Richard Kain, Dublin in the Age of William Butler Yeats and James Joyce (1962; rep. 1972)

Bibliographical details: Richard Kain, Dublin in the Age of William Butler Yeats and James Joyce (Oklahoma UP 1962; Newton Abbot: David Charles 1972), pp.81-90. For longer extracts from this text unrelated to James Joyce, see under RICORSO Library, “Criticism / Critics”, infra; also under W. B. Yeats, George “Æ” Russell, et mult. al., in “AZ Authors”.

A scene curiously parallel to one in Joyce’s Ulysses occurs in a literary report contributed by Yeats in 1892 to the Boston Pilot. Seated in ‘the big, florid new National Library,’ the young poet lamented that all around him were readers ‘studying the things that are to get them bodily food, but no man among them is searching for the imaginative and spiritual food to be got out of great literature.’ It is the complaint of young poets everywhere. Would that others were to prove as wrong as Yeats was in this instance! In another ten years this library was to become a meeting place of young Royal University undergraduates, and the scene of one of Joyce’s finest chapters, the library episode in Ulysses. The spirit of literary Dublin is nowhere better conveyed. The genial Quaker librarian T. W. Lyster still loved and remembered, tiptoes in and out of the office, while the young Stephen Dedalus expatiates on his theory of Shakespeare. Stephen’s most formidable opponent is John Eglinton, the library assistant and essayist who later admitted ‘a twinge of recollection [81] of things actually said.’ Like a practitioner of the New Criticism, AE objects to the biographical interpretation, demurring with the remark that ‘the supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring.’ When reminded by Frank O’Connor that this quotation is in Ulysses, AE was delighted: ‘That’s very clever of him! … I may quite well have said that!’ O’Connor drily observes that he said it at least once a day.

The young poet Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses bears a mocking resemblance to his creator when he was the insolent Jimmy Joyce in 1904. Stephen’s ambitions and attitudes are presented, and, since irony predominates, we see more attitude than ambition. Whatever esoteric significance Ulysses has, it tells us much about human nature, particularly in its delightful Dublin form. The book is filled with local tales, for Joyce never needed to invent situations when he could find them in actuality. During the day of the novel we hear about many literary matters, such as the publication of AE’s anthology of New Songs, and the new magazine Dana, edited by John Eglinton and Fred Ryan. Stephen is rumored to be the only contributor who demands payment; a Joyce poem, ‘My Love is in a Light Attire’, did appear in August, 1904. At the Freeman’s Journal office, the barrister J. J. O’Molloy remarks to Stephen that ‘AE had been telling some yankee interviewer that you came to him in the small hours of the morning to ask him about planes of consciousness.’ The ‘yankee’ was Professor Cornelius Weygandt, who repeated the tale in his pioneer study Irish Plays and Playwrights (1913), without naming the then obscure young man. Weygandt had heard the story from AE himself and recounted it as an fflustration of the poet’s influence and [82] his remarkable versatility. On his return home long past midnight, AE had found a young man waiting in the street outside his house. The elder author had to urge his timid visitor to come in, but even then Joyce hesitated to come to the point. Attempting to put him at ease, AE asked his guest whether it was economics, or mysticism, or literature that was in question. It was, of course, literature. To his host Joyce seemed ‘an exquisite,’ whose opinion was that ‘the literary movement was becoming vulgarized’ - the theme of the essay The Day of the Rabblement, about to be printed within a few months. Finally gaining courage, Joyce himself turned questioner, asking whether AE was ‘seeking the Absolute.’ An affirmative reply brought forth a deep sigh from the questioner, who ‘said decidedly that ‘AE’ could not be his Messiah,’ since ‘he abhorred the Absolute.’ AE sized up his visitor as one of the young men ‘infected with Pater’s relative,’ and was forthwith relieved to be free of the responsibility. ‘I wouldn’t be his Messiah for a thousand million pounds,’ he wrote to Sarah Purser; ‘he would always be criticizing the bad taste of his deity.’ Professor Weygandt concluded his story With an echo of the departure of the young poet Marchbanks in Shaw’s Candida: ‘So the boy - he was not yet twenty-one - went out into the night with, I suppose, another of his idols fallen.’ But if AE suggested the self-confident Morrell, the young Joyce, like Marchbanks, had his secret, a secret which commentators have been exploring for almost fifty years, often with frustration, but, more often with delight.

AE, did, nonetheless, recommend his lost disciple to Lady Gregory and to Yeats as ‘an extremely clever boy who belongs to your clan more than to mine and still more to himself’ - an extremely accurate appraisal. AE thought that [83] Yeats might find the youth ‘rather interesting,’ though he did admit, in another letter, with his characteristically sly humor, ‘I have suffered from him and I would like you to suffer.’

Yeats had never ‘encountered so much pretension with so little to show for it,’ yet he too suffered. He was impressed enough to write an account of his interview. Joyce had read several of his own poems, waving aside compliments with the abrupt remark, ‘I really don’t care whether you like what I am doing,’ and had forthwith raised ‘objections to everything I had ever done.’ Yeats made a reply, thinking, ‘I have conquered him now.’ But no, for Joyce ‘merely said, ‘Generalizations aren’t made by poets; they are made by men of letters.’’ As he left, he asked Yeats his age, and, on hearing it, ‘said with a sigh, ‘I thought as much. I have met you too late’ ‘ - too late, that was, for Yeats to be influenced by Joyce.

Joyce’s remarks to Padraic Colum, later a life-long friend, are in character. In returning an early play, he made the wry comment, “I do not know from which of them you derive the most misunderstanding-Ibsen or Macterlinck.’ And Joyce is undoubtedly the person Yeats had in mind in his note to the 1904 edition of The Tables of the Law: ‘I do not think 1 should have reprinted them had I not met a young man in Ireland the other day, who liked them very much and nothing else that I have written.’ The diarist Holloway, meeting him at the Cousins’ at-home on June 8, 1904, concluded that ‘He is a strange boy’ whom ‘I cannot forget.’ Everyone had the same feeling. Professor Weygandt published his anecdote eleven years after he first heard it. The retort to Yeats has a more complicated history. It must have been going the rounds [84] of Dublin, as such remarks will, especially if they are at the expense of Yeats. In1919, Katherine Hinkson recalled it in her reminiscences, The Years of the Shadow, as coming from ‘an eccentric young Dublin poet who wrote one small volume of exquisite poetry and a book of prose which was banned by the libraries.’ In later years both participants made attempts to underplay Joyce’s asperity. Yeats refers to the remark ‘you talk like a man of letters’ in his Autobiographies, and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has the buried allusion ‘I have met with you, bird, too late.’ The story was printed in Herbert Gorman’s first study of Joyce (1924), cut by Joyce from the biography of 1939, and finally restored to its place in literary gossip by Richard Ellmann. It has been asserted, denied, and reasserted; and, amazingly enough, the story remains unchanged in all particulars. In 1907 the popular Rambles in Eirinn, by William Bulfin, contained an account of the tourist’s meeting a singer at the now-famous Martello Tower, the scene of the first pages of Ulysses. This had been only three years before, as were the memories of Holloway and his friend, D. J. O’Donaghue, prompted by Joyce’s first book, a volume of poems, Chamber Music. He was, they remembered, ‘a strange boy with wondrous bright eyes,’ who sat staring at you ‘until he made you feel quite uncomfortable.’ His condescension ‘put you at anything but your case.’ ONe must beware venturing an opinion in his presence, for he ‘had the art of crushing you with a ‘what-do-you-know-about-it-anyway!’ sort of sharp remark!’ Holloway could only conclude: ‘Ireland has produced some strange people in our time. Few stranger than Joyce!’

Joyce was busy making himself into the image of the artist. He was a good if erratic student, long to be remembered [85] for his wide acquaintance with literature, his unconventional tastes, and his self-assurance. The Royal University magazine, St. Stephen’s, has many good-natured gibes at ‘Jocax’ - who, at one meeting of the debating society, ‘inveighed with wonted vehemence against his fellow members for not understanding his sublimities.’ He was apparently an unemphatic speaker, delighting in oblique references to little-known texts. One classmate recalled that he ‘generally succeeded in mystifying his audience with a heterogeneous jumble of diverse and digressive remarks.’ He quoted Whitman and Emerson, often without making his intention clear. Quite in keeping with his disdain for convention was his losinga chance for a high rating in a vocal contest because he thought the sight-singing requirement silly.

Despite the opinion of Yeats, he did have some justification for his pretentiousness. At the age of eighteen, only a second-year man, he had published an essay on Ibsen in England’s leading literary magazine, the Fortnightly Review. In the next year he printed, at his own expense, an attack on the new Irish theatre, giving his opinion that it was succumbing to ‘the rabblement.’ Regarding Yeats, already famous throughout the English-speaking world: ‘It is equally unsafe to say of Mr. Yeats at present that he has or has not genius.’ For years he remembered catching the Dean of Studies on the misuse of an obsolete word in order to chalk it up to the credit of his hero in his Portrait of the Artist.

His improvidence was as famed as his impertinence. Dubliners pictured him strolling the streets, and borrowing money by such subterfuges as making change, returning part of the loan on account, and, all in all, engaging in [86] so many financial manipulations that in the end it was impossible to know who owed whom what.

The talk of the town was that Jimmy was copying down everybody’s remarks to include them in a gigantic diatribe against Dublin, a post-Thomist Summa contra Gentiles. In Ulysses, Buck Mulligan (Gogarty’s fictional image) ridicules his friend’s expectation of writing something in ten years. As if to answer Gogarty, Ulysses is dated 1914-221 on its last page, or ten to seventeen years later. An anticipation of the method of Ulysses is found in the remarks of the newspaper editor as he encourages Stephen to write: ‘Give them something with a bite in it. Put us all into it, damn its soul. Father Son and Holy Ghost and jakes M’Carthy.’ Joyce certainly followed the advice. No day has ever been more completely described. Ulysses is so permeated with Dublin lore that natives look with a wild surmise at the manic enthusiasm of Americans. It seems unbelievable that strangers could relish the vivid local atmosphere. The characters in the novel traverse much of the city. They chat in pubs, on the streets, and in the library. Gossip occupies their attention, but history is not forgotten. At the newspaper office famous orators are discussed and ridiculed. The editor mentions that the statesmen Henry Grattan and Henry Flood, parliamentary leaders, wrote for the paper shortly after its establishment in 1763; and J. J. O’Molloy quotes admiringly Seymour Bushe’s apostrophe to Michelangelo’s Moses as ‘one of the most polished periods I think I ever listened to in my life.’ The arrogant young would-be poet Dedalus, despite his aloofness from the provincial literary scene, is moved, ‘his blood wooed by grace of language and gesture.’ The third and climactic instance of oratory in the chapter is [87] John F. Taylor’s famed peroration, comparing the plight of the Irish to that of the Jews in Egypt. Taylor, incidentally, was a formidable antagonist of the young poet Yeats in the National Literary Society, especially in the matter of the selection of titles for the new Irish library, Taylor advocating the staples of old-fashioned rhetoric and propagandist verse, and Yeats opposing him with such fury that, as the poet recalled, ‘I have known strangers drawn by sport or sympathy to step into the room, and nobody have a mind disengaged enough to keep them out.’ Taylor may have been jealous of the veteran John O’Leary’s interest in the ardent youth, who, on his part, was equally jealous of Taylor’s influence on Maud Gonne. In 1904 or 1905 thousands of four-page leaflets defending the Irish language were circulated. Taylor’s address was featured, and the title was the orator’s final phrase, The Language of the Outlaw. Like his creation Dedalus, Joyce himself was so affected by Taylor’s bold sweep of language that he chose this passage for his only recording of a portion of Ulysses.

Paradoxically, the man who most consistently wrote about Dublin was the one who had most decisively rejected it. Although he was a life-long exile, Joyce often said that in imagination he had never left his native city. Far from accurate, however, are his dramatizations of himself as a solitary genius among Philistines, or his picture of Dublin as a center of ‘paralysis.’ Joyce’s associates at college were by no means contemptible. They congregated at the meetings of the Literary and Historical Society and at the new National Library. Social evenings were enjoyed at the homes of the young couple James and ‘Gretta’ [88] Cousins, and of David Sheehy, a member of Parliament and the father of a large and lively family. One of the sons, Judge Eugene Sheehy, in his delightful reminiscences, May It Please the Court (1951), is probably not exaggerating in considering these college conversations ‘no mean substitute for the wisdom that emanates from the Professorial Chairs in other Universities.’ College debates reached ‘as high a standard during this period as they are ever likely to attain.’ Judge Sheehy’s respect for his friends seems more deserved than Joyce’s use of them as uncomprehending foils to his own brilliant Dedalus. Sunday evenings at the Sheehy home were gay with charades and other games. Joyce delighted in doing impersonations and singing comic songs. He admired, shyly, Mary Sheehy, the almost phantom heroine of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Three of the Sheehy sisters married brilliant men-Mary becoming the wife of Tom Kettle, Hannah of Francis Skeffington, and Kathleen of Cruise O’Brien. O’Brien worked with AE in Sir Horace Plunkett’s Irish Agricultural Organization Society. His son Conor Cruise O’Brien has had a distinguished career as historian (Parnell and his Party [1957]) and literary critic (Maria Cross [1952]), a study of modern Roman Catholic writers, published under the pseudonym of ‘Donat O’Donnell’), as well as becoming one of the best known of modern diplomats, through his service as political adviser to Dag Hammarskjåld and head of the United Nations in Katanga during the Congo crisis beginning in 1960. Kathleen Sheehy O’Brien, an ardent nationalist, may have provided a model for Miss Ivors in Joyce’s masterful story The Dead. Margaret (another sister) wrote a skit, the performance of [89] which was attended by the indefatigable Joseph Holloway, who found Joyce the only member of the cast who showed any aptitude for the stage.

It must have been a lively group. [… &c.] (p.90.) [Ensuing pages gives accounts of Eugene Sheehy, Constantine Curran, Arthur Clery, John Marcus O’Sullivan, George Clancy, James Fitzgerald-Kenney, but chiefly of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and Thomas Kettle; also remarks on De Valera, as supra.]

Joyce’s humor ranges from subtle irony to boisterous horseplay. The verbal mockery in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake seems inexhaustible in its Rabelaisian gusto. Nothing is spared - not even the reader. Joyce is magpie and mockingbird. No style and no subject is immune to his parody. This Irishman is too Irish for the Irish, and he does not hesitate to foul his own nest.

The irony that pervades the Dubliners stories is more conventional. A terror-stricken child, escaping from his father’s brutality, promises to say a ‘Hail, Mary’ for his undeserving parent; a man who has brought on the suicide of an unhappy woman congratulates himself on his own virtue; a priest, addressing a businessmen’s group, suggests that his audience settle their spiritual accounts.

Yet this man loved Ireland, and his view of the human race is far from nihilistic. In Ulysses, Molly Bloom is notorious for unabashed sexuality, yet she has, beneath her vulgarity, a longing for beauty and love. The triumph of Joyce’s art is the creation of the pathetic and ridiculous sidewalk Quixote, the middle-aged Leopold Bloom. His mind is a lumber room of misinformation, romantic longing, and Walter Mitty dreams of success. Although we are amused and insulted by this travesty of humanity, a sober second thought brings us to an awareness of our own blood-brotherhood. And in the end the portrait is not quite so unflattering, for Bloom has a deeper humanity than we had realized. This Chaplin-like quality was conveyed with astonishing success by the actor Zero Mostel in the dramatization of Ulysses in Nighttown which proved to be unexpectedly popular off Broadway in 1958 and later played in London, Paris, and The Hague. His moon-faced, featureless, and paunchy Bloom will not be forgotten soon. [170]

For seventeen years James Joyce devoted his linguistic facility and his extraordinary powers of association to the writing of Finnegans Wake (1939). It is an epic based on a music-hall tune, a polyglot parody of history, a tender evocation of the cycle of life. It is also a work which few can read and fewer understand. Considered a hoax by the unsympathetic, a monstrous failure by the frustrated, and a masterpiece by the elite, Finnegans Wake is the most elaborately contrived work in modern literature. Two things are clear. Primarily, it is funny; the text is a tissue of mocking echoes. Thousands of familiar phrases are chopped up into strange shapes in this Irish stew. Secondly, as the recent dramatization of selected episodes has made clear, it is scored for voices - and Irish voices at that. Staged as The Voice of Shem, the adaptation was the outstanding hit of the 1961 Theatre Festival in Dublin. The warring sons, Shern and Shaun, make a perfect music-hall team. Shem, the slight tenor, modeled on Joyce himself, is the victim of the insults hurled by the dark, round-faced Dublin gallant, a type that has delighted audiences for generations with casual impertinences and good-humored disrespect.

There are solos, such as the self-justification of the tavern-keeper Everybody, as he faces or imagines he faces nameless and countless accusers. There is the touching farewell of the mother-figure Anna Livia, as she turns at last to extinction in the sea and rebirth in the cloud-for this eternal feminine is the water of life and also the River Liffey as it flows past Adam’s and Eve’s Church to the Irish Sea. The associations with Eden, Dublin, woman, and life are typically Joycean. [171]


Independently, Joyce was pursuing the same dual aim: unity of vision amid progressively subtle modes of presentation. His subject remained the ethos of Dublin, but successive treatments showed more profound insights, more complex associations. The philosophic perspective grew to cosmic (and comic) heights. His autobiographical manuscript Stephen Hero became intensified and universalized in the rewriting. The hero’s life was no longer a mere succession of episodes, but a sequence of pivotal experiences: awareness of self, of family, of words, of sexual stimulation, of religious fear, of artistic awakening. The result is that A Portrait of the Artist remains one of the most intense and one of the most carefully articulated of novels.

His style was meanwhile becoming more virtuosic. The [179] everyday prose of Stephen Hero was succeeded by the evocative style of Dubliners. ‘Words alone are certain good,’ Yeats wrote in 1885. Ten years later the young Joyce was poring over Walter W. Skeat’s Etymological English Dictionary (1879-82). Ever proud of his verbal skill, he used words precisely, even preciously, in his early stories. A young girl’s figure is ‘defined’ by a hall light (Araby); the fingers of a street harpist ‘careered’ along the strings (Two Gallants). In the Portrait, style becomes substance; diction and syntax are adapted to the growing sensibility, from childhood simplicity to adolescent rapture. Like Yeats, Joyce sought precision and concreteness; constantly amplifying, he widened the range of implication. In outlook Yeats moved from romantic retreat, and Joyce from satiric rejection, to final acceptance of the real world.

In Ulysses, Joyce discovered the poetry of the actual. He often remarked to his friends that his imagination had never left Dublin, even though he spent his adult life in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris. The lanes and thoroughfares of his native city took on a patina of historical associations and personal memories. As a scrubby, unwashed youngster he had played in the alleyways of North Richmond Street; he had attended school under the Jesuits in the eighteenthcentury mansion Belvedere House, whose elaborate plaster work on walls, staircases, and ceilings recalls the days when Dublin was a center of gracious living. Later he carried on his college studies at the Royal University in another mansion facing on St. Stephens Green, one of the most pleasant of European parks, lined on all sides by rows of handsome town houses. His mind was stored with literature-Latin, French, Italian, Elizabethan-and as he walked through [180] the city, alone or with friends, his thoughts mingled ribaldry and poetry. These streets and stately public buildings would always be more than mere brick and stone to him. At times they would recall the grandeur of the classic age in which they were built; at times they would reflect the sordid poverty which his family shared with thousands of Dublin laborers. Love and hope and ambition and rebellion seethed in his heart.

In 1904, Joyce had left Dublin, a haughty exile. He then thought he could show his little world that his idol Ibsen had not died without a successor. But ten years brought him little enough, and Dubliners might well mock at the comeuppance Jimmy had had to take from life. With bad teeth and failing eyesight, his mind and temper were worn by his ill-paid teaching position in Trieste. In addition the difficulties of raising two children and supporting a wife were enough to excuse indefinite postponement of literary efforts. But the Dublin mockers - if any of them still thought of him at all - were wrong. Even though he had spent eight years wrangling with publishers, his volume of short stories, Dubliners, was about to appear in the summer of 1914. More important, his autobiographical novel, completely rewritten, was being printed in installments in the English Egoist. And even though he had written to his brother that ‘the chase of perfection is very unprofitable,’ he was beginning to find perfection within reach.

And there was, too, a new sense of responsibility. ‘Sometimes thinking of Ireland,’ he mused in another letter, ‘it seems to me that I have been unnecessarily harsh.’ The Dubliners stories, he continued, convey ‘none of the attraction of the city, for I have never felt at my ease in any city since I left it, except Paris.’ In particular, ‘its hospitality [182] so far as I can see, does not exist elsewhere in Europe,’ and ‘I have not been just to its beauty; for it is more beautiful naturally, in my opinion, than what I have seen of England, Switzerland, France, Austria and Italy.’

The balance could be righted. He would describe Dublin so accurately that the city could be reconstructed from his novel. Had he not always played the game of naming streets and shops with his Dublin friends? But if his Baedeker was Thom’s Official Directory of Dublin, it would take a convocation of commentators to trace his use of Biblical, Masonic, Catholic, Jewish, Irish, literary, musical, and philosophical lore. Joyce, as Harry Levin so wisely remarked, took all knowledge for his playground.

He would pursue a new purpose. The ageless saga of man the adventurer, the Odyssey, a schoolboy favorite - is it not repeated generation after generation, in city streets as well as on the high seas? Can Odysseus, called by Homer the man of many devices, be found in such a fumbling householder as he himself, the underpaid language teacher - or better, in his favorite pupil, the witty Jew Ettore Schmitz, manager of a paint company? And if Homer granted Odysseus the opportunity of escaping the Cyclops by means of a pun, would not Ulysses give rein to all Joyce’s delight in verbal mockery? For Odysseus, it will be remembered, told the Cyclops that ‘Outis’ (No Man) was his name, so that the wounded giant, blinded in his one eye, ran down the hillside screaming, ‘No man has hurt me.’ Joyce was at this time described by his pupil Schmitz as ‘a man who considers things as points breaking the light for his amusement.’ - The same composition noted his gentleness: ‘He is going through life hoping not to meet bad men. I wish him heartily not to meet them.’ On the [182] whole Joyce was luckier than most men in mid-Europe from 1914 to 1939. The wishes of his Jewish friend tided him well; he met few bad men. He escaped both wars, attained international fame, and, perhaps most important of all, overcame his bitterness.


In the autumn of 1938, when the world was trembling before the threats of Hitler, Yeats had written his last great testament, the poem “Under Ben Bulben”. At the same time James Joyce, tormented by family troubles and racked with self-doubt, was concluding his encylopedic, multilingual dream-book, Finnegans Wake. Yeats died in January, 1939, just fifty years after the publication of his first major volume of poetry, The Wanderings of Oisin. Joyce lived for two more unhappy years, fleeing Paris at the time of Hitler’s invasion, and, ever the exile, finally escaping from unoccupied France to neutral Switzerland just one month before his death. […; 183](

[...] Joyce finally, after seventeen years of meditation on history, ransacking the world’s cultures for pun or portent, was to project the same shadowy symbols as did Yeats, and to return, like Yeats, to humble filial piety. In a vision more pantheistic than that of Yeats, tree and stone, loud and river remain as ever-changing witnesses to the eternal cycles of the generations of mankind. Both writers share the ancient belief that there is a uniquely Celtic insight, a quality evoked by Irish literature and legend. Although Irish in origin, this spirit is universal. He who could read its meaning might possess a sacred book and know the soul of man. [184; end.]

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