On Poetry and Culture Shock

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Today is Saint Stephen, which is an occasion as good as any other to talk about Stephen Dedalu, a self-parody of James Joyce with a starring role in his novels Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. The Portrait tells Stephen's life from early childhood until he decides that, if he wants to be  An Artist, he needs to leave Ireland and go to Paris where all the cool Bohemian kids are.

Stephen's problem is that he tries too hard to be cool. The chronological end of his adventures, as far as Joyce wants to tell us, is that after he has gone back to Dublin and can barely survive on his teaching salary, he meets a truly nice and generous man, Leopold Bloom. Optimist readers may think that after this encounter, Stephen will go and live for free in Bloom's home, sorting out the older man's loneliness (Bloom lives with his wife, but to say they have a communication problem would be the understatement of the year), and the young man's housing problem.

What of Stephen as a poet? The narrator likes to be ambiguous and never tells us if Stephen is a good artist. All you get of his style is that he is or wants to be very complex. The only poem of Stephen's in the books is this one, included near the end of the Portrait. Critics say that with it, James Joyce wants to tease readers: we are predisposed to like or dislike the poem according to our like or dislike of Stephen and we always need someone to tell us that it is OK to like something. The professor that introduced me into the Portrait said that the poem is there to show that Stephen wants to be a rebel but will not succeed because he has chosen a poetic form, the villanelle, that is formally very demanding: putting form so far above content is not a good sign. I think the poem is just like Stephen: too complex, and it takes too long to say too little. But the most interesting thing about it, as I say, is not whether I like it or not, but the way it is placed near the end of a novel whose ongoing enigma, its tiny plot, is the question, "Will Stephen ever manage to be A Great Artist as he wishes to be?". Instead of having qa comfortable narrator that tells you yes or no, all you have is Stephen's poetry so that you have to make up your own mind about poor Stephen's artistic ability.

Ok, now, judge for yourselves.

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.

1 comentario

JoseAngel -

Well, the villanelle does much... but Stephen is more bent on erotic thoughts than on poetics, I think. Moreover, the girl is sure to find the Eucharistical imagery rather off-putting.