"Art is not what you see, but what you make others see." Edgar Degas

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

James Joyce and Poetry


Joyce called literature “the highest and most spiritual art.” For me, music has always held that spot but if anyone can make a case for words over music, it is James Joyce.

In this excerpt from his debut novel the protagonist is agonizing over the confusing and painful experience of seeing the woman he loves with another:

His anger against her found vent in coarse railing at her paramour, whose name and voice and features offended his baffled pride: a priested peasant, with a brother a policeman in Dublin and a brother a potboy in Moycullen. To him she would unveil her soul’s shy nakedness, to one who was but schooled in the discharging of a formal rite rather than to him, a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.

What can a poor boy do, in the days before there was such a thing as playing in a rock'n'roll band? For those who are not street fighting men the obvious answer is poetry.

If he sent her the verses? They would be read out at breakfast amid the tapping of egg-shells. Folly indeed! Her brothers would laugh and try to wrest the page from each other with their strong hard fingers. The suave priest, her uncle, seated in his arm-chair, would hold the page at arm’s length, read it smiling and approve of the literary form.
        No, no; that was folly. Even if he sent her the verses she would not show them to others. No, no; she could not.



And here is the poem:

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.