Joyce’s Earliest Writings

I’m making my way through Richard Ellmann’s biography, along with the three volumes of Joyce’s letters, and then also stopping to read everything else he wrote along the way.  I’ve read most of these texts (except the letters and the biographies) many times, but re-reading brings new perspectives.

The main reason for this re-reading is for work on my thesis – about Joyce, Vico and the Homeric Question in Ulysses.  What I’m setting out to argue is that Joyce was preoccupied with the distinction between oral and written language, and wanted to find a way to do justice to the oral traditions (Greek and Dubliner), even from the beginning.  The idea is to suggest that upon reading Vico’s “The Discovery of the True Homer,” Joyce found a way to integrate these concerns into a full project.  Before then, his interests were more incohate and programmatic.

“Before that” means Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, yes, but it also means many other less widely read works.  Joyce published a series of short reviews in both 1902 (from Paris) and 1904 (from Dublin).  He also wrote poems and an abortive (very abortive – it’s only 5 pages long) aesthetics tract while in Pola (now Croatia, then Austria) and Trieste (then, and still Italy).  We also have a series of prose-poems Joyce called “Epiphanies” (the idea took on more significance in Dubliners later on). Lastly there is an earlier essay called “A Portrait of the Artist,” and throughout this period, he was working on what would almost become Stephen Hero (he eventually burned most of the manuscript, and Nora was only able to save some chapters about Joyce in college).

Here’s what I’ve written so far – I’m glad to have any comments, constructive, critical or otherwise.  I’ve also added some pictures to spice things up.  My next installment will be about how these ideas manifest themselves in Dubliners.

He came forth at last with a single purpose – to reunite the children of the spirit, jealous and long-divided, to reunite them against fraud and principality.  A Thousand eternities were to be reaffirmed, divine knowledge was to be re-established… Wherever the social monster permitted they would hazard the extremes of heterodoxy; reasons of an imaginative determinant in ethic, of anarchy (the folk), of blue triangles, of fish-gods, proclaiming in a fervent moment the necessity for action.  His revenge was a phrase and isolation.  He lumped the emancipates together – Venomous Butter – and set away from the sloppy neighborhood – (“A Portrait of the Artist,” [early essay, not the later novel], 1904).

From early on, Joyce worked to transcend the literary tradition, and looked for a written art that might allow him to affirm communal oral traditions, but do so in a forward-thinking, rather than reactionary manner.   As steeped in literary culture as he was, Joyce always harbored a deep-seated suspicion of literary elitism and yearned for an anti-elitist, communal and oral alternative, though Joyce would not fully discover this alternative until embarking on his mature works.  We can see this trend in a careful study of his early biography, focusing especially on his personal tastes as seen in letters and interviews, his critical essays and his first attempts at fiction and poetry.  In all three realms we find a nascent vision of his mature art, though it is not until those mature works that we see this vision come fully to life.  As I will later argue, Vico’s notion of “the true Homer” provided Joyce with a unifying thread around which to organize his various concerns into the stylistic extravaganza of Ulysses.

Stanislaus Joyce

Richard Ellmann has it that even as a teenager, Joyce preferred to listen to “sentimental as well as humorous songs” (JJ 52).  Upon returning from a trip to England with his father, Joyce let his brother Stanislaus know that “the music hall, not poetry, is a criticism of life” (JJ 77).  An early friend of Joyce’s “pleased Joyce with the remark that ‘The difficulty about Aquinas is that what he says is so like what the man in the street says” (JJ 63).  During his first abortive visits to Paris, he variously asked Stanislaus to send him “A Book of British Song,” (L2 21), his copy of Wagner’s operas (L2 25), another “book of Elizabethan Songs” (L2 35) and inscribed a letter to his mother with a transcription of a west-Indian folk song called “Upa-Upa” (L2 30). Oliver St. John Gegarty, the real-life prototype for Buck Mulligan, earned Joyce’s approval for his bawdy songs (JJ 117-118).  Joyce wrote to Gegarty that he was contemplating (though it is impossible to tell how seriously) travelling with a “lute and to coast the south of England from Falmouth to Margate singing old English songs” (L1 54).   In an early letter to future wife Nora, he laments that his feelings are best expressed by “an old song written three hundred years ago by the English King Henry VIII – a brutal and lustful king” (L2 44) – one he quotes in full to close the letter.  Throughout this time in his life, he flirted with the idea of a serious singing career, and took great pleasure in compliments paid to his singing voice.  We thus see orality – in the form of music and the affirmation of folk-wisdom – as a persistent concern from the beginning.

“Upa Upa (The Fire Dance)” by Paul Gauguin

Beyond his private preferences for the popular and the sentimental, Joyce gives voice to his suspicions about their seeming antithesis – the literary – in his earliest critical writings.  Of course, it is commonplace enough to find a young author preoccupied with rejecting the literary sacred cows of his day, but Joyce’s early criticism goes beyond that, looking to transcend the very idea of “literature” – a term he always uses derisively.  In “Drama and Life,” (1900) a passionate defense of the work of Henrik Ibsen delivered to a student society, Joyce draws “a line of demarcation between literature and drama” (CW 24), the former being seen as “a comparatively low form of art” (CW 25).  In the slightly later “Ibsen’s New Drama,” a published revision of the speech, he asserts that literature’s success at “accepting [life] as we see it before our eyes, men and women as we meet them in the real world, not as we apprehend them in the world of faery” (CW 28) is “rendered impossible by vigilant policing” (CW 28).  In his self-published “The Day of the Rabblement” (1901) Joyce impugns the “Irish Literary Theatre” (emphasis added) as a “rabblement, placid and intensely moral… enthroned in boxes and galleries amid a hum of approval… not sure but they are the trustees of every intellectual and poetic treasure” (CW 51).  In “James Clarence Mangan” (1902), Joyce praises Mangan for overcoming “literature… the wide domain which lies between ephemeral writing and poetry… much of Wordsworth, and almost all of Baudelaire, is merely literature” (CW 54, emphasis added).    In a review of George Meredith (1902), he suggests that Meredith’s “novels have no value as epical art” (CW 64).  Later, in 1904, after travelling to and from Paris in his first, abortive escape from Dublin and its literary establishment, Joyce laments that “the people who regulate the demand for fiction are being day by day so restricted by the civilization they have helped to build up” (CW 82) and contends that their work can scarcely even hope to succeed at capturing life with “true insight and sympathy” (CW 90).

Henrik Ibsen

Though most of these early book reviews are sharply negative, now and again, a positive vision for non-literary writing emerges, one that invokes low culture and folk-art.  When discussing Ibsen, he alleges that “the Folk is, I believe, able to do so much” (CW 25).  Though for Joyce, literature is an obscure practice of cultural elites, he sees “drama” as “essentially a communal art” (CW 26) that might attain “epic savagery” (CW 28) – and for Joyce, this is a positive goal.  Of the two Mangan poems Joyce singles out for praise, one of them is entitled “Swabian Popular Song” (CW 57), a poem that exhorts its audience to “restore/the bright young songful days” (Mangan 223).  He also later approvingly describes Mangan’s poetry as “Homeric” (CW 62).  In a review of a book of Burmese popular tales Joyce “is glad to see that even in these days of novel … this book has run to four editions” (CW 68).  He favorably credits Zola with having written “an epic for drapers” (CW 99) and says in “A Neglected Poet” that George Crabbe “succeeds admirably as narrator of the obscure tragedies of the provinces” (CW 90).  In these earliest essays, literary culture is the problem, and it would seem, the careful articulation of the experiences of the Folk, and the consequent shaping of fiction, poetry and drama around that experience is the solution.

Joyce was already skeptical, however, of what he saw as an overly romanticized, condescending form of misappropriated folk art, one whose embodiment he first met in W.B. Yeats, long before writing his withering caricature of the British Haynes come to study “the wild Irish” (Ulysses ch 1).  For Ellmann, “Joyce had the same contempt for both the ignorant peasantry and the snobbish aristocracy that Yeats idealized” (Ellmann 102).  In a conversation with Joyce that Yeats later wrote about, Yeats reports having advanced the notion that there are “two kinds of invention, the invention of artists and the invention of the folk…” and that “the whole ugliness of the modern world has come from the spread of towns and their way of thought, and to bring back beauty we must marry the spirit and nature again… When the idea which comes from individual life marries the image that is born from the people, one gets great arts, the art of Homer…” (Yeats quoted in Ellmann 103).  Joyce’s reply was terse and dismissive: “generalizations aren’t made by poets; they are made by men of letters.  They are of no use” (103, emphasis added).  Again, notice Joyce’s dismissal of “men of letters” and his attempted affirmation of an alternative – here “poets.”  Lady Gregory’s book comes under similar criticism in “The Soul of Ireland” (1902): “The story-teller preserves the strange machinery of fairyland, but his mind is feeble and sleepy… her book, wherever it treats of the ‘folk,’ sets forth in the fullness of its senility a class of mind which Mr. Yeats has set forth” (CW 74-75).    Even in a review of a philosophical text (“An Effort at Precision in Thinking”, 1902), allegedly about commoners’ moral disputes, we find a similar refrain: “He must be a hardy man who contends that the disputants in this book are common people” (CW 69). In poetry, fiction and philosophy, then, Joyce was wary of the misrepresentation of the common people and their experiences – the experience of the Folk is, for Joyce easier romantically abused than authentically affirmed.


W.B. Yeats

Inauthentic folk art pleased the young Joyce just as little as effete literary pretension, and for similar reasons.  Joyce preferred an elusive alternative, one we have seen him variously describe as “the music hall,” “the man in the street,” “drama,” “communal art,” “epical art,” “an epic for drapers,” or “epic savagery.”  Another oft-quoted formulation comes from an unpublished manuscript titled “Aesthetics”: “There are three conditions of art: the lyrical, the epical and the dramatic” (CW 103): not the absence, entirely, of “the literary,” a term not even used in this manuscript.  In his earliest fictional and poetic writings, one sees him straining to discover this alternative.  All that remains of Joyce’s first attempt at a play, an apparently Ibsenian hodge-podge called “A Brilliant Career,” is a mere scrap of verse: “four lines from a gypsy song, sung during the merrymaking” (JJ 78).  He also wrote a verse poem (“Dream Stuff” – also lost) but all that survives of that is “one stanza from a song” (JJ 80).  In an early poem (“She is at peace where she is sleeping”), he uses a stock image of authentic low-brow music: “The fiddle has a mournful sound/That’s playing in the street below” (PE 71).  One of the earlier Epiphanies again looks toward the Folk, who lurk behind the “yellowing pages” of his book: “It pleases me to read of their ways, through them I see through to the life of a land beyond them to enter into communion with the German people” (PSW 162).  In Stephen Hero, he describes one of Stephen’s less cultured friends as “daringly commonplace” (SH 124).  In “The Holy Office,” his satirical broadside, he mocks the Yeatsian Celtic revival: “While they console [Joyce] when he whinges/With gold-embroidered Celtic fringes…” (PSW 97) and affirms his lowbrow alternative: “I, who disheveled ways forsook/To hold the poets’ grammar-book/Bringing to tavern and to brothel/The mind of witty Aristotle…” (PSW 97).  Each of these moments looks past literature, “yellowing pages,” and “gold-embroidered Celtic fringes” and moves towards the celebration of what Joyce sees as authentic folk voices, “tavern and brothel,” whether in song, dance, fiddle-playing or unsophisticated speech.

Absent a more robust notion of orality, however, and the consequently more complete projects of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, these efforts remain inchoate and unrealized.

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