Friday, 7 June 2013

James Joyce reads William Morris

In Stephen Hero, the draft version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce tells us that Stephen was ‘captivated by the seeming eccentricities of the prose of Freeman and William Morris. He read them as one would read a thesaurus and made a garner of words’. It has usually been assumed that it is Morris’s late romances which are being referred to here; and one is certainly reminded of the decorously chivalric style of those works in reading, say, the more parodic elements of the ‘Cyclops’ chapter in Ulysses.

But if we were to follow up the Stephen Hero Morris reference, we might want to cover more than the late romances. Take these lines from ‘A Painful Case’ in Dubliners: ‘he had assisted at the meetings of an Irish Socialist Party where he had felt himself a unique figure amidst a score of sober workmen in a garret lit by an inefficient oil-lamp. When the party had divided into three sections, each under its own leader and in its own garret, he had discontinued his attendances’. It is hard not to believe that Joyce - himself a socialist in the early years of the twentieth century - has just come away from reading the first page of News from Nowhere, with its dysfunctional Socialist League meeting at which socialists are divided against anarchists; and that he has carried the fissiparous political tendencies at work there even further in his own story.

The hero of Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses is, like Morris himself, a man who painfully tolerates his wife’s adultery, even if it’s a far cry from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Blazes Boylan; and as parents both Joyce and Morris had to cope with daughters who had life-changing illnesses (Lucia’s schizophrenia, Jenny’s epilepsy). I suspect the Morris-Joyce literary relationship is capable of much further development, and the mention of Morris in Stephen Hero is thus a signpost announcing ‘dig here!’.


Kotick said...

Worth looking at Frank Budgen's essay on 'James Joyce's "Work in Progress" and Old Norse Poetry' in the 1929 'Exagmination' volume? Perhaps we could find some Morris-'Finnegans Wake' links too.

Tony Pinkney said...

Interesting thought, thanks; it's brave reader who tackles 'Finnegans Wake', certainly. My wife tells me I should have held this post back for Bloomsday (16th)!