James Brunton Stephens was born on 17 June 1835 in Borrowstounness, Scotland, the tenth of eleven children of John Stephens, a schoolmaster, and his wife Jane (née Brunton). He was educated at his father's school and later at a boarding school, before attending the University of Edinburgh - though he left in 1854 without taking a degree. Stephens spent time in continental Europe as a private tutor to an English family before working in a similar position in London. In 1859, he became a schoolteacher, and from the early 1860s began publishing poetry and fiction in London periodicals.
In 1866, Stephens emigrated to Queensland, where he initially worked as a private tutor on cattle stations. In the early 1870s he oscillated between positions as a schoolteacher in Brisbane and as a tutor on stations, before settling in the teaching profession at schools in Stanthorpe and Brisbane. Though his employment was erratic in his early years in Queensland, this was Stephens' most productive period as a poet, and important works were published at this time, including his long narrative poems Convict Once (1871), The Godlophin Arabian: the Story of a Horse (1873), and his first poetry collection, The Black Gin and other poems (1873).
While teaching in Brisbane in 1876, Stephens married Rosalie Mary Donaldson. He continued to write poetry, much of which initially appeared in newspapers and the periodical press. After a period as headmaster of schools at Ashgrove and Sandgate, Stephens was appointed to a position as dispatch writer at the Colonial Secretary's Office in the early 1880s. Two further poetry collections appeared in the 1880s, Miscellaneous Poems, published in London in 1880, and Convict Once and other poems (1885).
Through the 1880s and 1890s Stephens balanced his career in the public service with writing, contributing articles to the press in Brisbane and Sydney, and unsuccessfully attempting to establish himself as a dramatist. In this period, Stephens wrote some patriotic poems which were among his best known works, furthering his reputation as an eminent Australian poet. Stephens died in Brisbane on 29 June 1902.
Stephens' poetic output was considerable, and encompassed a wide range of poetic forms and styles. Though his patriotic poems were among his most famous, Stephens was also skilled in verse narrative and in satirical and humorous poetry. Modern readers may be offended by the overt racism of some of Stephens' poetry, though these works reflected the pseudo-scientific Darwinist attitudes of his age.Poetry Collections
- The Black Gin and other poems Melbourne George Robertson 1873
- Miscellaneous Poems London Macmillan 1880
- Convict Once and Other Poems Melbourne George Robertson 1885
- The Poetical Works of Brunton Stephens Sydney Angus and Robertson 1902
- Pat Buckridge Roles for Writers: Brisbane and Literature, 1859-1975 By the Book: A Literary History of Queensland St Lucia, Qld University of Queensland Press 2007
- Barbara Garlick Colonial Canons: the Case of James Brunton Stephens Victorian Poetry 40(1)
- Cecil Hadgraft James Brunton Stephens St Lucia, Qld University of Queensland Press 1969