In the medley of unidentified voices that follows Mr Lyster’s announcement to the group of literati assembled in the Assistant Librarians’ office “that Mr Russell is gathering together a sheaf of our younger poets' verses”, the remark aimed at Patrick Colum that “he has that queer thing genius” may sound more spontaneous and original than it actually is. Stephen Dedalus, who – excluded from the chosen contributors – listened intently, echoes the phrase verbatim a little later applying it to Shakespeare, as if he wanted to demonstrate what it takes to be deservedly called a genius.
The first documented example of the expression comes from Louisa Caroline Tuthill’s Onward! Right Onward!, published in 1845:
“I must either go home to her, or she must come to me. I cannot live without her." "But this is odd, too odd, entirely for me," said Mr. Malcom. “What a queer thing genius is” (ch. xvii, p. 103)
Soon afterwards, in March 1850 in an article about Edgar Allan Poe, who had died the year before, The Southern and Western Literary Messenger and Review states:
But those who are cursed with that strange thing called genius, that power of seizing on great truths — or images — or expressions, which lie beyond the ken of all, in short the men who go ahead of their age. (p. 181)
Elisabeth Taylor published a story called “Hebe” in the February 1877 issue of Lippincott's Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, and in it yet another Mr. Malcolm makes a slightly sarcastic remark about genius:
“It is a queer thing, genius: I dare say it must sometimes laugh at the kind of lodgings it finds itself in," said Mr. Malcom. (p. 179)
Joyce’s manuscripts contain the phrase right from the first extant draft (NLI.8A, NLI.8B, NLI.8C) written in late 1918. Almost at the same time William Walter Crotch, working on his monograph The Secret of Dickens, which was published in 1919, attributed “a certain streak of that queer thing genius” to H. G. Wells there (p. 162).
Whoever uses the phrase in the jumble of voices commenting on New songs; A lyric selection made by A.E. (George William Russell) was in all likelihood not alluding to a specific example, but used an expression of a certain contemporary currency.