Study Guide

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Literature and Writing

By James Joyce

Literature and Writing

Chapter 1

It was nice and warm to see the lights in the castle. It was like something in a book. Perhaps Leicester Abbey was like that. And there were nice sentences in Doctor Cornwell's Spelling Book. They were like poetry but they were only sentences to learn the spelling from.

Wolsey died in Leicester Abbey

Where the abbots buried him.

Canker is a disease of plants,

Cancer one of animals.


It would be nice to lie on the hearthrug before the fire, leaning his head upon his hands, and think on those sentences. (1.2.11)

Here, we witness Stephen’s first moment of proto-poetic creation. Unbeknownst to him, he actually crafts what we fancypants writer types would call a "found poem," in which the writer re-shapes a prose text into a poetry. Even though Stephen doesn’t yet possess the vocabulary of literature (he can describe things as "nice" at best), he already has a vague sense of what poetry is.

Stephen Dedalus is my name
Ireland is my nation.
Clongowes is my dwellingplace
And heaven my expectation.


He read the verses backwards but then they were not poetry. (1.2.39)

Stephen is beginning to understand what makes poetry: rhyme and rhythm.

Chapter 2
Stephen J. Dedalus

What are you laughing at? asked Stephen.

You, said Heron. Byron the greatest poet! He's only a poet for uneducated people.

He must be a fine poet! said Boland.

You may keep your mouth shut, said Stephen, turning on him boldly. All you know about poetry is what you wrote up on the slates in the yard and were going to be sent to the loft for. (2.3.32)

Later on…

Nash pinioned his arms behind while Boland seized a long cabbage stump which was lying in the gutter. Struggling and kicking under the cuts of the cane and the blows of the knotty stump Stephen was borne back against a barbed wire fence.

Admit that Byron was no good.

No.

Admit.

No.

Admit.

No. No.

At last after a fury of plunges he wrenched himself free. His tormentors set off towards Jones's Road, laughing and jeering at him, while he, half blinded with tears, stumbled on, clenching his fists madly and sobbing. (2.3.36)

This is a very notable moment – it’s the first time we see Stephen stand up for himself, despite the threat (and eventual reality) of physical violence. Of course, the reason for his rebellion is poetry.

…by dint of brooding on the incident, he thought himself into confidence. During this process all those elements which he deemed common and insignificant fell out of the scene. There remained no trace of the tram itself nor of the tram-men nor of the horses: nor did he and she appear vividly. The verses told only of the night and the balmy breeze and the maiden lustre of the moon. Some undefined sorrow was hidden in the hearts of the protagonists as they stood in silence beneath the leafless trees and when the moment of farewell had come the kiss, which had been withheld by one, was given by both. (2.2.23)

For the first time, we witness Stephen writing his own poetry. The poem he comes up with doesn’t sound like a work of genius, but we excuse him for that – after all, it’s only the second real poem he’s ever composed. It’s romantic and derivative of his reading (Byron and the good ol’ Count of Monte Cristo), but it’s remarkable to see the young man finally start to become the artist.

Chapter 5

The pages of his time-worn Horace never felt cold to the touch even when his own fingers were cold; they were human pages […] even for so poor a Latinist as he, the dusky verses were as fragrant as though they had lain all those years in myrtle and lavender and vervain… (5.1.18)

This reference to Horace embodies the passion that Stephen feels for great literature. Even ancient works still have human life and warmth, despite their age, proving that art is eternal.

The rain-laden trees of the avenue evoked in him, as always, memories of the girls and women in the plays of Gerhart Hauptmann […] he foreknew that as he passed the sloblands of Fairview he would think of the cloistral silver-veined prose of Newman; that as he walked along the North Strand Road, glancing idly at the windows of the provision shops, he would recall the dark humour of Guido Cavalcanti and smile; that as he went by Baird's stonecutting works in Talbot Place the spirit of Ibsen would blow through him like a keen wind, a spirit of wayward boyish beauty; and that passing a grimy marine dealer's shop beyond the Liffey he would repeat the song by Ben Jonson… (5.1.10)

Amidst the squalor of Stephen’s home and his city, he takes refuge in the literature he loves. This reminds us of his thoughts in the first chapter, when he took his mind off the unpleasantness of Clongowes by focusing on the words he enjoys in his textbooks.

Smoke went up from the whole earth, from the vapoury oceans, smoke of her praise. The earth was like a swinging swaying censer, a ball of incense, an ellipsoidal fall. The rhythm died out at once; the cry of his heart was broken. His lips began to murmur the first verses over and over; then went on stumbling through half verses, stammering and baffled; then stopped. The heart's cry was broken. (5.2.6)

The "heart’s cry" of inspiration urges Stephen to write. In this moment of poetic creation, we see Stephen struggling through the transition from idea to verse; Joyce describes a process familiar to any would-be writer.

The simplest epical form is seen emerging out of lyrical literature when the artist prolongs and broods upon himself as the centre of an epical event and this form progresses till the centre of emotional gravity is equidistant from the artist himself and from others. The narrative is no longer purely personal. The personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea. This progress you will see easily in that old English ballad Turpin Hero which begins in the first person and ends in the third person. (5.1.150)

This is Joyce’s clever reference to Portrait of the Artist itself, which moves from the third person to the first person. Incidentally, the original title of Joyce’s coming-of-age story was Stephen Hero, which makes this comparison all the more evident.

Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race […] Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead. (5.5.35)

Stephen rejoices at the thought of the world waiting for him, but he asserts his Irish identity even as he plans to leave the country. In doing so, he declares the true mission of his art: to understand and create the essence of one’s people. This is a lofty goal, and perhaps an arrogant one – after all, he doesn’t just say he will express the soul of the Irish people, he claims that he will "forge" it, which implies that Ireland’s conscience is still undefined. In his final line, Stephen calls upon Daedalus, his "old father." With country, family, and religion all left behind, his only allegiance now is to his art. He asks for the master craftsman’s protection in the struggles yet to come.

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