry humor, adeptness in capturing lower-class spoken cadences, chilling epiphanies, and links to Irish folktales and legends. Through characters such as tinkers, philosophers, gods, and charwomen, Stephens examined both Irish cultural traditions and the conditions of Ireland's common citizenry. His early stories, based on Irish mythology, are filled with humor and larkish fun, but his later stories, colored by personal tragedies, are more realistic and darkly toned. Greatly concerned with the plight of the poor, these later stories are set in contemporary times and focus on the hardships endured by those trapped in poverty. Stephens's short stories are commonly viewed as indispensible to the modern dawning of the short fiction form in Ireland.

Biographical Information

Little is known of Stephens's childhood and youth, other than that he was born in Dublin and that he claimed to share the exact birth date as James Joyce, down to the hour. Between 1896 and 1912 Stephens worked as a typist for a Dublin solicitor and published his first short story by 1907. His early publications drew the attention of AE, who became his mentor and one of his closest friends. In 1912 Stephens published the novel The Crock of Gold. This was followed by a prolific outpouring of poetry and short stories, and by 1913 he was a regular contributor to The Nation. Later that year he published Here Are Ladies, his first collected work of short fiction. Many publications followed, as did lecture tours of America, which was his chief occupation from 1925 to 1935. Stephens began broadcasting on the BBC in 1934, an activity that led to great popularity; when he moved to London in 1937, he broadcasted regularly. Stephens's work turned solemn after the accidental death of his only son and the death of his two closest friends, AE and Stephen MacKenna. An ardent Irish nationalist during World War I, Stephens was so impressed by the way that the British people coped with the blitz that he declared himself British for the duration of World War II. During the war he was supported as a government pensioner, but lived in great want and his friends took up a collection to help pay Stephens's expenses when his health began to fail. In 1947, when he was awarded an honorary degree from Trinity College in Dublin, Stephens needed grant money from the Royal Bounty Fund to afford the trip. He died on St. Stephen's Day, December 26, 1950 and was mourned with eulogies by a host of literary celebrities.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Stephens's two novellas, Deirdre (1923) and In the Land of Youth (1924), are drawn from the Ulster cycle of Irish mythology. They were intended to be part of a five-volume work, an Irish Epic, but Stephens abandoned the idea, discouraged by critical reaction. Deirdre is the story of a young girl raised in isolation to become the Ulster King's wife. She instead falls in love with a young man and they elope to Scotland. Lured back to Ireland many years later, her lover and his brothers are killed through treachery and Deirdre dies of a broken heart. In the Land of Youth recounts the rivalry between the courtly Queen Meave and Eochaid, the earthy king, and is filled with scenes of ribaldry and revelry. In Irish Fairy Tales (1920) Stephens retells the Fenian cycle of Irish mythology—the stories of Fionn, who lived in both the world of reality, with its love rivalries and devotion to family and children, and the world of the faerie, with its magical dwellings, shape changings, and gods in disguise. Here Are Ladies is a book of realistic short stories about common people, described but seldom named, and their dilemmas. The characters are clerks and typists, and their employers—the middle-class and shabby genteel folk of Dublin. The last of Stephens's short fiction works, Etched in Moonlight (1928), contains none of Stephens's famous whimsy, humor, and levity. Instead, the stories are much more gloomy with uniformly unhappy endings. The volume does, however, contain two of his most famous stories: “Hunger,” in which Stephens details the starvation of an impoverished family; and “Desire,” in which a man who has been given one wish longs to look his present age until death, only to die in his sleep that night.

Critical Reception

Stephens's short fiction is often appreciated for its imaginative and lyric power in depicting personas which emulate his homeland of Ireland. In her book The Writings of James Stephens: Variations on a Theme of Love, Patricia McFate comments, “Stephens' works reveal a personality like that of Ireland: brooding highly comic, and bold. His novels and poems show us the gaiety and the loneliness of the Irish people: their estrangement from the land which was once theirs and their desire to return to an earlier, pastoral peril; their animosities and suspicions; their flights of fantasy and their love of words. His works are filled with sunshine and thunder, lush vegetation and dirty slums, green trees and bloody combats of Ireland.” Stephens was awarded the Medal for Fiction at the Aonach Tailteann festival for Deirdre. In 1937 he was offered the Mark Twain Medal for Irish Fairy Tales, but he refused it, saying self-mockingly, “I deserve many medals, each as big as a barn door, and composed of massy ore enriched with diamonds: but—so metaphysical am I!—I also want to know who has the right to give ‘em, and what I am getting them for.”

Principal Works

Here Are Ladies 1913

Irish Fairy Tales 1920

Deirdre 1923

In the Land of Youth 1924

Etched in Moonlight 1928

The Charwoman's Daughter (novel) 1912

The Crock of Gold (novel) 1912

The Hill of Vision (poetry) 1912

The Demi-Gods (novel) 1914

The Marriage of Julia Elizabeth: A Comedy in One Act (play) 1929


The Nation (review date 1913)

SOURCE: “Current Fiction.” The Nation 97, no. 2528 (11 December 1913): 563–64.

[In the following review of Here Are Ladies, the critic considers the volume to be a masculine work free of pretensions.]

Mr. Stephens is a poet, and so declared himself by issuing two volumes of verse before. With The Crock of Gold he showed mastery of humorous and imaginative prose. That was an unusual book, and the critic could only vaguely range it with Alice in Wonderland and The Water Babies—which is to say, very much above and beyond books merely conventional or merely clever. Here Are Ladies is almost as unusual. The short papers here...

(The entire section is 576 words.)

Padraic Colum (review date 1920)

SOURCE: Colum, Padraic. Review of Etched in Moonlight, by James Stephens. The Dial 85 (June 1920): 69–71.

[In the essay below, Colum praises the philosophical nature and complexity of the stories in Etched in Moonlight.]

In Etched in Moonlight James Stephens has accomplished the feat, always hazardous for a writer, of passing from one idiom into another. His new book is in a new manner and deals with a new material, and yet it is as vital and personal as any of the books we think of as being distinctively Stephens'. There is nothing of the exuberance of A Crock of Gold, or Deirdre, or Irish Fairy Tales, in the latest volume; it has...

(The entire section is 918 words.)

The New Republic (review date 1920)

SOURCE: “Departed Kings.” The New Republic XXV, no. 316 (22 December 1920): 111–12.

[In the following review of Irish Fairy Tales, the critic relates Stephens's temperament to the fairy tale.]

A critical man is usually an intensely practical man, and an intensely practical man does not like fairy tales. At best, he escapes from the real world by playing poker or telling anecdotes or reading detective stories. He may write a sort of fairy tale, if he is a writer, because it gives him a world that is varied and colored and free; but he enjoys that variety and freedom and color because he can play with it in the service of his common sense. He imagines...

(The entire section is 1676 words.)

New Statesman (review date 1922)

SOURCE: Review of Deirdre, by James Stephens. New Statesman 21, no. 545 (22 September 1922): 682.

[In the following review of Deirdre, the commentator describes Stephens's prose manner as straight forward and nearly abstract in its objective descriptions.]

This new book by Mr. James Stephens [Deirdre] has been announced as “a dramatic story of youth and love, of treachery and doom, and of mighty fighting.” It is possible to read it as such and to have little need for remembering that the romance is racial, a slowly-fashioned idea of loveliness and of the pity of love; or that Gaelic poets for centuries, though they have spoken of Helen of Troy...

(The entire section is 1316 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 1923)

SOURCE: Review of Deirdre, by James Stephens. Times Literary Supplement: TLS (20 September 1923): 618.

[In the following review of Deirdre, the critic asserts that Stephens writes in a style that is “whimsical, lyrical, [and] bubbling.”]

It would seem inevitable that every Irish poet in the time of his strength should relate the greatest of the “Three Sorrows of Storytelling” and to that list of names, which reaches from Sir Samuel Ferguson to J. M. Synge, another name may now be added. Mr. James Stephens, in Deirdre, has chosen to write in prose and in a manner that is, needless to say, as far from the embattled sentences of...

(The entire section is 687 words.)

Philip Carducci (review date 1924)

SOURCE: Carducci, Philip. “Fiction: Gaiety and Cynicism.” The Spectator 133 (8 November 1924): 704.

[In the following review of In the Land of Youth, Carducci views the work as varied and paltry, but entertaining.]

Maeve the Queen entertained the guests at the court of Cruachan with tales of their ancestors and the Gods. And though the guests would interrupt now and then to question a detail or ask for some point to be cleared up, so that once Maeve was forced to cry out, “Are you telling this tale or am I?” she surpassed other story-tellers in wit as she did in beauty. It was no wonder that everyone there felt high-spirited and good-natured. Perhaps the...

(The entire section is 963 words.)

Edwin Muir (review date 1924)

SOURCE: Muir, Edwin. “Realism and Fantasy.” The Nation and Athenaeum 36 (15 November 1924): 270–72.

[In the following review of In the Land of Youth and The Crock of Gold, Muir heavily favors the former and states that the latter is too self consciously “charming.”]

Mr. Stephens's genius is in an unusual degree spontaneous. We read him for his inspirations, his profound and happy fancies, his subtle and natural thoughts. And it is saddening to see him in his latest book repeating himself with all the evidences of having conned himself beforehand long and carefully. The difference between In the Land of Youth and The Crock of Gold...

(The entire section is 363 words.)

E. Rhys (review date 1925)

SOURCE: Rhys, E. “A Celtic Contrast.” The Bookman 67, no. 400 (January 1925): 224–25.

[In the following review of In the Land of Youth, Rhys discusses Stephens's conception of the World's Fable.]

One uses the word “Celtic” for want of a better, writing in a Dutch train where languages and races are confused in the mid-Europa perspective. Mr. Stephens is a past-master of the Irish illusion put into amenable English; and he has full opportunity in this new book, In the Land of Youth.

[T]he words fairly dance to the Irish pipe of James Stephens, as they did in his Crock of Gold or Demi-Gods; where the humour...

(The entire section is 275 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (review date 1928)

SOURCE: “Another Convention.” Times Literary Supplement (22 March 1928): 210.

[In the following review of Etched in Moonlight, the critic notes the use of the moral in Stephens's fiction.]

[Etched in Moonlight] is a haunted house among the many mansions of contemporary fiction. Here is, indeed, psychological discrimination enough to compare with the usual mode of portraying what is passing, but Mr. Stephens essays a remoter region of personal complexities than is usual. One would not lightly decide whether his characters were in the flesh or in the spirit. He pursues invisibles and imponderables with a passionate insistency, and is a willing watcher...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

Augustine Martin (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Martin, Augustine. “The Short Stories of James Stephens.” Colby Library Quarterly (December 1963): 343–53.

[In the following essay, Martin discusses Stephens's short stories in terms of his place in Irish literary history, his own literary development, the characters and moods he creates, and his treatment of childhood.]

Stephens's development as a short story writer is interesting because it parallels a certain decisive phase in the evolution of that genre among Irish writers. His first volume, Here Are Ladies, appeared in 1913, one year before Joyce's Dubliners and three years before Corkery's A Munster Twilight. In other words,...

(The entire section is 4429 words.)

Hilary Pyle (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Pyle, Hilary. “Irish Epic.” In James Stephens: His Work and an Account of His Life, pp. 91–107. London, 1965.

[In the following essay, Pyle provides biographical information surrounding the creation and publication of Irish Fairy Tales.]

More than eight hundred years ago a famous saint informed the world that the language spoken in heaven was Gaelic, and, presumably, he had information on the point. He was not an Irishman, and he had no reason to exalt Fodhla above the other nations of the earth, and therefore, his statement may be accepted on its merits, the more particularly as no other saint has denied it, and every Irish person is...

(The entire section is 5595 words.)

Patricia Ann McFate (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: McFate, Patricia Ann. “James Stephens's Deirdre and Its Legendary Sources.” Eire Ireland 4, no. 3 (1969): 87–93.

[In the following essay, McFate identifies the Irish legends that inspired Stephens's story of Deirdre and how he changed them to suit his own purposes.]

While most readers owe their knowledge of the Deirdre legend to the works of W. B. Yeats, John Synge, James Stephens, and George Russell,1 the critics who have examined these literary versions have frequently been concerned with how unlike the ancient sources they really are. Even those who cite the works as representative of the Irish Literary Revival consider them as...

(The entire section is 2727 words.)

Patricia McFate (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: McFate, Patricia. The Writings of James Stephens: Variations on a Theme of Love. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1979, 183 p.

[In the following excerpt, McFate analyzes Stephens's oeuvre.]

The Charwoman's Daughter is a remarkably harmonious blend of disparate styles and genres. It ranges in tone from whimsy to objectivity, from sentimentality to “philosophizing,” and in approach from passages reminiscent of the nineteenth-century novelist to those peculiar to Stephens alone. At various times and in varying degrees it is a fairy tale about two characters called the Makebelieves, a realistic look at life in the Dublin slums, and a psychological analysis...

(The entire section is 1675 words.)

Paul F. Casey (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Casey, Paul F. “Thrice: James Stephens's Here Are Ladies.Eire Ireland 16, no. 1 (Spring 1981): 128–34.

[In the following essay, Casey explores Stephens's use of threes in his short stories.]

James Stephens is best known for his novels The Crock of Gold and The Charwoman's Daughter, both published in 1912, and to a somewhat lesser extent for his poems. His short stories are usually considered last, if at all, and so receive critical neglect, despite their frequent inclusion in reputable and popular collections of Irish short stories.1 Explanations are not very convincing for the critical neglect accorded his first...

(The entire section is 2944 words.)

Joyce Coyne Dyer (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Dyer, Joyce Coyne. “Desire in the Prose of James Stephens, 1920–1928.” Eire Ireland 19, no. 4 (Winter 1984): 119–36.

[In the following essay, Dyer explores the theme of desire in Stephens's short fiction.]

James Stephens's famous poem of 1929, “Theme with Variations,” eloquently summarizes his attitude toward desire, an attitude that marks most of his fiction throughout the 1920s. “Who wishes,” writes Stephens, “Hath not: / And to wish / Is to have lived / In vain: / I do not / Wish / For anything; / And shall not wish / Again.”1 Stephens's attitude toward the person “Who wishes” is as important to the meaning and structure of...

(The entire section is 7310 words.)

Steven Putzel (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Putzel, Steven. “Portraits of Paralysis: Stories by Joyce and Stephens.” Colby Library Quarterly 20, no. 4 (December 1984): 199–205.

[In the following essay, Putzel compares the styles of James Joyce and Stephens, analyzing their use of character and character development.]

When the names James Stephens and James Joyce are juxtaposed, we think of the elaborate fiction created by Joyce, playfully perpetuated by Stephens, and recorded in Joyce's Letters, Ellmann's biography of Joyce and in Stephens's post-World War II radio broadcasts for the BBC. In 1927, depressed by his continuing financial difficulties, his failing eyesight and the scathing...

(The entire section is 3247 words.)

Further Reading


Bookman 65, no. 386 (November 1923): 124.

Review of Deidre.

Canadian Bookman 5, no. 1 (January 1923): 273.

Review of Deidre.

Canadian Forum 5 (1925): 152.

Review of In the Land of Youth.

Canadian Magazine 43 (1914): 106.

Review of Here Are Ladies.

Connolly, Cyril. New Statesman 30, no. 777 (March 1928): 729.

Review of Etched in Moonlight.

Franklin, John. New Statesman 24, no. 609 (20 December 1924): 336, 338.


(The entire section is 246 words.)