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Ulysses Essay: William Blake’s Influence On Joyce’s Ulysses

1899 words - 8 pages

William Blake’s Influence on Joyce’s Ulysses

     Stephen Dedalus is a poor schoolteacher.  Poor in the sense that he lives in a one-room tower and eats nothing all day, sure, but poor mainly in the sense that he is a rotten instructor.

You, Cochrane, what city sent for him?

Tarentum, sir.

Very good.  Well?

There was a battle, sir.

Very good.  Where?

The boy's blank face asked the blank window. [1]


 He grills his students in much the same way his first teachers drilled him; stands before them inspiring fear and boredom.  He understands the schoolroom and its small miseries.  The form is tried and true: the catechism, call and response.  Cochrane replies automatically to Stephen's barked interrogatives but his mind is elsewhere.  The window, the unknown.  Our hero Stephen's sympathies lie that way too:


Fabled by the daughters of memory.  And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it.  A phrase, then, of impatience, thud of Blake's wings of excess, I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and one livid final flame.  What's left us then?  (Joyce 20).


These are not the well-measured words of a history instructor.  Actually, they're largely the words of William Blake.  The "daughters of memory" figure in "A Vision of the Last Judgment", "Fable or Allegory is Form'd by the daughters of Memory." [2]   Stephen muses on the figure of Pyrrhus, the Tarentenian general who won a foolish victory and died a foolish death  (Gifford 30).  Write faster.  I mean it.  Fast!  The Tarentines succumbed to the Romans in the end, overcome by their greater numbers.  The Battle of Asculum drained them financially.  Hardly romantic stuff.  But Stephen imagines the destruction of the colony as a luminous crash, a stark and sudden desecration.  He himself becomes a daughter of Memory, imagines "the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry" along Blake's lines.  Stephen's  "livid, final flame" come from "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell".  When he speaks of "Blake's wings of excess", Stephen refers to two of the "Proverbs of Hell" from the same poem.  "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," Blake writes, and, "No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings." [3]   These proverbs ring achingly true for Stephen later in the day; his apparent attachment to Blake proves painful.  James Joyce's critical writings on William Blake express frank admiration for the mystical visions that shaped the Romantic poet's verse.  Stephen Dedalus - the artist who tries to break through his frame and finds there is no glass to break - stands before his scrubbed schoolboys waiting for a vision.


            James Joyce's own interest in the life and works of William Blake manifests itself in Stephen Dedalus - with a certain degree of irony.  Circumstances that arise when Stephen tries to enter into a Blake-like visionary state are comedy with a bitter...

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