James Joyce (and Stephen Dedalus)
In 1914, just before the outbreak of the Great War, Ezra Pound facilitated the publishing of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the modernist journal The Egoist. The novel appeared in serial form in that journal throughout the years 1914-15, and the scene in which Stephen Dedalus awakes at dawn and composes a villanelle was published as a single installment in the July 1, 1915 issue. The installment begins with the sentence “The rain fell faster,” just after Stephen has finishing expounding his aesthetic philosophy to Lynch, and just before Stephen encounters his “beloved,” E. C., near the library. It ends with the full text of the villanelle:
Are you not weary of ardent ways,
Lure of the fallen seraphim?
Tell no more of enchanted days.
Your eyes have set man’s heart ablaze
And you have had your will of him.
Are you not weary of ardent ways?
Above the flame the smoke of praise
Goes up from ocean rim to rim.
Tell no more of enchanted days.
Our broken cries and mournful lays
Rise in one eucharistic hymn.
Are you not weary of ardent ways?
While sacrificing hands upraise
The chalice flowing to the brim,
Tell no more of enchanted days.
And still you hold our longing gaze
With languorous look and lavish limb!
Are you not weary of ardent ways?
Tell no more of enchanted days. (Portrait, Anderson, 223-4)
In the original issue of The Egoist and in published versions of the novel, the full text of the villanelle is followed with a row of asterisks, indicating with more emphasis than usual for Joyce that the villanelle marks the end of a discrete episode.
Hans Walter Gabler, on manuscript evidence, suggests that the villanelle scene was belatedly added to a fair copy of Portrait in 1914.[i] According to Joyce’s brother Stanislaus, “Villanelle of the Temptress” was written much earlier, about 1900, while Joyce–then about eighteen–was in his last year at Belvedere college.[ii] Joyce titled his first unpublished book of poems Moods, which Stanislaus found to be indicative of Joyce’s affection for the moodiness of “romantic piano music: Chopin, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Schumann, Schubert” (65). His second unpublished collection was called Shine and Dark, after a plan that resembled Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience: flagrantly simple lyrics with polarized perspectives. “Villanelle of the Temptress” was part of the Shine and Dark collection, and it too shows the emphasis of Joyce’s lyric poetry on mood. In 1902 Joyce sent a poem (it is not known which one) to Yeats for comment, who, while encouraging, was also frank about the shortcomings of Joyce’s lyrical attempts:
I think that the thought is a little thin. Perhaps I will make you angry when I say that it is the poetry of a young man, of a young man who is practicing his instrument, taking pleasure in the mere handling of the stops. [...] The work which you have actually done is very remarkable for a man of your age who has lived away from vital intellectual centres. Your technique in verse is much better than the technique of any young Dublin man I have met during my time. It might have been the work of a young man who had lived in an Oxford literary set. (qtd. in My Brother’s Keeper 208-9)
In the same year of 1902, probably as a result of this honest assessment from Yeats and a similarly unenthusiastic judgment from the renowned critic William Archer, Joyce destroyed most of his poems, saving only “Villanelle of the Temptress” and a few others. He began work at this time on the verses that appear in a volume titled Chamber Music (1907).
The manuscript of Chamber Music was complete by September of 1904; at that time, Joyce was devoting serious effort to Stephen Hero, which would become Portrait.[iii] In these years, Joyce was turning ever more resolutely away from poetry and toward prose. Ellmann writes that Joyce, “quite independently” of his authoritative critics, was “uncertain about his verse”:
The principal source of uncertainty, as he acknowledged candidly to Stanislaus and to himself, was that he could not rival his countryman Yeats, whose volume of lyrics, The Wind Among the Reeds, had awakened his intense admiration when it appeared in 1899. About his prose, however, he had no such modesty, and he was already beginning to feel he might outdo George Moore, Hardy, and Tureen, if not Tolstoy. In prose he thought he might achieve more subtlety than in meter. (Ellmann 1959, 83)
Joyce seems to have transformed his uncertainty about his own verse to a negative judgment of verse in general as an artistic mode. Joyce’s Portrait is nothing if not the chronicle of a young man’s vocational anxieties: all Stephen’s religious, political, and sexual anxieties seem ultimately to be subsumed in the overwhelming question of his artistry. The villanelle that Stephen writes is at the center of all these anxieties, and is one of the results of it. But while Stephen does find some solution to his difficulties by identifying himself as an artist in exile, the kind of art that Stephen produces in the course of Portrait, most notably the villanelle, proves inadequate to characterize and ameliorate those anxieties. The inadequacies of the villanelle as an artistic genre produce the desire for an art that will be less inadequate, and thus the mimetic experimental prose style of Portrait, Dubliners, and Ulysses comes to replace outdated forms like the villanelle, and indeed lyric more generally.
The scene in which Stephen composes “Villanelle of the Temptress” in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man immediately follows the central exposition of Stephen’s famous aesthetic philosophy:
–Lessing, said Stephen, should not have taken a group of statues to write of. The art, being inferior, does not present the forms I spoke of distinguished clearly one from another. Even in literature, the highest and most spiritual art, the forms are often confused. The lyrical form is in fact the simplest verbal vesture of an instant of emotion, a rhythmical cry such as ages ago cheered on the man who pulled at the oar or dragged stones up a slope. He who utters it is more conscious of the instant of emotion than of himself as feeling emotion. The simplest epical form is seen emerging out of lyrical literature when the artist prolongs and broods upon himself as the centre of an epical event and this form progresses till the centre of emotional gravity is equidistant from the artist himself and from others. The narrative is no longer purely personal. The personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea. This progress you will see easily in that old English ballad Turpin Hero which begins in the first person and ends in the third person. The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life. The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalises itself, so to speak. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic like that of material creation is accomplished. The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.
–Trying to refine them also out of existence, said Lynch. (214-5)
Stephen here proposes a tripartite categorical hierarchy of literary form: first and lowest is the lyric, second is the simple epic, third and highest is the dramatic. The theory he expounds assumes that a progression from the lowest forms to the highest forms is possible, and that continued growth as an artist will proceed along those lines. Although some critics have suggested that Portrait is itself the best exemplar of Stephen’s aesthetic philosophy, I would suggest that Joyce might well not consider A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to have achieved the third and highest level of dramatic form. Portrait and its early rendering Stephen Hero seem to have more in common with its cognate Turpin Hero at the second rank, especially when compared to the later achievement of Ulysses.
And if a seemingly authorless mimesis is the gold standard, all Joyce’s novels might be said to be inferior to staged drama. Joyce, who idolized Ibsen in his youth, never mastered the genre of the play: he wrote one called A Brilliant Career in 1900, just before he began to write Portrait, but destroyed it in 1902; he wrote another called Exiles in 1915, just after he finished Portrait, but it flopped badly when it was ultimately produced in Munich in 1919.[iv] (The ideal artist Joyce describes resembles a safely ensconced theatrical prompter as much as he resembles an indifferent God.) Portrait, for all its undeniable advances in the direction of impersonal mimetic narration, is equally undeniably centered on the Joycean figure of Stephen, who certainly “prolongs and broods upon himself as the centre of an epical event”; it is true that “the narrative is no longer purely personal” [emphasis added], but neither is it yet as purely impersonal as Joyce’s later works. Portrait has not yet “reached” the highest form, the “dramatic form,” but it has surpassed the lowest form, represented by Stephen’s “purely personal” lyric impulse. Portrait, precisely inverting the model of Turpin Hero, begins in the third person and ends in the first person–but we can imagine that at the end of Portrait Stephen launches himself toward an anticipated eventual return to his idyllic third-person origin, where all that exists is the story without any apparent narrator: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was . . .” (7). Moreover, Joyce seems to have shaped his own literary career to the trajectory that Stephen outlines. As Richard Ellmann writes, “His work began in the merest lyric and ended in the vastest encyclopedia” (1982, 4). Stephen’s villanelle exemplifies the form of literature Stephen relegates to the lowest rank, the rank of literature attempted by neophytes: lyric.
The choice to use the villanelle in Portrait as an exemplar of lesser art rather than another lyric was probably due to the efficiency of its semiotic labor. In other words, because the villanelle form had a low reputation in the period, a modernist audience would be able to recognize the immaturity of Stephen’s lyricism, and, of course, to compare it to the far greater sophistication and originality of Joyce’s prose. That Joyce’s contemporaries did indeed perform this kind of comparison is seen in Alice Corbin Henderson’s 1919 review of a new edition of Chamber Music in the modernist journal Poetry. Henderson agreed with the unenthusiastic judgments of Yeats, Archer, and Joyce himself about the inadequacy and outdatedness of Joyce’s early verse. The term “thin” recurred:
Mr. James Joyce is better known as a novelist and playwright than as a poet, and deservedly so. For after everything has been said that could possibly be said in favor of his poems–after one has noted their musical phrasing, their verbal felicity, their delicate charm–the fact is that the general tone is rather pale and anaemic and the music thin. The music indeed has been compared to that of the Elizabethan song books, but this is hardly fair to Mr. Joyce; and the spirit of the poems is much closer to the 1890′s than to the Elizabethan mood, which is very much fuller and richer in every way. (98-9)
Henderson’s point that “the spirit of the poems is much closer to the 1890′s than to the Elizabethan mood” applies also or even more so to “Villanelle of the Temptress,” whose form as well as spirit derived from that era.
Contemporary Joyce scholars commenting on Portrait have debated the merits of Stephen’s villanelle in the course of discussing the degree of aesthetic distance between Joyce and Stephen in the scene of the villanelle’s composition; most, though not all, have agreed that whatever our own reactions to the poem may be, Joyce does not endorse it as an example of good art.[v] Knowledge of the general reputation of the villanelle in the period lends weight to the proposition that Stephen’s villanelle is treated ironically, even satirically, and that by the time Joyce included it in the manuscript of Portrait circa 1914 he felt a considerable distance from it. The modernist readers of The Egoist, with the works of the post-Romantics still in their memories, would almost surely have perceived the villanelle as a trite, outdated form. As Robert Adams Day writes,
[T]hough Stephen is not quite so arrogant as to say to himself, “I think I’ll write a villanelle this morning,” he virtually says so, and this fact shows that he is thinking in clichés, for the villanelle, though an ancient and beautiful French form, had had a great vogue among the precious poetasters of the naughty nineties in England, and by the time A Portrait appeared had already become as wearily conventional and thoroughly exhausted as the Petrarchan sonnet had become by the death of Queen Elizabeth. (77-8)
The function of the villanelle in Portrait, then, is to show that, as Robert Adams Day puts it, “Stephen the youthful poet systematically violates every rule and requirement of Stephen the precocious critic” (81). Stephen’s villanelle is not meant to be taken seriously; Stephen’s aesthetic principles are. Most serious of all is Joyce’s prose technique, which differs so radically from Stephen’s villanelle.
The prominent role “Villanelle of the Temptress” plays in Portrait was probably a significant factor in the survival of the villanelle in a twentieth-century poetic crucible that contained no more than a few disregarded examples. Dylan Thomas, in particular, almost certainly encountered the villanelle form in Joyce’s Portrait, though it is unlikely that his “Do not go gentle into that good night” was influenced either positively or negatively by the actual execution of “Villanelle of the Temptress.” Thomas published a collection of autobiographical short stories titled Portrait of the Artist As a Young Dog in 1940, and while he denied that the title derived from Joyce, he did admit that he had read Joyce’s early work and might have been influenced by the prose style of Dubliners.[vi] The publicity that Joyce’s Portrait gave to the villanelle form probably constitutes the entirety of the effect “Villanelle of the Temptress” has had upon poets–but this is not insignificant, given the immensity of Joyce’s reputation and the difficulty of judging the author’s attitude toward the villanelle in Portrait. That Joyce included “Villanelle of the Temptress” in Portrait, even as an example of immature art, is highly likely to have contributed to the reputation of the villanelle as a legitimate genre.
Other articles (in chronological order) that examine Joyce’s villanelle are Charles Rossman, “Stephen Dedalus’ Villanelle,” James Joyce Quarterly 12 (1975): 281-93; Bernard Benstock, “The Temptation of St. Stephen: A View of the Villanelle,” James Joyce Quarterly 14.31-8 (1976); Mary T. Reynolds, “Joyce’s Villanelle and D’annunzio’s Sonnet Sequence,” Journal of Modern Literature 5 (1976): 19-45; Zack Bowen, “Stephen’s Villanelle: Antecedents, Manifestations, and Aftermath,” Modern British Literature 5 (1980): 63-7; Manfred Pfister, “Die Villanelle in Der Englischen Moderne: Joyce, Empson, Dylan Thomas,” Archiv fur das Studium der Neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 219.2 (1982): 296-312; Angela Habermann, “The Joycean Faun,” International Fiction Review 10.1 (1983): 44-7; Robert Adams Day, “The Villanelle Perplex: Reading Joyce,” James Joyce Quarterly 25.1 (1987): 69-85; and Christine Froula, “Modernity, Drafts, Genetic Criticism: On the Virtual Lives of James Joyce’s Villanelle,” Yale French Studies 89 (1996): 113-29. The best of these, to my mind, is Day’s 1987 article, whose conclusions I cite in my own text.
I cannot say that I have been “influenced” by Joyce, whom I enormously admire and whose Ulysses, and earlier stories, I have read a great deal. I think this Joyce question arose because somebody once, in print, remarked on the closeness of the title of my book of short stories, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog,” to Joyce’s title, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” As you know, the name given to innumerable portrait paintings by their artist is, “Portrait of a Young Man”–a perfectly straightforward title. Joyce used the painting title for the first time as the title of a literary work. I myself made a bit of doggish fun of the painting-title and, of course, intended no possible reference to Joyce. I do not think that Joyce has had any hand at all in my writing; certainly his Ulysses has not. On the other hand, I cannot deny that the shaping of some of my “Portrait” stories might owe something to Joyce’s stories in the volume, “Dubliners.” But then “Dubliners” was a pioneering work in the world of the short story, and no good storywriter since can have failed, in some way, however little, to be benefited by it. (qtd. in Fitzgibbon 326)
Fitzgibbon reports that this document was written “in the summer of 1951,” which is also when Thomas was writing “Do not go gentle” (323).