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Times (London)
3 February 1942

"J.K.S."

There are many who can still remember the excitement caused in the year 1891 by the publication at Cambridge of two slim little books of verse called "Lapsus Calami" and "Quo Musa Tendis?" There are also some (but a small and ever-lessening band) who can remember hearing words of wit and wisdom flow from the lips of James Kenneth Stephen, the author of those little books-and they especially will not have forgotten the shock of his untimely death, just fifty years ago to-day. It is rare for the contemporaries of a man of genius to be alive to mourn him at the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Those who have made their names famous before reaching half the allotted span of years are not, despite the proverb, a very numerous band. KEATS and SHELLEY, however, were commemorated in this way, and when the time comes his surviving friends will likewise remember RUPERT BROOKE. J.K. STEPHEN'S fame, it is true, is built on more shifting sands than theirs, for he was a master of light verse, which is the Cinderella of poetry and does not always get invited to the ball. Of course the light verse Cinderella does not always expect to be asked, for she knows her limitations. When the band strikes up a sprightly tune she can make rings round her more solemn sisters, but she does not pretend to dance the more elaborate steps. Yet from downright cruelty, every one will agree, the girl must be protected. An article in the current Literary Supplement laments the fact that nothing by "J.K.S." is to be found in "The Oxford Book of "Light Verse," which is rather like refusing Cinderella admittance to her own coming-out dance.

Wherever else he is forgotten, J.K. STEPHEN, like W.M. PRAED, will always be remembered at Eton and Cambridge. PRAED, in his inimitable way, voiced the sentimental yearning of the Old Etonian of the eighteen-twenties:-

No playmate shares my beaker:
Some lie beneath the churchyard stone,
And some-before the Speaker . . .

And STEPHEN fifty years later took up the same theme:-

There are some who did nothing at school, much since:
And others much then, since naught:
They are middle-aged men, grown bald since then:
Some have traveled, and some have fought:
And some have written, and some are bitten
With strange new faiths: desist
From tracking them: broker or priest or prince,
They are all in the old School List.

Players of the Eton Wall game have a corner in their hearts for one who was almost a legendary "Wall," and to this day a little cup still circulates "in piam "memoriam, J.K.S." The same affection lingers at Cambridge, where so much of his verse was written, and where he gave to the Granta perhaps the greatest of its acquisitions, the famous sonnet on WORDSWORTH'S "two voices." Cambridge men were quick to see in him the lineal descendant of C.S. CALVERLEY, and STEPHEN was as quick to acknowledge the debt:-

If any critic would remark in fine
"Of C.S.C. this gentle art he learned";
I should not then expect my book to fail;
Nor have my doubts about a decent sale.

To what heights J.K. STEPHEN might have risen, if he had not suffered in his late twenties the unlucky accident which brought about his death at 32, there is no knowing. Not that he would have done much more in poetry, for the best light verse is usually a young man's work, and already he had said "Adieu, dear pen!" But his verses, as A.C. BENSON has explained, were often only casual products in the busy life of a brilliant scholar, a promising lawyer, and the best public speaker of his generation. Ill-health dogged each of our three great writers of light verse, and though J.K. STEPHEN was not condemned, like CALVERLEY, to the life of an invalid, he had even less opportunity than PRAED to show off his abilities in the grown-up world. His little paper, the Reflector, which numbered GEORGE MEREDITH and many other fine writers among its contributors, reflected immaturity as well as talent. Yet "J.K.S." was more than the representative of "the "eternal undergraduate within us who "rejoices before life." There was in him a strength and virility of character contrasting with the delicacy of his art and finding expression in one of his stanzas quoted this morning as "Old and True"-something which suggests that, if the fates had set him down at the present crisis of our existence he would have been equal to the occasion.


Related pages:
  J.K. Stephen
       Authors: An Interview with Deborah McDonald 
       Message Boards: James Kenneth Stephen 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 1 December 1875 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 12 March 1881 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 13 June 1887 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 15 January 1892 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 20 October 1891 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 24 April 1883 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 24 February 1881 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 25 February 1886 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 27 October 1891 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 3 December 1891 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 30 January 1882 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 30 November 1887 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 30 November 1891 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 31 May 1883 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 4 July 1896 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 5 February 1892 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 5 June 1877 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 5 May 1887 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 8 June 1881 
       Press Reports: Times [London] - 9 February 1880 
       Ripper Media: Clarence: Was He Jack the Ripper? 
       Ripper Media: Jack the Ripper Revealed 
       Ripper Media: Jack the Ripper: A Suspect Guide - James Kenneth Stephen 
       Ripper Media: Jack: The Grim Ripper 
       Ripper Media: Murder and Madness: The Secret Life of Jack the Ripper 
       Ripper Media: The Prince, His Tutor and the Ripper 
       Ripper Media: The Whitechapel Murders (Mylechreest, 1974) 
       Suspects: James Kenneth Stephen