In the first three episodes of Ulysses, I found several striking things that speak to Stephen Dedalus’s sense of himself as an artist. To suggest that Joyce was concerned with such matter is hardly a stretch. He whittled a much longer work down into A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for the purpose of having that shorter work operate as a sort of preface to Ulysses. Or so I understand it. There is much in these early episodes pertaining to art and artists that I missed (e.g. Buck Mulligan wanting to ride Stephen’s coattails and somehow create in Ireland a Hellenic center of the arts), and it took the annotations at UlyssesSeen to make them apparent to me. Armed with the perspective that site provided, I reread the first three episodes and found other things I hadn’t noticed before. I am no doubt scratching just the surface of the surface here, but the examples that most resonated with me follow.

On page 11, Stephen thinks back to some memories and to a dream he had of his mother. As the UlyssesSeen folk point out (see the panel here), there are some nice crisp details in his recollection. It’s pretty easy to imagine this burst of detail as the work of a poetic mind in action, the artist chewing over details of a hard event (emotion recollected in tranquility, anyone?), maybe even preparing them for insertion into his next poem. Then we have the line “Ghoul! Chewer of corpses!” and what appears to be an answer to it: “No mother. Let me be and let me live.” I take the ghoul exclamation to be a projection of Stephen’s of what he figures his mother might say if she knew he were noodling over the facts of her death with his art in mind. I may think this simply because I had a very similar experience when trying to write my way through my own mother’s death a few years ago. I wanted to capture the attendant details and emotions, but I felt like a buzzard picking at her corpose for something I might one day polish up and send in to a magazine for publication. This all brings up the interesting question of where the boundary (if there is one) lies between personal, private expression and consumable, public art.

On page 15, Stephen winces at the sting of the milk woman’s awe of Buck Mulligan. She listens to the man who could take care of her worthless living body and slights the man who could lend her immortality. Self-important much?

As the first episode closes, Stephen is noodling around with the Latin prayer that came to mind as he was thinking about his mother before, and he actually edits it, converting it into verses complete with eye-rhyme. He has to carve out a couple of phrases to make it work. The best I can tell, his rendering changes “May the glittering throng of confessors, bright as lilies, gather about you. May the glorious choir of virgins receive you” to something like the following:

bright as lilies
gather around you
glorious virgins

He basically removes the holy and keeps the earthly, retains the image fit for poetry. I’m reminded here, as often, of Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” That the prayer Stephen is editing appears previously in a section in which I take him to be considering images from the memory of his mother’s life and awful death for use in his art seems to me to tie that section to this and to confirm my suspicion that the ghoul comment pertains to his mining her death for his poems.

Catalectic meter is poetic meter that’s missing a syllable in the last foot. Chances are very good that if you’re reading Ulysses, you’ll remember from high school literature (at least) what a poetic foot is. But just in case: it’s a grouping of syllables. An iamb is an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. A trochee is the reverse. A spondee is two stressed syllables. A dactyl is one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. So to take Joyce’s example here (and really forcing the recitation of the stresses in the line), we have “WON’T you COME to SANdy MOUNT” — it’s three trochees followed by an orphaned stressed syllable. This is a line of catalectic tetrameter (tetra = 4 feet). Why Stephen talks of iambs I’m not sure. Maybe the lines in question come to mind and register to him as catalectic but he’s searching for (or seeking to write) catalectic iambic tetrameter. At any rate, this is a very self-conscious intrusion of Stephen’s consideration of poetic technique into the text.

About ten pages later (47), he recites (presumably in his head) an old song composed of lines of catalectic trochaic tetrameter. Repeating a fragment of one of the lines, he then follows it with a rhyming sentence that scans more or less with the same meter: “Language no whit worse than his.” It’s not quite right because you don’t in natural speech hit the “no” quite as hard as a stressed syllable demands, and you hit the “whit” a bit harder (but not quite fully stressed). Still, it’s hard not to hear poetry in the resulting implied couplet:

And thy quarrons dainty is.
Language no whit worse than his.

But then go on and read the next two sentences, which I’ll present as an unrhymed couplet:

Monkwords, marybeads jabber on their girdles:
roguewords, tough nuggets patter in their pockets

There’s all kinds of stuff going on here. First, there’s the internal eye-rhyme of “words.” Then there are these weird compound words that Hopkins would have been jealous of. Each line ends on a trochaic utilitarian piece of attire, so while there’s not a phonemic rhyme, there’s a sort of rhyme of category and of rhythm. You have alliteration in “patter in their pockets,” a sort of visual rhyme of double letters in “jabber,” “nuggets” and “patter,” assonance in the adjacent “tough” and “nuggets,” more mid-line assonance in “jabber” and “patter.” There’s even something very nearly onomatopoeic about the beads jabbering on the girdles. But wait, there’s more. These two lines are almost identical rhythmically; take a liberty with the stress on “nuggets” and it’s exact. Finish all that off with the figurative language — “marybeads” for a rosary, “nuggets” for coins — and you’ve got basically a beginner’s guide to prosody and poetics here.

The last example I’ll pull out appears on page 40, and it’s another that resonates very much with my own experience. A brief quote:

Someone was to read them there after a few thousand years, a mahamanvantara. Pico della Mirandola like. Ay, very like a whale. When one reads these strange pages of one long gone one feels that one is at one with one who once . . .”

The ellipsis is Joyce’s and not mine. I take this to be a funny little jab at the self-absorbed young writer’s tendency to try to sound lofty. I would have real trouble counting the number of pages of journals I kept years ago on which I attempted this sort of syntactic jugglery in order to distance myself in a way from what I was writing. The idea is that you want to write as if, looking back once you’re famous (which is what Stephen is imagining here — the thems of his sentence are the books he fancies himself having written in the future), you had an inkling that you might wind up being famous one day. And yet you want to do so in a sort of modest or off-hand way. So you throw in goofy references and uncited quotes that betoken the breadth and depth of your knowledge of literature and then you write as if looking back on your youthful writing with sort of a wink and a nod. It’s all very silly. Stephen is attempting such a thing here, and he gets tripped up on his distancing techniques and loses his trail. It’s very funny, if my reading of it fits at all.

5 thoughts on “Poetry

  1. robberry July 12, 2010 / 8:36 pm

    There’s some great stuff here, Judd, and I’m really glad to see you talking about the poetry of the book right from the start rather than explaining the references. Like describing great Italian painters through lushness of color rather than trying to decode all the iconography; let people be captivated rather than just educated.

    My own background is visual arts rather than poetry of course, so you’re comments about iambs and meter do take me back to school quite a bit. But, hey, I came here for a reading of Joyce’s ULYSSES. I expect to get schooled.

    Very glad to hear you mention the portion about Stephen in fact being the “chewer of corpses.” That was my own sense of it and, in my adaptation at ULYSSES “SEEN”, I regret that my framing of the sequence doesn’t really show that.

    I think I’d also like to mention something about the third quote you’ve got here. “Ay, very much like a whale” is another HAMLET reference jammed into Joyce taking the piss out on his younger self. It’s from Polonious trying to keep up with Hamlet’s more agile mind describing clouds. Is Joyce’s future audience the poor old advisor reading his work “after a few thousand years”? Is there an artist’s self-loathing to be found there, the severe and real observation that art, no matter how direct, is never fully understood even once it’s appreciated?

  2. Daryl L. L. Houston July 12, 2010 / 9:34 pm

    Alas, the decision not to explain the references was one largely of ignorance, as I (not Judd) am the perpetrator of this post. I wish this wordpress theme would allow me to show avatars by the posts so that it was more obvious that we have multiple authors, but we’re stuck with just a byline. I mention it so that Judd doesn’t get saddled with whatever moronic things I say over the next few weeks. 🙂

    I’m glad to have some corroboration about the chewer of corpses. I’m stepping very lightly as I go through this book and am just full to the gills of uncertainty about how fit I am to read (much less to write about) the book.

    Having just come off the Moby-Dick read, I had whales on the brain, but I did have to remind myself of where this whale reference came from. I hadn’t thought about this bit in terms of self-loathing. Will have to think about that some more.

    • Judd Staley July 13, 2010 / 9:52 am

      Don’t worry Daryl: I’m fine with getting credit for all your posts. Thanks, actually.

      Though I do resent the implication that my posts *aren’t* full of ignorance.

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