London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1923. First edition. Hardcover. James Stephens was both a poet and novelist, and in this presentation copy both skills are on display. This author’s presentation copy of the first edition is inscribed in sixteen lines filling the front free endpaper recto: “Dear Major Whitall: | At the end of this book there | should be a small poem | thus: | After great heat, great frost | Comes following. | Turgesius was lost | By the daughter | Of Maelshaughlin the King | By Grania of high Ben Ghulban | In the North | Was Diarmuid lost. | The strong sons of Uisneach | Who never submitted | They fell by Deirdre | James Stephens”. The only previous ownership mark in the book besides the author’s inscription is the elaborately gilt and printed small leather label of “W.VAN.R.WHITALL” affixed to the facing front pastedown. Major William Van R. Whitall of Pelham, New York, was apparently a significant collector; the 1927 sale of his library at the American Art Galleries apparently was “notable for the record breaking prices paid especially for modern first editions.” (The Bookman, Volume LXV, 1927)
Condition of this copy is, impressively, near fine. The green cloth binding is immaculately square, clean, bright, and tight with sharp corners, vivid gilt on the front cover and spine, and only a trivial hint of shelf wear to the spine ends and corners. The contents are crisp and bright with no appreciable spotting or toning anywhere other than the endpapers. Even the fore and bottom edges are strikingly bright, the top edges showing only minor shelf dust. The book is housed in a quarter Morocco solander case featuring a rounded green quarter Morocco spine with raised bands over green cloth sides. The Solander is sound, though uniformly spine-toned to brown and with various minor exterior scuffs and blemishes.
Stephens was already a seasoned poet and novelist when he “planned a five-volume retelling of the story of Tain, interpreted through psychological realism”. Sometimes called the “Irish Iliad”, the Tain tells of a war against Ulster by Queen Medb of Connacht and her husband, Ailill, who plot to steal a sacred stud bull and are opposed by the young hero Cuchulainn. Stephens ultimately completed only two parts of his ambition, Deirdre being the first, “in which Conchobar Mac Nessa embodies the vengeful rationalism, patriarchal authoritarianism, and sexual aggression that were the objects of Stephens’s special detestation”. (Dictionary of Irish Biography)
James Stephens (1880?- 1950) began to contribute stores to the journal United Irishman (later Sinn Fein) in 1905, “at first anonymously and generally without payment” before becoming a regular contributor from 1907. This led to Stephens’s discovery by George William Russell (to whom Stephens dedicated his first published volume of poetry, 1909’s Insurrections) and gave Stephens “access to Dublin literary circles". Stephens went on to write half a dozen novels and a dozen volumes of poetry, as well as several plays, short stories, retellings of Irish folktales, an historical account of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, and a biographic portrait of the founder of Sinn Fein. In 1925 Stephens relocated to London, reflecting “disillusionment with the political and literary scene in post-civil war Ireland.” In England, he moved in British literary circles and struck up a friendship with James Joyce “who in 1927 left instructions that if he died before finishing Finnegans Wake Stephens was to complete it.” Stephens also became a BBC broadcaster. Though Stephens declared himself an Englishman in 1940 in protest at Irish neutrality in the Second World War, he visited Dublin in 1947 to receive a Doctor in Letters from Trinity College, Dublin. (Dictionary of Irish Biography). Item #007470