James Joyce traces Stephen’s sexual development with great care in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As an infant Stephen is aware that his mother smells nicer than his father does. As a small schoolboy, he dreams of being kissed by her when sickness makes him long for home. As a young boy, he imagines that he will marry his playmate Eileen when they grow up. It is Eileen’s soft white hands and golden hair that first stirs his romantic boyish notions of idealised womanhood, but the way she puts her hand in his pocket and runs away is the first instance of what his relations with attractive girls are to be. He lacks the maturity to take the initiative in practice or to respond when a girl takes the initiative. Instead, he glamorises the experience in words. For Stephen this mental romanticisation of love is one thing; the experience of living girls is another thing altogether! The two experiences are never brought into harmony. Thus Stephen indulges in these romantic dreams about Dumas’ Mercedes, but it is significant that he pictures himself grandly rejecting her approaches because she had earlier slighted his love. This pose of grand, offended isolation is all too attractive to him.
The first fully recognisable sexual encounter occurs when Stephen goes to the party at Harrold’s Cross. He withdraws from the other children, relishing his isolation, while Emma glances repeatedly and invitingly in his direction. She rouses him to feverish excitement, and after the party, she goes with him to the tram-stop. They stand on the tram steps, he a step above hers, and as they talk she keeps coming up to join him on his step. He knows that she is making an offer; he also knows that the experience is like the occasion when Eileen ran laughing away from him. But for all his sense of her beauty and his knowledge that she is ready to be held and kissed, he does nothing. The failure depresses him. Then, next day, he begins to turn the whole experience – which should have had a living climax – into a literary matter. He tries to write a poem to Emma and consciously brushes the realities of the scene out of his mind. He turns the memory into an exercise in vague, conventionalised poetic verbalism. And after that, he goes and stares at himself in the mirror. His own pose as a romantic poet is more fascinating to him than the living girl who has inspired it.
Two years later, on the occasion of the school play, Stephen works himself up into an excited romantic mood in the belief that he will meet Emma after she has seen the play. Once more the devotion is an uncommunicated obsession based symbolically on a dramatic performance. After the play, in which he excels in the world of imaginary self-projection, Emma is nowhere to be found and he is plunged into despair. Stephen’s awakening sexuality, then, is blocked off from real human relationships and diverted into romantic dreams fed by his reading. The Count of Monte Cristo and Bulwer Lytton’s The Lady of Lyons supply him with imaginary situations of romantic love. As a result, his suppressed physical urges produce a perverted urge to sin and to force someone else into sin. The consequence is that when he meets a prostitute in the street one night, he is readily lured to her room and as she takes the initiative and embraces him he finds not only relief from the urges of lust but a new self-assurance.
For a time sexual experience with prostitutes runs alongside his romantic adoration of the Virgin Mary until the retreat sermons convince him of his wickedness and he repents. We are not told whether, after his loss of faith, he returned to the habit of visiting prostitutes. But clearly, he fails to make a connection between the romantic sexuality in his mind, which is stirred so deeply by the sight of the wading girl, and the life of real contact with women. The wading girl becomes the ideal to move the artist to creative dedication. Real human relationship is not involved.
The fitful references to Emma in the last chapter of the book suggest a very slight interest in living beauty compared to the passionate intellectual interest in the theory of beauty. Though Stephen chooses to imagine that Emma flirts with Father Moran, the sight of her by the library door stirs the thought that she may be innocent and there is another uprush of emotion – but it all goes into dreams and words, not into real contact with her. He writes an extravagantly rhetorical poem to her and pictures himself, the priest of the imagination, listening to her confession. Stephen’s mental life and his concept of himself as the heroic lonely artist are plainly incompatible with a sympathetic understanding of others. He indulges the notion that Emma is consciously rebuffing him and that Cranly is pursuing her when she ignores him outside the library. In consequence, he mentally washes his hands of her: ‘Let her go and be damned.’ But the reader lacks evidence to know how far Stephen is deceiving himself. Indeed the last references to Emma in his diary giver the impression of a girl who is trying hard to make contact with him. She wants to know why she sees so little of him and whether he is writing poems, and his reply is a churlish rebuff calculated to embarrass her. Stephen’s final observation, ‘I liked her and it seems a new feeling to me’, is one of the most revealing sentences in the book. Stephen has expressed a liking for another human being and has conceded that the feeling is a new one to him.
Therefore, it can be said that Stephen’s relationships with girls suffer because of his egotism. He cultivates an image of himself as an isolated artist. His sexual instincts are satisfied with prostitutes. His romantic yearnings are channelled into poems and day-dreams.
Irish writers are often noted both for their irony and for their humour, and Joyce uses a great deal of comic irony in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Irony is not always comic. It is ironic when a hero kills his own son not knowing who he is, but this irony is wholly tragic. It is ironic that a Christmas party meant to be the occasion of peace and goodwill should turn into a violent family row and a virulent exchange of abuse. It is sad too, and Stephen feels its sadness, but it also has its comic side. We smile when Dante, a rather self-important person conscious of her own dignity, is turned into a screaming virago quivering with rage, and when Mr Dedalus lets off steam in comic abuse of Church dignitaries.
Humorous irony in literature often revolves around the way self-important people are brought down to earth with a bang. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen is the main concern of the author and he happens to be a rather self-important and pretentious person. Joyce often punctures his pretentiousness – not in his own eyes and not in the eyes of other characters, but in the reader’s eyes. For instance, when Stephen makes his righteous protest against being unjustly punished by Father Dolan, he pictures himself like some great public figure of history standing up against tyranny. The little boy appealing to his headmaster sees himself in this grand light and when his protest has been accepted, he resolves not to take advantage personally of his vanquished foe, and we smile at his childish self-importance.
Stephen’s romantic dreams often evoke this indulgent smile in the reader. He pictures himself, at the end of a long series of heroic adventures, proudly declining Mercede’s offer of grapes. When he helps to lead a gang of boys, he sets himself apart from the others by not adopting their symbols and uniform, because he has read that Napoleon also remained unadorned. These comic comparisons made by the little boy are rich in ironic humour.
These are of course the kind of imaginative exaggerations which are common to childhood. But they lead to less usual extravagances in the growing artist. When a boy sits down, as Stephen does, to write a poem to a girl, and begins it by imitating Lord Byron’s habit of entitling such poems, but finishes up staring at himself admiringly in the mirror, the gap between supposed intention and reality is wide. Later Stephen imagines a stage triumph before Emma’s eyes and rushes off to claim his due of feminine admiration only to finish up in a squalid corner of the city amid the smell of horse urine. These contrasts are the stuff of irony. So is the contrast between the boy’s glamorous dreams of himself as a romantic lover and the actual experience to which they lead in a city brothel.
The retreat sermons are a sustained ironic piece, and the irony this time is not primarily at the expense of the hero but of the Catholic Church and its clergy. The sermons seem to start reasonably enough but gradually become a burlesque (the Tommy Tiernan treatment!) of the kind of teaching given in retreats. That is to say, they follow the course of traditional moral exhortation but push the examples to such an extreme that the effect is laughable. A further irony is that the ingenuity with which torments are seemingly devised by God and the relish with which they are described by the priest are not congruous with notions of a loving God and a religion of love. Equally ironic is the meticulous and literal way in which Stephen tries to mortify his senses and discipline his mind. The sermons plainly have had the effect on him which the priests had hoped for. Now that Stephen is repentant we naturally warm to him in sympathy, but we still smile at the degree of vanity and self-centeredness he shows in trying to model himself anew.
In some respects, the irony at Stephen’s expense is sharpest in the last chapter of the book. For when he becomes a student his aspirations are aimed higher and higher. The contrast between these aspirations and the reality around him is often laughably sharp. At the end of Chapter 4, for instance, Stephen has enjoyed raptures expressed in language of lyrical beauty. At the beginning of Chapter 5, he is drinking watery tea and chewing crusts of fried bread at a dirty kitchen table. Joyce puts these two episodes together with comic intent. Again Stephen propounds his high doctrine of beauty to his fellow students who, for the most part, have only crude and vulgar witticisms to contribute to the conversation.
Stephen dismisses real living beauty from his mind in order to theorise about beauty with his intellect. Inspired suddenly by Emma’s beauty, he writes a poem in a language utterly removed from the idiom of living human relationships. It is poetry so precious and “high-falutin” that real feeling is left out. The irony of praising Emma so richly in secret and virtually snubbing her when she makes natural friendly approaches is both amusing and rather sad. Not for the first time, we want to shake Stephen to try to knock some sense into him; above all to make him a little more human.
Stephen chooses exile from his native land mainly because of his growing disenchantment with Irish society on many levels. Indeed, his final decision to fly the nets which are impeding his development as an artist is achieved following a series of struggles with authority from which he ultimately decides to flee. His sense of injustice is first stirred when he is a young schoolboy. When Wells asks him if he kisses his mother at bedtime, he discovers that whether he should say Yes or No he will be laughed at. Wells has already shouldered him into the ditch, and this first experience of school bullying makes him ill. Christmas at home, which is expected to be all warmth and friendship and happiness after the chilly misery at school, turns out to be a time of angry political quarrels among adults who are all supposed to be devoted to Ireland. When Stephen returns to school after suffering the misfortune of having his glasses broken he suffers the injustice of being punished for it. Priests are supposed to be good, he thinks, but they get angry and behave cruelly. To make things worse, he later discovers that his bold protest against injustice becomes a subject for laughter among those responsible for the injustice.
Stephen’s confidence in the moral authority of the powers-that-be in Clongowes is thus undermined and this is also accompanied by the undermining in his respect for his father. The visit to Cork reveals Mr Dedalus as a boastful, flattery-loving, gas-bag and feckless drunkard, drinking and boasting while all the time his financial affairs are deteriorating and the home is getting more squalid. Stephen’s boyish attempt, when he gets his prize money, to stem the tide of sordid poverty that seems to be sweeping over his family proves absurdly inadequate. His attempt, after confession, to remodel himself on the pattern of perfection taught by the church, leads to extravagant feats of self-discipline that deny his most powerful aspirations towards life and beauty. When the suggestion is made that he should consider a vocation to the priesthood, an instinctive inner conviction assures him that his future cannot be in subjection to an ordered system like that of the Church. The vision of the wading girl stirs the religious outburst, ‘Heavenly God!’ and we recognise in the way the landscape calls up in him poetic phrases that satisfy his thirst for harmony between the outer world and his inner emotional life, that he is to be a future artist and not a future priest.
It is from a sordid scene at home and past the mad cries from a nunnery that Stephen makes his symbolic progress across Dublin to the university, where study opens up a world of exciting philosophical thought. But even here there is no prospect of ultimate life-long satisfaction. He quickly comes to realise that the university teachers are also limited and unimaginative, and the students’ enthusiasm is stirred by causes with which Stephen cannot sympathise. The idealistic support for the Czar’s peace initiative strikes him as sentimental. He feels unable to commit himself to corporate demands or protests. The enthusiasm of students such as Davin for the cause of national independence, the revival of native culture, the enmity against England seems to require a commitment that mortgages life in advance of living it. Stephen senses his own Irish inheritance, not as a great blessing, but as a series of fetters imposed by history willy-nilly on his generation. Moreover, he knows from the past that Irish nationalist movements tend to lead, not to victorious achievements by the leaders, but to their betrayal and martyrdom.
Stephen himself demands of life, above all, freedom in which he can work creatively as an artist. Closely associated with the demand for freedom is his sensitive responsiveness to beauty in the spoken and written word. He has found in his home an increasing sordidness and crudity that are the antithesis of beauty. He has found in the Church a cruelty hostile to justice and freedom, for the caning with the pandybat at Clongowes is of a piece with the horrendous torments pictured in Father Arnell’s sermons as the future eternal lot of millions of fellow human beings. He has found in the political life of Ireland a collection of inherited attitudes and passions that embitter family relationships, which turn young students into obsessed fanatics, and that claim people’s thoughts and energies before they have had time to develop their own individualities.
The upshot is that Stephen turns the rebellious slogan of Lucifer, in turning against God, ‘I will not serve’, into his own motto in rejecting the demands of home, fatherland, and Church, and dedicating himself to the task of expressing himself freely as an artist.
The decision takes shape in his mind in association with thoughts of the career of his mythical ‘ancestor, Daedalus, who found escape in flight from imprisonment in a labyrinth. Stephen has often trod the maze of Dublin streets seeking escape of one kind or another, whether in the confessional or the brothel. Only when he crosses the bridge to Bull Island and stares out to sea does he glimpse the vision of true fulfilment. He cannot find this fulfilment without flight. His mother prays, he says, that, ‘I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels.’ So he sets out, ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’ His final prayer is not directed to God but to his role model, Daedalus. He prays: ‘Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.’
In 1904 the magazine DANA made an important contribution to world literature by rejecting a short story by a then-unknown Irishman called James Joyce. Joyce sought the advice of George Russell (AE), who suggested that he should rewrite it as a novel. Joyce took his advice so seriously that he eventually produced a huge work of fiction which he titled Stephen Hero. This book was never published during his lifetime; most of it was destroyed by its dissatisfied author who decided to try again, reworking and reducing the material into five chapters. Twenty publishers rejected this new version before it finally appeared in 1916. Joyce gave his first novel the same title as that of the rejected short story: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In 1944 three years after his death, the surviving fragment of the original novel was published as Stephen Hero.
Brief Bio of James Joyce
Since A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is largely autobiographical, it is worth knowing something of the life and works of its author. James Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, the eldest of eleven children. His father, John Joyce, came from a wealthy Cork family and had inherited a small private income. He was an ardent admirer of Charles Stewart Parnell, for whom he had worked as an election agent. He was rewarded with the post of Tax Collector in Dublin, a lucrative position which allowed him and his growing family to live in considerable comfort and send his eldest son to Clongowes College. However, his fecklessness, his extravagance and his fondness for drink cost him his job and reduced his family to poverty. James was withdrawn from Clongowes and sent to Belvedere College, also run by the Jesuits. He proved a hard-working student, winning a number of scholarships, which in a manner typical of his father he squandered on expensive family outings.
From 1898 to 1902 Joyce was a student at University College Dublin, then run by the Jesuit order. When he graduated with a degree in languages he decided to continue studying as a medical student. However, unhappy at UCD, he went to Paris but returned to Ireland when he received news of his mother’s imminent death. To provide himself with a livelihood he took up a teaching post.
Then he met Nora Barnacle and his life was transformed. He persuaded her to elope with him to Trieste where he worked as a teacher of languages. There his children, Giorgio and Lucia, were born. His brother, Stanislaus, joined them in 1905, giving Joyce invaluable financial and moral support.
Joyce returned to Dublin on two occasions. On his first visit, he tried to set up the first cinema in Ireland, but the project failed. In 1914 he came home again to publish Dubliners, but once again his trip was in vain. Bitterly disappointed at his treatment, Joyce vowed never to set foot in his native land again. He was true to his word.
In 1914 Joyce took his family to Zurich, remaining there for the duration of the Great War. He then returned to Trieste but soon left for Paris, where he was to live until the Second World War forced him to move back to safety in neutral Zurich.
Meanwhile, in 1916 Dubliners was finally published, followed soon afterwards by A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Then on his fortieth birthday, his masterpiece, Ulysses, appeared, and almost immediately established his reputation as the foremost writer of his time.
Joyce’s great success as an author was marred by personal tragedy. His daughter Lucia’s mental health deteriorated to the point where Joyce could not care for her himself and had to have her committed to an institution. In 1931 his father died. All this time his eyesight was weakening, and though he underwent many painful operations, his sight continued to fail until he was almost blind. Having returned to Zurich on the outbreak of the Second World War he continued to write, working on his great experimental novel Finnegan’s Wake. His health continued to decline and he eventually died on 13th January 1941 of a perforated ulcer.
A Note on the Structure of the Novel
The novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a carefully constructed novel divided into five chapters or episodes. Each of these sections deals with an important stage in the development of the hero, Stephen Dedalus, from early childhood to adulthood.
In Chapter One we meet Stephen as a baby-talking infant. We learn of his first years in Clongowes College, where he is unjustly caned by Father Dolan. An important event is the Christmas dinner, during which a bitter argument between Dante and Mr Casey reflects the troubled state of Ireland after the Parnell Split.
In Chapter Two, Stephen’s family suffers a decline in living standards due to Mr Dedalus’ feckless ways and is forced to move from Bray to Blackrock. Young Stephen is taken out of Clongowes and sent to Belvedere College. Important incidents are the encounter with Emma Cleary, the school play, and Stephen’s visit to Cork with his father, Simon. This chapter ends with Stephen’s sexual awakening as seen in the episode with the prostitute.
Chapter Three is largely concerned with religion. Filled with sexual guilt, Stephen listens to the famous sermon on Hell. He resolves to end his sinful life and seeks grace through confession and self-mortification. As a result, he achieves peace of mind and inner calm.
Chapter Four sees Stephen invited to become a Jesuit when his piety is noticed by his teachers. He rejects the call, opting instead for Art. This turning away from religion and back to the world is symbolised by the girl on the beach at the end of this section.
In Chapter Five, Stephen is now a student at University College Dublin. Through his discussions with fellow students, we discover his rejection of nationalism and the nationalistic art that was then in vogue. He expounds for us his theory of aesthetics. The novel ends with his defiant refusal to serve God or country. Instead, he will seek through exile to find the freedom he needs to create his own art.
Major Themes in the Novel
Joyce’s first novel is concerned to show the stages in the development of the artist. We are presented with the hero Stephen Dedalus first as a child, then as a schoolboy, later as a devout Catholic, and finally as a university student. Family, teachers, sex, religion, and country, forge fetters for the would-be artist; to create he must break free and become his own person. This he achieves in the end with his famous declaration: “Non serviam” (I shall not serve), thereby turning his back on his family, his country, and his religion to devote himself totally to his new religion of Art.
Style and Technique in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a naturalistic novel narrated by an invisible author who remains aloof and apparently removed from his tale. However, the viewpoint through which we see things is clearly Stephen’s. This not only makes him the focus of our attention but it also invites us to sympathise with him throughout. The language is also used to reflect Stephen’s central role and importance. Thus in the opening chapter, we read the prattle of childhood as the infant Stephen tries to come to terms with his surroundings. Later the schoolboy slang reveals his perceptions of life in a boarding school. At all times the language is suited to whatever stage Stephen is then at.
Religious symbols and liturgical terms abound in Chapter Three. They also help in the final chapter to elevate the tone and solemnise the young artist’s preoccupation with aesthetics at that stage. Even though Joyce is at great pains to reject his Catholic faith he displays here a deep appreciation of Catholic rituals. His friend Cranley points out this apparent inconsistency:
It is a curious thing, do you know, how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.
This accusation, which could also be levelled at many other Irish novelists, is very relevant. They, including James Joyce, seem determined to reject Catholicism because it seems at variance with their artistic imagination. Yet, as Eamon Maher states ‘they cannot avoid being ‘supersaturated’ with its vestiges’.
Symbols, including religious ones, are important to Joyce as a method of heightening his themes and maintaining links throughout the narrative. For example, Stephen’s name reminds us of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and the significance of this is seen in the young man’s willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of his art. His surname, Dedalus, evokes the labyrinth-maker, the inventor, the flier who dared to aspire too high. Other symbols used by Joyce in this novel are water, representing death, cleansing and renewal; the Church as mother; Ireland as the ‘sow that eats her farrow’.
To create a real and convincing background for Stephen, there is a painstaking attention to detail. Names of actual places are numerous in the text, e.g. Clongowes, Belvedere, Lower Mount Street. Real people are also introduced, such as Parnell, and Michael Davitt, W.S. Gilbert. The squalor of Stephen’s home life is vividly captured in Joyce’s description of the meal table. He is not content just to appeal to our sense of sight. We hear the sound of cricket balls hitting bats in Clongowes; we smell horse’s urine, and while we listen to the sermon on Hell in Chapter Three we feel the horrific torments of the Damned.
Walter Pater, the author of Renaissance, who had such an enormous influence on Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement, also affected Joyce in his attitude to Art. Pater and the followers of the Aesthetic Movement believed that art should be of paramount importance. That Joyce was especially sympathetic to this view is most apparent in the final section of the novel. Another writer much admired by Joyce was Cardinal Newman, the founder of University College Dublin whose style he sought to emulate.
A Detailed Analysis of a Sample Passage from the Novel
“He looked northward to Howth. The sea had fallen below the line of seawrack on the shallow side of the breakwater and already the tide was running out fast along the foreshore. Already one long oval bank of sand lay warm and dry amid the wavelets. Here and there warm isles of sand gleamed above the shallow tides and about the isles and around the long bank and amid the shallow currents of the bridge were lightclad figures, waving and delving.
In a few moments he was barefoot, his stockings folded in his pockets, and his canvas shoes dangling by their knotted laces over his shoulders and picking a pointed salteaten stick out of the jetsam among the rocks, he clambered down the slope of the breakwater.
There was a long rivulet in the strand and as he waded slowly up its course, he wondered at the endless drift of seaweed. Emerald and black and russet and olive, it moved beneath the current, swaying and turning. The water of the rivulet was dark with endless drift and mirrored the highdrifting clouds.
The clouds were drifting above him silently and silently the seatangle was drifting below him; and the grey warm air was still: and a new wild life was singing in his veins.”
This fine piece of writing, which occurs at a crucial point towards the end of Chapter Four, illustrates many of the features of Joyce’s writing style.
Firstly, we notice his attention to detail; e.g.: ‘the pointed salteaten stick’. The word ‘salteaten’, like ‘jetsam’, ‘lightclad’, ‘seatangle’ shows the author’s fondness for coining new words.
Secondly, we view the scene through Stephen’s eyes, and so his feelings as he observes the seascape are subtly revealed, while the narrator himself remains invisible and aloof.
Repetition is another device to concentrate our minds and create connections in the writing. Notice how often we meet the words ‘warm’, ‘silently’, ‘clouds’ and ‘drifting’.
Symbolism is everywhere. The clouds are the difficulties of the past, now seen drifting away; the rivulet is a new life beginning; the sky is the greatness the young artist seeks and aspires to, as well as being associated in our minds with Dedalus.
There is also a sense throughout the piece that we are building towards a climax. The feelings of Stephen are conveyed by words like ‘warm and dry’, ‘new wild life’ and ‘singing’. The final mood is one of joyous freedom.
Sound is also important, as we would quickly realise were we to read the passage aloud. Its lyricism is enhanced by alliteration (‘salteaten stick’) and assonance (‘wild life’). Stephen has arrived at a crucial moment in his life. His decision not to become a Jesuit has just been made, and now he sees his future as an artist calling him like a vocation. It is the turning of the tide for him. He is exhilarated by the prospects ahead: he has now freed himself from the restraints of family, country, and religion. That is why he feels ‘a new wild life was singing in his veins’.
Having completed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce too had arrived at a new stage in his development. He was now forever finished with conventional fiction. Already his mind was preoccupied with the book that was to become his great masterpiece. Ulysses was about to be born, and with its birth, the young exile from Dublin would be hailed as the greatest novelist of the century and one of the greatest innovators of all time.
However, Stephen Dedalus had survived and it is the same Stephen we meet on the first page of Ulysses. However, he is not the hero this time; that role is reserved for Leopold Bloom, but Stephen is second only in importance to him. Thus Joyce links together two of the finest works of fiction ever written. The hero of the rejected short story lived on in the imagination of his creator for more than twenty years to become one of the best known and most written about characters of all time.
 Eamon Maher writing in The Ticket in The Irish Times, ‘The half-life and death of the Irish Catholic novel’, Saturday, December 23rd, 2017.
You might also like to read a more detailed character sketch of Stephenhere
(with particular focus on ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’)
Dylan Thomas’s poetry has always attracted diverging views, attracting some readers and repelling others. In certain ways he is the last of the Romantic poets, and like most poets in that tradition he liked to experiment with words. He was perhaps the only modern poet to experiment persistently, hence the bewilderment of his audience when his early poems were published in the mid-1930’s.
The poetry of the twentieth century can be divided roughly into two main categories. There is, first of all, the tradition established by Yeats and Eliot which attempted to comment on and influence major social issues in an effort to bring about reforms. Yeats’ ‘September 1913’ and Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (1922), are two good examples of this tradition. Both poets express similar attitudes, namely disgust at the degeneracy of modern life, and both poets advocate a return to past virtues as a means of displacing society’s unpleasant aspects. For Eliot and Yeats therefore, a significant aspect of a poet’s role was that of social commentator, and with them a tradition was established which continued to be a dominant one throughout the first half of the twentieth century.
The poetry of Dylan Thomas, however, diverges sharply from this tradition and to a large extent he remains outside it. His poems had so little of the realism of Eliot and Yeats that they took the contemporary literary scene by storm. Being at heart a Romantic poet, Dylan Thomas preferred to write poems that were completely devoid of social issues and unlike Yeats and Eliot he did not feel the urge to reform the world. Modern poets in general had come through the Great War with a new sense of function and responsibility. This sense of conviction, of important work to do in a political or social context, is completely lacking in the works of Dylan Thomas. Indeed, this lack of an urgent poetic content seemed naive to many early readers, particularly at a time when Europe had emerged tragically from one World War, and seemed likely to get entangled in another. In ‘Fern Hill’, for example, Dylan Thomas describes his memories of childhood in Wales in the years after the Great War. The picture he creates, however, is so beautiful and idyllic as to be almost unreal. The real Wales of the time, many early critics suggested, was in sharp contrast to that described in the poem.
Similarly in ‘A Refusal to Mourn’, a poem which describes the death of a child killed in an air-raid, no reference is made to the terrible atrocities of war. ‘Fern Hill’ was also criticised in other respects. Besides its lack of serious content there was the more serious charge of a complete lack of meaning. Indeed, like much of his poetry, ‘Fern Hill’ was strongly criticised as being almost totally obscure. Thomas himself realised the problem his poetry in general, and ‘Fern Hill’ in particular, presented to readers. He remarked how his poems were always rigorously compressed, being ‘as tight packed as a mad doctor’s bag’. The poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson, who published Thomas’s early work in his influential magazine, New Verse, (where he also published W.H. Auden and Louis McNeice), and who recognised Thomas’s promise was one of the first to comment on its obscurity. He attacked Thomas for his neglect of a continuous line of meaning, for his use of ‘towering phrases’ which imply so much but say very little, and for his tendency to be ‘over-fantastic’ and obscure.
To understand the poetry of Dylan Thomas one must consider him as a modern exponent of the Romantic tradition. Indeed, it is only in the context of this tradition that one can really characterise his particular method and identify his major themes. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century Romantic poetry was steadily in decline. Eliot, in particular, had dismissed all poetry in the Romantic tradition as obsolete and unacceptable in a modern context. In its stead he substituted a new urban poetry which is so often full of depression, anger and despair (e.g. ‘The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’). Dylan Thomas, however, completely rejected the modern mode of expression, and returned instead to the Romantic poets for his principal themes and his characteristic method. Whereas Eliot and Yeats describe a world which is often dark and depressing, Dylan Thomas reaffirms a personal faith in life. His poetry is subsequently filled with a sense of joy and optimism.
Dylan Thomas’s working life as a poet lasted a little over twenty years but the most extraordinary thing about it was how much of the foundations were laid down in a very short period towards the beginning. He was writing profusely in his early teens and when he was seventeen he began work on some of the poems for which he is still remembered. Between the years 1931 and 1935 he drafted, and in many cases actually completed, most of his best poems. In other words he had already created the most important parts of his work by the age of twenty-one. Despite his basic differences with T.S. Eliot, he adopted Eliot’s habit of rejecting nothing, and lines or sections that were unsustainable or unsuitable for one poem often found their way into another. Years later he still continued to draw on material from his adolescent notebooks. Indeed, out of these notebooks and casual jottings grew the most famous poems he published in his lifetime and those for which he is remembered after his untimely death. He composed by selecting the best expressions from his notebooks, reordering and perfecting them until he was satisfied with their sequence.
‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ are typical examples of Dylan Thomas’s poetic method. Both poems depend on a common Romantic assumption that the natural world is self-explanatory: things die and are born again in a constant process of death and renewal. We notice, therefore, how nature is often strongly incorporated into his poems. In a letter dated March 1935 he speaks of how his, ‘pre-conceived symbolism derived from the cosmic significance of nature’. Thus, both ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ are overlaid with a strong natural imagery. He is particularly attracted to natural images, which suggest youth and vitality, but we also find him returning constantly to ideas of transience and death. Indeed, throughout his poetic career he remained haunted by the reality of death, and perhaps his chief contribution to English poetry was his sustained vision that life and death form part of a great process shared by all created things. Both ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ begin with the assumption that we start to die from the moment we are born, even indeed from the moment we are conceived. This continuous process of dying extends to all living things. The entire thought of ‘Fern Hill’ is based on this idea, though it does not become explicit until the final stanza:
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
In ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ the theme of death is seen in a slightly different context as the poet surmises on the probability of another existence. Here he suggests that the world into which we are born and in which we die is not the final world; that there is another existence on the other side of things. Again he expresses his ideas through use of comparisons with natural things. Nature ‘dies’ each year and renews itself with the return of every spring; but for man there is only one death, ‘After the first death there is no other’. Yet this realisation of the eternal presence of death does not allow the poet to grieve over the dead child, or to encourage false sentiments by a vain display of tears. This poem is not so much a discussion of the child’s death, as a presentation of Thomas’s attitude to the idea of death in general. He thinks of death as a slow, relentless process, rather than as a sudden pathetic end to life. This process of destruction extends to all living things and he sees no reason to mourn when the process is finally completed.
The poem begins with a great statement as befits some good, cosmic occasion. The first two stanzas, and the first line of the third, are one sentence with the skeleton grammar: ‘Till doomsday I will not mourn for the dead child’. Darkness is described as making mankind, ‘fathering’ birds etc.. and ‘humbling’ all. As such it is more than a personification of death: it is unknown, undeveloped nature from which all life comes and to which it will eventually return. One critic suggests that darkness might also refer to God the Father who is described in the Book of Genesis as making the world out of nothing. Water is always used in Thomas’s poetry as a fundamental life-giver. Here it is joined with the reference to corn and behind each is the idea of change and transformation. Corn was said by St. Paul to die in the ground before it receives the rain whereby it sprouts again. In this manner it is transformed into a more perfect element. The general theme of the poem is clear: all people, no less than this young girl, are transformed by death into more perfect states, and the whole process of dying is a natural precondition for this transformation. Throughout the poem ordinary words are used to suggest mystic processes: ‘The majesty and burning of the child’s death’; ‘The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother’. Behind this poem is the biblical idea of death as a change of life rather than as an end of it. In the final stanza, therefore, we are given a great image of the relentless continuance of life as the Thames, bearing the young girl’s spirit, flows away to the sea.
In ‘Fern Hill’ the emphasis is on life rather than on death, yet we see how the pervasive presence of nature is a dominant feature of this poem also. From the beginning of the poem the boy’s experiences are described in terms of natural images and his simple vitality is seen as a gift of nature soon to be withdrawn. Phrases like ‘all the sun long, all the moon long’, show how the child measured time by nature , not by the clock, and how each day seems a long savouring of experience. As the poem progresses, however, the facts of time become more insistent and the pathos of transience can no longer be ignored, ‘The children green and golden / Follow him out of grace’; ‘And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land’. The lack of grammar in these stanzas makes them appear, as in Chapter 1 of James Joyce’s, Portrait of the Artist, as if part of a dream-like reflection. This nostalgic emphasis on childhood is yet another dominant feature of Romantic poetry. In one of his most famous poems Wordsworth wrote that, ‘Heaven lies about us in our infancy’, an idea to which Dylan Thomas also subscribed.
Wonderfully rich in visual imagery, the words of ‘Fern Hill’ combine together in highly original ways to picture the joyful exhilaration of a child. This can be the cause of some confusion for readers. Striking phrases like , ‘happy as the grass was green’, ‘prince of the apple-towns’, or ‘at my sky-blue trades’, are surprising by their novelty and at first it is difficult to be sure what effects are intended. These unusual images are evocative rather than precise: their purpose is to create a strong emotional atmosphere. Dylan Thomas deliberately uses all his poetic powers to combine in one image a wider range of associations. Being essentially a Romantic poet, he is trying to communicate an experience, which is almost beyond expression. In the repetitions, ‘it is lovely’, ‘it is air / And playing lovely, and watery…’, he seems to be straining after an ecstasy which can never be completely expressed in words. He is celebrating the divine innocence of childhood which, for him, is a mystery almost beyond analysis.
The second stanza reminds us how for a child roaming the countryside, time moves slowly through long mornings of pleasure. But much more than this is implied. The noise of water passing over the pebbles is like Church bells calling the boy to worship. Dylan Thomas is aware of the power of time but instead of becoming melancholy he sees the joy of his childhood as something for which to be thankful, being itself part of the wonder of creation. Instead of giving way to regrets he rejoices in what has been. Thus, the boy’s emotions transform every object he sees: ‘the lilting house’, ‘happy yard’, ‘gay house’. He is, ‘honoured among foxes and pheasants’, an integral part of all natural things. But he also achieves an exalted state: he is a ‘prince’, ‘honoured’ and ‘lordly’. Lines such as ‘the big fields high as a house’ evoke a sense of abundance, of a world of plenty, of which the boy’s youthful joy is but a part.
These expressions of mystery and wonder reach a climax in stanza four. When he awakes in the morning, the farm appears like the Garden of Eden, a revelation of earthly innocence. It is typical of Thomas that this awareness is expressed in religious terms:
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
From the beginning of the poem the boy’s simple vitality is seen as a gift of time to be withdrawn. The final image of the sea repeats the previous evocations of energy and abundance; but like the child it too is confined and restricted in its range by natural forces.
An important characteristic of ‘Fern Hill’ is the manner in which Dylan Thomas develops his ideas through imagery, verbal repetition, and other stylistic devices. The prose meaning of his poems – their paraphrasable content – is usually simple. What is difficult, however, is their verbal texture. In his prose writings he has stressed the importance of metaphor in his poetry, which often causes difficulties of interpretation to arise. In one of his few statements on his own poems he describes his peculiar method of composition with particular regard to his use of imagery:
‘A poem by itself needs a host of images. I make sure – though ‘make’ is not the word; I let, perhaps an image be ‘made’ emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual and critical forces I possess; I let it breed another, let that image contradict the first; make of the third image bred out of the other two together, a fourth contradictory image and let them all conflict within my imposed formal limits. The life of any poem of mine cannot move out of the centre; an image must be born and die in another; and any sequence of my images must be a sequence of creations, recreations, destructions, contradictions…’
This concept of the image determines the construction of ‘Fern Hill’. Sequences of images are linked together without the relationship imposed by ordinary syntax, so as to provide a uniquely original form of poetry. Words are arranged in terms of their musical effects, and individual stanzas abound with references to music. In ‘Fern Hill’ these references are numerous, ‘the lilting house’, ‘singing as the farm was home’, ‘the Sabbath rang slowly’, ‘the tunes from chimneys’, ‘it was air / and playing’, ‘all his tuneful turning’, ‘I sang in my chains like the sea’. The opening stanza expresses the poet’s experiences clearly. Music, as conceived by the Romantics, is identified with nature. Words are listed for their sound properties and are densely woven into poetic rhythms. To these, also, are added colours suggestive of youth and vitality, ‘green’, ‘golden’, ‘white’, ‘blue’.
One of the secrets of Dylan Thomas’s strongly personal style then was his discovery of unsuspected variables in English – again like James Joyce in Ulysses. Thus, he would write ‘all the sun long’ instead of ‘all day’, ‘once below a time’ instead of ‘once upon a time’, ‘all the moon long’ instead of ‘all night’. The change to ‘Adam and maiden’ instead of ‘Adam and Eve’ is particularly significant with the connotation of innocence and purity that the first phrase brings. This gift for revitalising common, general statement was to remain with Thomas all his life. Indeed, only the great Gerard Manley Hopkins shows a comparable talent for finding similar rich possibilities in worn-out words and phrases.
The reader must not identify Stephen with Joyce in every respect. For instance, Stephen is represented in his days at Clongowes Wood College as a timid boy, conscious of his smallness and weakness, who tries to avoid being involved in the rough and tumble of football. It is true that the young Joyce disliked fights, but he was keen on hurdling (not hurling!) and cricket and won cups for his prowess. This practice of taking a certain aspect of his own character and intensifying and exaggerating it when picturing his alter ego, or second self, is typical of Joyce’s method. The exaggerations often move Stephen a distance from the real Joyce. Who would guess from A Portrait that Joyce’s cheerful disposition earned him the nickname “Sunny Jim”?
Stephen, then, is not simply a direct self-portrait. Indeed it is significant that Joyce called his book A Portrait of the Artist and not A Portrait of an Artist. For Joyce was never content to record particular experiences for the sake of their interesting particularities. He wanted to achieve universality. Of his first book of short stories, Dubliners, he wrote: ‘If I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of every city in the world. In the particular is contained the universal.’ So we may assume that in studying the growth and development of Stephen Dedalus he was not exclusively concerned with getting to the heart of the young James Joyce or an imaginary equivalent, but in getting to the heart of the young artist as such.
In calling his hero ‘Stephen Dedalus’ Joyce consciously combined the name of the first Christian martyr and that of Daedalus, the legendary Athenian craftsman. Daedalus was credited with making statues that could move. He constructed the famous labyrinth at Crete. He made wings from feathers and wax so that he and his son Icarus could escape when Minos imprisoned them in the labyrinth. Icarus flew too near the sun so that the wax melted and he fell into the sea and was drowned. In giving his hero these names Joyce gave him symbolic status. The martyr suffering for his faith and the skilful, inventive artificer are joined in one person. Daedulus is significant both because he was a cunning craftsman giving life and complexity to his inventions and because he escaped imprisonment by the adventure of flight.
In the presentation of Stephen’s infancy Joyce has compressed a series of references that hint at the larger issues in the child’s future life. In fact infant memories are the acorn containing a promise in miniature of the future tree. The bedtime story sets the young hero on the road of life encountering a cow which is a symbol of the Ireland with which he will have to come to terms. The physical experience of finding relief and warmth in wetting the bed is followed by discomfort: this little miniature of delight seized that has to be paid for in pain, of ecstasy followed by sordidness or agony, sets the tone for many of the coming experiences. In the memory of Dante’s brushes, representative of Davitt and Parnell, is foreshadowed the Irish political strife that is to ruin the Christmas party and provide a public background which Stephen, the university student, finds suffocating. The demand that the child should apologise or have his eyes pulled out foreshadows the later full-scale demand for repentance to escape the torments of hell.
The story of Stephen’s development is the story of these contrasts and conflicts magnified. The child growing to young manhood has to face the impact on his individuality of the forces at large in the world he has entered. He is subject in turn to the pressures of family, of Church, and of his country, all trying to mould him in a particular way. The disillusionment experienced after bed-wetting is symptomatic of his maturer experience in this respect. The first separation from home at Clongowes is a move from the remembered warmth and cosiness of the family circle to a world of physical cold and discomfort and of emotional harassment by others, boys and masters. A chill caused by bullying brings him to the school sickroom in a shivering delirium. This is the first crisis of Chapter 1. The Christmas party to which he has looked forward, and which opens with promise of warmth, good cheer, and family friendliness, turns sour and then erupts into a violent slanging match because the public controversies of Irish history have impinged on the private scene. This is the second crisis of Chapter 1. The shock for Stephen is that Parnell is a hero, that priests are good and wise men, that these adults are all for Ireland, and yet tears and rage break up their conviviality. The third and last crisis of Chapter 1 is caused by the shock of Stephen’s first encounter with flagrant injustice – injustice perpetrated by a priest in authority. Father Dolan punishes him cruelly when he is innocent. The injustice stirs him to a brave and spirited bid for his rights. If Stephen is the loser, by sickness and by family discord, in the first two crises, he is victor in the third. The hero has protested in the face of the highest authority and has won his case. His individuality has triumphed over the iniquities of the system. This, in embryo, is the pattern of the artist’s destiny.
In the period between Clongowes and Belvedere Stephen develops as a normal, healthy young boy who goes shopping with his uncle, and enjoys riding in the milkcart and playing on a farm. This is accompanied by two stirrings of his inner life: one is the sickening realisation that the family have financial problems, which turns to bitterness when they are forced to move from the comfort of Blackrock to the cheerless house in the city: the other is the romantic dream-life he creates for himself through reading The Count of Monte Cristo and picturing himself the partner of the lovely Mercedes. The first crisis of Chapter 2 is the shock of failure within himself. It occurs at the tram-stop with Emma Clery. Her eyes, her chatter, her way of coming to stand on the step beside him all seem to invite him to hold her and kiss her. But he does nothing; and the failure fills him with gloom. When he tries to write a poem to Emma, he empties the incident of reality and precision of detail and transforms it into a mistily conceived dream. As soon as the poem is written he goes to stare at himself – not to look for Emma.
The second crisis of Chapter 2 also involves self-dramatisation, this time in an actual theatrical performance on stage at Belvedere. A deep inner disturbance of desire, tenderness, and melancholy is focused on the belief that now, two years later, Emma is to watch him on stage with admiring eyes. The belief stimulates him to an excited and confident performance, after which he rushes out in wild expectation to his family, only to discover that Emma is not with them. The shock sends him running through the night streets of Dublin to a filthy corner where rankness and stench quench his inner agony. Interwoven with this record of emotional development Joyce traces the growing artistic confidence of Stephen’s persistence in championing the rebel Byron against the respectable Tennyson.
The Cork visit serves to detach Stephen irrevocably from his father and his like. Tagging on behind his father, he recognises the hollowness of his garrulous bonhomie, is ashamed of the way he can be duped by an obsequious college servant, is embarrassed by his cheap flirtatiousness with barmaids, and is disgusted by his excessive drinking. Shame and humiliation open a chasm between his father’s cronies and himself. The experience reinforces the humiliation already felt in his ambiguous status at Belvedere – a leading boy whose home background is one of squalor. And there is no escape to heroic self-confidence because he has become the victim of a restless inner lust and private orgies that fill him with self-loathing. There is an unbridgeable gap between the real world around him and what transpires in his own angry, impotent, dejected soul.
In the last section of Chapter 2 Stephen makes a desperate attempt to re-establish order in his world and to rebuild effective relationships with his own family. The money prizes he has won for academic work are spent lavishly and recklessly on giving the family a taste of affluent living and turning himself into their banker and benefactor. When the money is gone, the whole attempt to stem briefly the tide of squalor and to come to terms with his family seems to have been futile. Meanwhile sexual desire is so strong that he turns innocent girls seen by day into objects of imaginary lustful indulgence in his private dreams at night. There are still momentary day-dreams of fulfilment in the company of the idealised Mercedes; but the predominant urge is an animal demand to force some girl into sin and to take pride in it. In this mood he encounters the prostitute who takes him home. Thus the final crisis of Chapter 2 (like the final crisis of Chapter 1) ends in a kind of triumph, in that Stephen feels release, delight, and a new self-assurance when the prostitute moves into his arms.
As with each epiphany, after the elation there comes deflation! The effect of sexual release upon Stephan is complex. His senses are repelled by the vulgarity of the brothels; he is conscious of his sinfulness, and yet too proud to pray, and afflicted with spiritual indifference. He is certainly not more open to others: on the contrary he finds himself scorning his school-fellows and simple worshippers. The aesthetic delight in the office (litany) of the Virgin Mary still captivates him. Stephen has not found a way to self-fulfilment nor to love of others. The sexual act, which ought to be a means to both, has become one more experience for a would-be artist self-consciously inflating his own ego. It is in this deeply unsatisfied condition that Stephen is subjected to the retreat sermons.
The first crisis of this (third) chapter occurs when the rector announces the retreat and speaks of the sanctity, self-sacrifice, and heroic achievements of St. Francis Xavier. Stephen feels an ominous withering of his heart. Father Arnall’s previous contact with Stephen at Clongowes revives childhood memories, and his sermons are to thrust him back into a state of childlike submission and obedience. The introductory sermon and the sermons on death and judgement produce a second crisis, a sense of his shamelessness and foulness against which the thought of Emma stands in stark contrast. The shock of conscious guilt is resolved temporarily by another mental act of self-dramatisation when he pictures himself, hand in hand with Emma, being forgiven and comforted by the Virgin Mary. This romanticised day-dream is another absurdly extravagant product of the immature artistic mind. On the third day of the retreat the sermons revolve around the horrors of hell with an emphasis upon the physical torment of the senses and the moral and spiritual torments that accompany it. Designed to stir the conscience by stimulating fear, they constitute a burlesque of Catholic exhortations. Joyce emphasises the parallel by making Lucifer’s slogan in rebellion against God (nonserviam) Stephen’s own slogan of commitment to his artistic vocation. Pride, the sin of Lucifer, is the sin which the egotistic young artist cannot recognise in himself. The final crisis of this chapter brings Stephen to a condition of terrified remorse, which is removed only when he makes his confession and receives absolution. Even in this act humility and sincerity are infected by self-dramatisation in the role of penitent. Like the previous chapters, this chapter too ends on a note of ‘triumph’ – again a romanticised triumph, that of the self-consciously cleansed young man receiving the sacrament in the joy of forgiveness.
In Stephen’s next phase he cultivates his soul with elaborate devotional exercises, models his religious raptures on the romantic gestures represented in sacred art, and mortifies his senses with ingenious disciplines. The persistent habit of self-dramatisation is evident in Stephen’s various reflections on the director’s suggestion that he might have a vocation to the priesthood. The first crisis of Chapter 4 comes when he weighs the call but suddenly realises that his own individuality can never surrender to the claims of such a calling. He has a ‘pride of spirit’ that makes him ‘a being apart’. He must learn his own wisdom in his own way and face the world’s snares. The decision to apply for a university place follows naturally. But there is a second brief crisis when Stephen meets a band of Christian Brothers who in their work and attitude have all the genuineness of devotion, humility, and charity which he himself lacks, and he feels ashamed and angry with himself in their presence. This mood is resolved by the sudden assertion of his poetic self and his delight in words. The final crisis of the chapter, and the climax of the book, occurs when, dreaming of his urge to creative achievement as an artist, and feeling ready to shake off all that impedes him from following his calling, he sees a girl wading in the sea. Her beauty and her stillness fill him with rapture. Stephen exclaims, ‘Heavenly God!’ bringing his religious sense into a new context in response to the image of loveliness. The call of youth, beauty, and creativity throws him into an emotional ecstasy. The decisive choice of his life has been made.
The final chapter has thus the air of an epilogue. Yet the first section of it is the longest section in the book, and a good deal of experience is encompassed in Stephen’s thoughts. The sordid scene at home is in stark contrast to the literary treasures stored in his mind. Though he scorns the pedantry of the lecture room, he relishes the magic of language with acute sensitivity. He has an off-hand attitude to the college time-table, and thinks but poorly of the dean of studies with whom he argues half-seriously, half-provocatively. He sits through the physics lecture in detachment. There is something of a show-down with fellow students in the entrance hall after the lecture, when he refuses to compromise with the sentimental aspirations of some of his companions and sign their petition. His cleverness at the expense of other people’s earnest endeavours is bound to irritate and antagonise. Stephen manages to make himself unlovable by parading unpopular views uncompromisingly and doing so with calculated scorn. The charges of other students, that he lacks altruism and is a crank, win sympathy with the reader. Too often he seems to be spoiling for a fight, even with his genuine friends, such as Davin.
Stephen’s long theoretical argument about the character of beauty is sandwiched between Davin’s teasing reference to Emma and Lynch’s whisper, ‘Your beloved is here’. The contrast between the unrestrained verbalism of Stephen’s talk about beauty and the equivocal, halting reservations that mark his attitude to a living woman is symptomatic of Stephen’s failure to integrate thought and action. His head is full of theory about emotion and beauty, while his living experience of emotional commitment is confined to the brothel.
The thought that he may have misjudged Emma turns her in his mind, in a flash, into an epitome of natural gaiety and simplicity. When the poetic inspiration seizes him, his thought transfigures her into an object of devotion to be hymned exaltedly. The cry of the heart is transmuted into a precious rhetoric, rich and liturgical, but detached from the reality of the true relationship with Emma. Indeed Stephen’s memories of her, now recalled, suggest a girl interested in him, ready to be responsive, doing her best to communicate, but being rebuffed by cool, oblique replies and the pose of isolation. Joyce’s irony is never more subtle than here. Stephen’s jealous anger at Emma’s friendliness with Father Moran seems disproportionate. It seems to draw nourishment from his hatred of the Church and from his determination to make a priesthood of the artist’s calling, a priesthood to which she ought to turn in frank confession. Stephen hovers between exaggerated condemnation of her as treacherous and exaggerated idealisation of her. Finally he conjures up her image as that of the voluptuous, yielding mistress at the point when the finished poem flows through his mind.
In the penultimate section of the book Stephen snaps the ties with home one after another. When he watches the birds and hears their cries it is the image of his mother’s face and the sound of her weeping that they blot out. In deciding to fly, he is also consciously forsaking the Ireland of the vulgar barracking of Yeat’s play. In conversation with Cranly he sums up his rebellious rejection of the Church and of the claims of his suffering mother. In relation both to his mother and to Emma, Stephen manifests grave deficiency in human sympathy. The self-righteousness of his attitude is as priggish as the inflated language in which he presents his decision. In his own eyes his decisions are earthshaking. He assumes to himself the importance of a future Beethoven or Shakespeare!
The notes from Stephen’s diary suggest that within his divided being the conscious artist has taken over from the man of direct sympathy and unselfconscious action. The jottings have an artificial literary flavour. They show a young mind making art out of life. They sum up people and events with aphoristic dismissiveness. They employ archaisms, literary allusions, and clever analogies in verbally discarding people who after all have loved Stephen – Emma, Cranly, his mother, his countrymen (‘a race of clodhoppers’), and Davin. All are summarily treated as material for epigrammatic play by a super-mind. Meanwhile Stephen’s own role is glamorised, his isolation, his spiritedness, and his resolve wrapped about with overtones of grandeur and heroism. The element of earnestness in his acceptance of the artistic vocation must not be ignored, but it is expressed here with a pretentiousness and flamboyance that cannot but raise a smile.
In the end Stephen emerges as a proud, rather anti-social person far too much wrapped up in himself. Cranly’s question, ‘Have you never loved anyone?’ ought to touch a raw nerve. His lack of common humanity is surely Stephen’s dominant weakness.
There is a motif running through modern Irish literature where somebody starts out unable to speak, and finishes in a condition of great eloquence. In James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on the first page, Baby Stephen is lisping, he’s mispronouncing words, he cannot speak, but that novel, a sort of central classical Irish novel, ends with Stephen about whom the story was being told, taking over the story and telling it himself in his own eloquent way.
Similarly, in J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, the hero when we first meet him, is a stuttering lout in a ditch, he can’t speak and he comes out of the ditch into the pub, and he starts telling a story which is partly a lie and partly of course the truth. And he becomes more and more eloquent. The more eloquent he becomes the more he discovers he has an identity, that he is a person.
More recently Brian Friel also uses this more nuanced device in Translations where, as the play opens, Manus is teaching Sarah to speak in the local hedge school in Ballybeg. Her speech defect is so bad that all her life she has been considered to be dumb and she herself has accepted this. She is described in the Stage Directions as being ‘waiflike’ and she, ‘could be any age from seventeen to thirty-five’. She is used in the play to symbolise the vexed issue, a preoccupation of Friel’s, of communication, language and Irish identity. In the play Sarah is perpetually spoken for, she then gradually finds her voice only to lose it again. She never achieves the eloquence of Stephen Dedalus or Christy Mahon. Towards the end of the play she refuses to speak to Captain Lancey and maybe this act can be interpreted as regressing back to her previous state or maybe as an act of resistance to his colonising influence……..
This enforced silence is also a feature of more recent Irish writing. A well-known saying in the North during ‘The Troubles’ was, ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’. Seamus Heaney used the phrase as the title and the theme of one of his most impressive poems on the North of Ireland:
‘The famous Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the ‘wee six’ I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, say nothing.’
There is a natural reserve built in to any discussion about politics or about happenings where there may be conflict. Nowhere is this depicted better than in Seamus Deane’s brilliant novel about the Northern Ireland conflict, Reading in the Dark.