Monday 11 November 2019

Turning the everyday into a mystical trip...

Ulick O'Connor

The BBC made our tiny Dublin poet James Stephens one of the best known people in England in the 1930s. They gave him a poetry programme to recite his own and others' and soon he had created a sort of Celtic drone which was irresistible to listeners. Not everybody liked him though. One of the most powerful figures in English literature of the time, Lytton Stratchey, used to have a fit even if he accidentally turned on the radio and heard James Stephens' voice.

"There's that little gnome again gassing away 13 to the dozen".

The fact was that James Stephens had a reputation as a poet both in England and America as well as having written a major bestseller The Crock of Gold.

He was educated at Meath Industrial School and worked as a solicitor's clerk in Dublin before he acquired his worldwide reputation as a writer.

His real gift was that he could turn an everyday experience into a mystical trip. One day on the beach he picked up a shell and a poem magically walked out of it for him.

"I cannot tell how it came or why, only that when it did arrive, it came well".

It certainly does come well for me.

I can read this poem for a second or two and I find myself out on Sandymount strand in the mist of morning.

The Shell

And then I pressed the shell

Close to my ear

And listened well,

And straightway like a bell

Came low and clear

The slow, sad murmur of the distant seas,

Whipped by an icy breeze

Upon a shore

Wind-swept and desolate.

It was a sunless strand that never bore

The footprint of a man,

Nor felt the weight

Since time began

Of any human quality or stir

Save what the dreary winds and waves incur.

And in the hush of waters was the sound

Of pebbles rolling round,

For ever rolling with a hollow sound.

There was no day,

Nor ever came a night

Setting the stars alight

To wonder at the moon:

And then I loosed my ear ... O, it was sweet

To hear a cart go jolting down the street.

James Stephens 1880-1950

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