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Stephens, George (1813-1895) (DNB00)


STEPHENS, GEORGE (1813–1895), runic archæologist, son of John Stephens of Ongar, Wesleyan minister, by his wife, Rebecca Eliza Rayner, was born at Liverpool on 13 Dec. 1813. Joseph Rayner Stephens [q. v.] was his brother. George was educated at private schools and at University College, London, of which he was one of the earliest students. At an early age he became deeply interested in the study of English dialects. His brother settled at Stockholm in 1826, and directed his attention to Scandinavian languages and literature. Finding that the Scandinavian languages afforded valuable aid in the elucidation of dialectal etymology, he was led to the erroneous conclusion that English was essentially a Scandinavian and not a German language. This paradox he never abandoned, and in his later years he maintained it with a zeal which owed something of its intensity to his anti-German political prejudices. He contributed several articles on church establishments and similar questions to the ‘Christian Advocate’ in 1832 and 1833. In 1834 he married Maria, daughter of Edward Bennett of Brentwood, and in the same year took up his residence in Stockholm, where he found employment as a teacher of English. His first separate publication, ‘An Outline Sketch of Shakspere's “Tempest,” with Remarks,’ appeared in 1836, and was followed in 1837 by ‘Conversational Outlines of English Grammar,’ and an edition of Washington Irving's ‘Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus,’ intended as a reading-book for Swedish students of English. In 1841 he published an English poetical version of Tegner's ‘Frithiof,’ a translation of Mellin's ‘Guide-book to Stockholm,’ and a pocket dictionary of English and Swedish. He was one of the founders of the Society for the Publication of Ancient Swedish Texts (Svenska Fornskriftsällskapet), established in 1843, for which in succeeding years he edited from the manuscripts several important works of early Swedish literature. In 1844 he was associated with G. O. Hylten-Cavallius in the publication of a valuable work on Swedish popular tales. His translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem on ‘The Phœnix,’ in the alliterative metre of the original, published in the thirtieth volume of the ‘Archæologia’ (1844), attracted attention by its extreme ingenuity, though in other respects it is deserving of little commendation, being written in a pseudo-archaic dialect almost unintelligible to ordinary English readers. The jargon adopted in this translation was still further developed in Stephens's later English writings, which abound in anglicised Scandinavian words such as ‘mole’ for language, and in foreign idioms. His last considerable publication before leaving Sweden was a catalogue of the most important English and French manuscripts in the royal library at Stockholm (‘Förteckning öfver de förnämsta Brittiska och Fransyska handskrifterna uti Kongl. Biblioteket i Stockholm.’ Stockholm, 1847, 8vo), which is a work of great merit and usefulness, though disfigured by some curious mistakes. An admirable scheme which he drew up for an organised investigation into the popular antiquities of Iceland was adopted by the Northern Antiquarian Society of Copenhagen in 1845, and printed in the ‘Antiquarisk Tidsskrift,’ 1843–5, pp. 191–2.

In 1851 Stephens was appointed lector in English language and literature at the university of Copenhagen, and in the following year he was in addition appointed lector in Anglo-Saxon. A collection of the historical and legendary ballads of Sweden, prepared by him in collaboration with G. O. Hylten-Cavallius, appeared in 1853. In 1855, having previously become naturalised as a Danish subject, he was made professor of English and Anglo-Saxon in the university. During the next few years he published several poetical works, including a ‘melodrama’ in five acts, entitled ‘Revenge, or Woman's Love’ (1857), which was accompanied by a volume containing the music to the songs introduced in the piece, most of the airs being composed by himself. In 1860 he published, for the first time, a fragment of the Anglo-Saxon poem of ‘Waldere,’ discovered by Professor E. C. Werlauff in the university library.

In 1866 appeared the first volume of the work on which Stephens's claim to remembrance principally rests, ‘The Old Northern Runic Monuments of Scandinavia and England, now first collected and deciphered.’ The second volume was published in 1868, and the third in 1884. A fourth volume is stated to have been in an advanced state of preparation at the time of his death, but has not yet (1898) appeared. An abridgment of the first three volumes, containing copies of the most important inscriptions, was published in 1884, under the title of ‘A Handbook to the Old Northern Runic Monuments.’ The conscientious labour which Stephens devoted to securing accurate copies of the inscriptions is deserving of the highest praise, and as a storehouse of materials for runic studies, his work is invaluable. On the other hand, his own contributions to the interpretation of the inscriptions are almost worthless, owing to his want of accurate philological knowledge. His method of translation consisted in identifying the words of the inscriptions with any words of similar appearance that he could discover in the dictionaries of ancient or modern Scandinavian languages, and then forcing them into some plausible meaning without regard to grammar. Even with respect to the transliteration of the characters, he rejected some of the most securely established results of former investigations, assigning, for instance, the value of A to the rune which is well known to have represented the R sound derived from an earlier Z. His unscientific procedure was criticised with severity by philologists trained in a more rigorous school, and for some years after the publication of the first volume of his work he was engaged in a fierce controversy with one of the ablest runic scholars of the time, Professor L. Wimmer. Although at a later period he showed more respect for sound scholarship, he never abandoned his loose and arbitrary methods of translation. A ludicrous illustration of the worthlessness of his principles of decipherment is afforded by his treatment of the inscription found at Brough in Westmoreland, which he declared to be written in Anglian runes, and translated in accordance with that supposition. When it was pointed out that the inscription consisted of five Greek hexameters, Stephens frankly acknowledged his blunder, though the acknowledgment involved the condemnation of nearly all that he had done in the decipherment of the inscriptions.

The bibliography of Stephens's writings in Erslev's ‘Forfatterlexicon,’ which extends only to the year 1868, fills eight closely printed pages. He was a constant contributor to many periodicals, both Scandinavian and English, including the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ and ‘Notes and Queries.’ Many of his articles and pamphlets relate to questions of political controversy, in which he was passionately interested, his antipathy to English radicalism being extremely violent. He furnished a large number of quotations, principally from the literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to the materials for the ‘New English Dictionary.’ It is stated that during the last years of his life he was engaged on a glossary to the old Northumbrian gospels, which has not yet (1898) been published.

Stephens was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and a member of many learned societies in Scandinavia and England. In 1877 he received the degree of Ph.D. from the university of Upsala, and he was a knight of the orders of the Northern Star, the Dannebrog, and St. Olaf. He resigned his professorship in 1893, and died at Copenhagen on 9 Aug. 1895.

[Erslev's Forfatterlexicon, 3rd Suppl.; Nordisk Familjebok, vol. xv.; Hofberg's Svenskt Biogr. Handlexicon; Hodgkin in Archæologia Æliana, xviii. 50 ff.; Times 10 and 12 Aug. 1895; Gent. Mag. 1852, i. 162–3.]

H. B.