Wednesday

Feb. 2, 2005

To Ireland in the Coming Times

by William Butler Yeats

WEDNESDAY, 2 FEBRUARY, 2005
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Poem: From "To Ireland in the Coming Times" by William Butler Yeats.

from To Ireland in the Coming Times

While still I may, I write for you
The love I lived, the dream I knew.
From our birthday, until we die,
Is but the winking of an eye;
And we, our singing and our love,
What measurer Time has lit above,
And all benighted things that go
About my table to and fro,
Are passing on to where may be,
In truth's consuming ecstasy,
No place for love and dream at all;
For God goes by with white footfall.
I cast my heart into my rhymes,
That you, in the dim coming times,
May know how my heart went with them
After the red-rose-bordered hem.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist James Joyce, born in Dublin, Ireland (1882). He was a writer who claimed at an early age to hate his home, who chose to live as an exile for most of his adult life, and then went on to write all of his books about that very home he claimed to hate. He made up his mind to leave Ireland in the summer of 1904, after he fell in love with a beautiful redheaded chambermaid named Nora Barnacle. He'd only known her for a few months when he asked her to leave the country with him, and she agreed. In a letter to her the next day he wrote, "Last night... it seemed to me that I was fighting a battle with every religious and social force in Ireland for you and that I had nothing to rely on but myself... The fact that you can choose to stand beside me in this way in my hazardous life fills me with great pride and joy."

He wrote to an English school in Zurich, secured a job, and they set off. Joyce expected that his job teaching English would be boring but easy, and that it would leave him a lot of time for writing, but when he showed up at the school to announce his arrival, they'd never heard of him. The job he thought he had secured by mail did not exist.

They'd used up all their money traveling, so Joyce had to scramble to find some work. He had a genius for talking people into giving him money, and he got a few students to hire him as a private language tutor, but he could still barely pay the rent. He was constantly writing home to family to ask for financial help, and even entered a puzzle contest in a London magazine with hopes of winning the cash prize. He sent in the correct answers to the puzzle, but his letter arrived too late to be a winner.

Within Joyce's first year abroad, Nora was visibly pregnant, and they got kicked out of one of their apartments because no children were allowed. That summer was stiflingly hot, and Nora was miserable with her pregnancy, and spent most of her time crying. Joyce's English students made fun of his shabby clothes and his old-fashioned Italian, which he had learned by reading Dante. He eventually grew so desperate that he considered giving up on the whole idea of being an exile.

But his son was born healthy, and Joyce got a series of slightly better paying jobs, including one job at a bank where he had to write 250 letters a day. He had very little time to write fiction, but he'd always found that time constraints made him a better writer. The first book he finished was his collection of short stories, Dubliners, about a series of Irish characters in various states of frustration and despair.

When he sent the manuscript to a publisher in London, he wrote, "My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis... I have written it for the most part in a style of scrupulous meanness."

The publisher accepted the manuscript for Dubliners, but asked Joyce to clean up the language in a few places. Joyce tried to be accommodating, but each time he sent the edited manuscript back to the publisher, the publisher had new objections. Finally, Joyce wrote, "It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilization [sic] in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass." The publisher wasn't convinced.

His money situation grew worse. One night he got mugged, and the robbers stole most of his monthly pay. He wrote to his brother, "My mouth is full of decayed teeth and my soul of decayed ambitions." He found himself thinking about his homeland more and more every day, and he began to ask his Aunt Josephine to send him copies of anything to do with Ireland: newspapers, magazines, history books, guidebooks, maps, and photographs. He decided to write a story that captured some of the things he loved about his country, and so he wrote "The Dead," about a Christmas party, which many critics consider his first masterpiece.

Around the same time he also began a short story about a man who takes a walk around Dublin on the day he believes his wife is going to have an affair. Joyce decided that the story wanted to be longer, so he didn't include it in Dubliners, but over the next decade it began to grow larger and larger in his mind, until he got the idea to use it at the center of an epic novel about a single day in the city of Dublin. He chose for that day the date of June 16, 1904, the date on which he had fallen in love with Nora. He called that date "Bloomsday" after the main character of the book: Leopold Bloom.

Joyce started writing Ulysses in 1914, the same year that he finally published Dubliners. Two years later, he published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), which got him his first real attention from the literary world. But even with the support of writers like Ezra Pound, he still struggled to find money, and it took him more than seven years to finish Ulysses.

The book had almost no plot. Joyce's goal was not to tell a story so much as to recreate a single day in the city of Dublin, with all its sights, sounds, smells, as well as the many different kinds of people, the way they talked, and what private thoughts floated through their heads as they went about their daily lives. Joyce said, "I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book."

While writing the book, he often made up his own words for things by combining other words. He was asked if there weren't enough words for him in English, and he replied, "Yes, there are enough, but they aren't the right ones." He ultimately used a vocabulary of about thirty-three thousand words to write the book, and of those thirty-three thousand words, only about half of the words appear in the book more than once.

One of his patrons was an English woman named Harriet Weaver, who planned to publish Ulysses in England. But she grew less and less enthusiastic as he sent her new chapters, each one more experimental than the last. In reply to one of her letters of disapproval, he wrote, "I confess that it is an extremely tiresome book but it is the only book which I am able to write at present."

Eventually Harriet Weaver decided she didn't want to publish Ulysses. At the same time, the Little Review, a New York avant-garde magazine, was prevented from serializing the novel by charges of obscenity. An American publisher then quickly dropped the book.

Joyce began to despair that he would ever publish it. He told his story to Sylvia Beach, a friend of his who owned the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, and he was shocked when she offered to publish it for him. The first printing, of 1,000 copies, came out on this day, Joyce's birthday, in 1922. It was hailed as a masterpiece by writers in Europe and America, and Joyce was finally able to support his family comfortably for the rest of his life.

On June 16, 1924, the 20th anniversary of Bloomsday, Joyce wrote in his notebook, "Twenty years after. Will anyone remember this date?" Today, June 16th is a holiday in Ireland that rivals St. Patrick's Day. It's one of the only national holidays in the world that's based not on anyone's birthday or on a religious or a historical event, but merely upon a date in a work of fiction.

James Joyce wrote, "Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves."


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