Stephen Dedalus' Villanelle


Religionless and Asexual: Searching for the Smithy of Stephen's Soul

by Chris Verschuyl March 1, 1996

As James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man unfolds, protagonist Stephen Dedalus' personal vision grows closer and closer to that of an "artist." Stephen attempts throughout the story to understand the inspiration he receives while being tormented by influences that seem to distract him. Stephen's thoughtful approach to his experiences, bring him through his tormented youth to a refined understanding of his feelings about art.

After explicitly stating his aesthetic theories, Stephen composes a villanelle whose structure and classically Joycean crafted diction implicitly represent Stephen's entire story. Once the parallel is established, it becomes clear that the poem -- and especially its recurring lines -- represent the epiphany for Stephen in terms of his self-discovery. In composing the villanelle, Stephen -- at this point a raw, untested visionary -- throws off the distractions of religion and sexuality to begin to grow specifically into his perceived role as creator of his race's conscience.

*** The structure of Stephen's villanelle as a whole -- from its stanza construction to its length -- is the first step toward a sense of to A Portrait's overall purpose.

Let us first consider why Joyce chose the villanelle as Stephen's method of communication. The aba rhyme scheme of this type of poem, with not only ending vowel sounds but entire lines recurring, forces the composer into a very confined, ordered narrative space. Stephen's definition of art includes a "cadence" and a sense of fluidity (483). From this it is reasonable to conclude that this piece, with a definite rhythm and a flowing style, is the protagonist's first real effort at art -- however, taken by itself, it is not the highest, or dramatic, form of art. But evidence does exist to suggest that this poem is not merely the raw artist's first work but a representation of Joyce's dramatic art, "wherein he [the artist] presents his image in immediate relation to others" (481): this poem is implicitly a condensation for the reader of the key elements of Stephen's whole story.

First, consider the fact that there are nineteen lines in the poem, and nineteen sections (as separated by three asterisks) in the novel. If not for the further evidence presented in the villanelle's structure and content, this could be dismissed as coincidence. But the first and third lines are repeated in the stanzas following: line 1 in the second and fourth, and line 3 in the third and fifth. Likewise, throughout his story, Stephen grapples with the church and with his sexuality, alternating between the two. Major instances of this vacillation appear in each chapter: as a young boy at Clongowes, he considers the implications of God's name (262); the young adolescent Stephen struggles to allow himself to be kissed by a prostitute (353), leading to guilt as he tries to reconcile himself with the church (395-7); and the vision of a woman on the beach keeps him from promising himself to the priesthood (434).

The final two lines of the villanelle present lines 1 and 3 repeated as a couplet. As we will see in the next section, they represent the change of focus that takes place in Stephen as he writes this poem, redirecting his energy from the church and sexuality onto himself and his art.

*** In order to grasp the meaning of Stephen's villanelle, it is essential to begin with the implications of the lines (1 and 3) that, when repeated, represent nearly half the piece:

Are you not weary of ardent ways,
Lure of the fallen seraphim?

Line 1 forces the reader to resolve immediately to whom exactly the poem is directed. A cursory look would simply connect "you" to the woman in Stephen's erotic memory. Clear evidence is given for this interpretation in line 17 with the words "lavish limb," linked obviously to the description of Stephen's fantasy in the paragraph preceding the poem: "Her nakedness yielded to him, radiant, warm, odorous, and lavishlimbed..." (492). Also, references to eyes and the phrase "the temptress of his villanelle" (492) make the woman a satisfying conclusion.

But it seems that it is not the physical woman that is important, but rather the imagination that recalls her. "In the virgin womb of the imagination the word was made flesh" in the form of the woman (485). The "rose and ardent light" in Stephen's spirit is the power that creates the woman (485), so implicitly then it is the "you" to whom Stephen writes. Further evidence is offered in line 2, where Stephen specifies "you" as the "Lure of the fallen seraphim," which is clearly a reference to the light of his imagination: "...lured by that ardent roselike glow the choirs of the seraphim were falling from heaven" (486). This distinction is key to understanding this poem as Stephen's conscious redirection of his own artistic efforts. If he were writing simply to the woman, there would be no change in perspective: we would have no hope that Stephen would ever move past lyrical art.

Line 1, in combination with the reference to "rose and ardent light," brings into question the meaning of "ardent" in the villanelle. "Ardent" is defined as either "...warmth of feeling typically expressed in eager zealous support..." or "fiery [or] impassioned"1. As we will see, Joyce takes advantage of both of these definitions throughout the villanelle, using zeal in reference to religion, and passion when speaking of sexuality. Interpreting "you" as Stephen's imagination, it is clear that he becomes "weary" of passively allowing his conflicting sexuality and religion to torture his soul: no longer is he convinced that an acceptable "image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him" (311). He has a new, active purpose in mind for his inspiration: the creation of a new conscience for the Irish people.

(3) Tell no more of enchanted days.

The third and final line of the first stanza has a similar double meaning. One interpretation speaks, it seems, of the entrapment, so to speak, of his imagination and spirit by the physical pleasure of sexuality. Stephen realizes here that true high art is not made of even "a fluid and lambent narrative" (483). In understanding the sexual connotation of this phrase, first note the repeated use of references to liquid in Stephen's sexual fantasy immediately preceding the villanelle: "shining cloud," "liquid life," "waters circumfluent," and "liquid letters", among others (492). "Lambent" is defined as "playing lightly over a surface,"2 certainly a sensual experience if not a sexual one in this context. Since the definition of art requires more refinement than fluidity and lambency (483), we are to think that Stephen's experience of sexuality is not his highest calling as an artist.

A second, more subtle reading of line 3 addresses the question of Stephen's struggle with the Catholic religion. A close look at the word "enchanted" reveals the word "chant" included within. Certainly Stephen's experience of religion has been very ritualized, from the before-bed prayers at boarding school to a consideration of a life characterized by its "chill and order" (421). Joyce's most explicit hint at this reference is Stephen's hasty appeal for forgiveness in Chapter Three, where each statement is repeated like a chant, thereby exposing for the reader its emptiness of meaning (392). If the word "more" is read as a pun on "mores," meaning "fixed morally binding customs,"3 the third line of the poem appears to be Stephen's request (of his imagination) not to be plagued by the questions of a morality based on custom. Without the distraction of sexuality and religion, then, Stephen can at least strive for high art.

Given these readings of the repeated lines and considering the poem in terms of its parallel with the overall plot, we can track their effect on the style and implications of each of the following stanzas. It is useful to track the style of art, according to Stephen's definition, that are present in each stanza. The changes between lyrical, epical, and (nearly) dramatic follow a logical progression for a budding artist.

(4) Your eyes have set man's heart ablaze
(5) And you have had your will of him.
(6) Are you not weary of ardent ways?

Lines 4-6 refer primarily to the sexual creations of Stephen's imagination, as suggested by the explicit reference to the "eyes" of his fantasy of the preceding paragraph (492) -- in this sense, then, "ardent" means "passionate" in the second stanza. Similarly, the second chapter of A Portrait builds up to a climactic moment revealing Stephen's identity as a sexual being (353).

This second stanza is unique in that it contains the only past-tense verbs in the villanelle. Also notice the repeated use of the words "you" and "your." When considered together, these two facts suggest that Stephen's stance in this poem is one of a removed character looking back on a repeated event (as suggested by "have set" and "have had" rather than "set" or "had" as would be the case for an isolated case). Stephen attempts to further this idea of an observer as narrator is the use of the words "man's" and "him," generalizing a situation that is in fact very individual and very current: as we can tell by recalling the association between "you" and Stephen's imagination, as well as the intensely personal narration surrounding the composition of the villanelle, these lines are very first-person. Therefore, according to Stephen's definition, this stanza is decidedly lyrical, in that "the artist presents his image [the woman's eyes as perceived by his imagination] in immediate relation to himself" (481), however much effort the unrefined Stephen expends trying to hide his identity. Likewise, A Portrait begins with a section of heavily infected writing as Joyce proposes that we consider the story from Stephen's perspective, which naturally begins in his babyhood as openly self-centered.

(7) Above the flame the smoke of praise
(8) Goes up from ocean rim to rim.
(9) Tell no more of enchanted days.

This stanza brings the focus of the villanelle back from sexuality onto religion, as occurs earlier in the novel when Stephen hears Father Arnall's speech in the third chapter and, fearing damnation, confesses his sins. Stephen pictures "Smoke, incense ascending from the altar of the world" before he composes lines 7-9 (486). He thereby suggests that the world's "praise" for its God is nothing more than empty rhetoric -- "smoke," so to speak. Also, the repetition in the phrase "rim to rim" brings to mind once again the ritualized lifestyle required by Stephen's experience of religion.

In terms of aesthetics, the first two lines of this stanza come very close to Stephen's dramatic form, wherein the artist is not present except "within or behind or beyond or above" the piece. But the third line is a direct address from the writer (in this case, to his own imagination), bringing him decidedly back into prominent lyrical existence in his work. This problem, as we will see again later, is a major stumbling block for Stephen's development as an artist in A Portrait.

(10) Our broken cries and mournful lays
(11) Rise in one eucharistic hymn.
(12) Are you not weary of ardent ways?

This fourth stanza, like the fourth chapter in A Portrait, is an attempt at synthesis to find a resolution for the problems of sexuality and religion. Stephen in the story considers the option of priesthood in the novel, wherein he would be committed to a life of both piety and chastity. Before composing this stanza, he draws parallels between his fantasy and the Christian God, characterizing himself as "a priest of eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience [earlier referred to as "her soul's shy nakedness"] into the radiant body of everliving life" (490). Perhaps the greatest evidence for synthesis in this stanza is the word "lays," which can indicate someone not associated with the church, sexual intercourse, or "simple narrative poem[s]"4. Stephen for a moment falls into a ritualized unification in the form of the "eucharistic hymn," which for the moment brings together his "bitter and despairing thoughts" (490), which concern his disillusionment with the woman and with the church -- his "lay" thoughts, so to speak. But the final line, as in the previous stanza, hints at the chaos Stephen must endure to claim a focus untainted by religion or sexuality.

This stanza is more openly epical, in that it presents the image of the eucharistic hymn as a mediator between the artist and the mysterious other, in this case his conception of God. The word "Our" opening the stanza establishes the writer as present in the scene from the beginning, but these lines still show solid progress in terms of artistic sophistication, as opposed to the imperfect -- one could say lucky -- burst of high art in the previous stanza. This calls to mind Stephen's disclosure of his aesthetic theories on beauty, art, and the artist (449, 481, 483), wherein he ceases to tell simply his own story, beginning to offer images and ideas with which others can directly relate.

(13) While sacrificing hands upraise
(14) The chalice flowing to the brim,
(15) Tell no more of enchanted days.

These final lines before the quatrain that closes the villanelle represent one side of the struggle Stephen encounters in the final chapter as he tries to find his artistic vision in the midst of temptations from both the hypnotic comfort of religion and the passion of sex. Presented in the narrative as a continuation of the hymn of stanza four, lines 13-14 present an image that at first look advocates a life of religious dedication, using the word "flowing," which has developed into a positive connotation at this point in the novel. On the other hand, "sacrificing hands upraise" brings to mind the reference to the "smoke of praise/ Go[ing] up" in lines 7-8, which denotes the emptiness of religion. The text immediately following the composition of this part of the poem describes Stephen's attitude: "He spoke the verses aloud from the first lines till the music and rhythm suffused his mind, turning it to quiet indulgence" (490). So for Stephen, religion has been reduced to the "chant" implied in line 3.

Like the third stanza, Stephen again approaches the dramatic by removing himself completely from two lines, but is drawn back in by the final line. Perhaps this can be viewed as one final spurt of artistic inspiration before the force of the lyrical ending (both of the poem and of the novel as a whole) becomes too much for the fledgling artist to bear.

(16) And still you hold our longing gaze
(17) With languorous look and lavish limb!

These two lines are important primarily as a complement to lines 13-15: they present once again sexuality as a cause of misdirection. The "you" here, although still bound by the imagination, is very pointedly the woman in Stephen's fantasy. As we have seen, the reference to "lavishlimbed" (492) makes this association concrete. The alliteration in line 17 emphasizes the "languor," the weary continuity -- far from inspired art -- that he sees as occupying his energy.

(18) Are you not weary of ardent ways?
(19) Tell no more of enchanted days.

The final couplet of the villanelle is a key component of an understanding of the poem's status as a crucial turning point in the novel. Stephen has spent all of A Portrait thus far passionately debating or succumbing to the enchantment of either his religion or his sexuality. These two lines consolidate his disillusionment with this vacillation. After the villanelle, Stephen recognizes that neither of these subjects are worthy of his artistic attention, so he abandons "ardent ways" and "enchanted days" to become an artist with a dramatic purpose. Speaking to Cranly about the Roman Catholic church, Stephen says, "I fear more than [damnation] the chemical action which would be set up in my soul by a false homage to a symbol behind which are massed twenty centuries of authority and veneration" (515). Likewise, Stephen abandons his sexual fantasy: "Let her go and be damned to her" (504).

Only after the elimination of these distracting issues can Stephen look solely within himself for inspiration. After denying that his ambition is "to deflower a virgin," he angrily explains to Cranly, "I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using... silence, exile, and cunning" (519). By recognizing that inspiration is exclusively his, and not channeled through the church or through his relations with women, Stephen can discover his true calling: "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race" (526). It is interesting that, like his growth as an artist, even this discovery is a gradual process: earlier, Stephen thinks only of "hit[ting] their conscience... that they might breed a race less ignoble than their own" (509). Stephen's incomplete advancement up his aesthetic "ladder" from stanza to stanza in the villanelle is, therefore, a representation of his growth throughout the novel: moments of brilliant insight peppered throughout a slow (and still continuing) growth process -- as at the end of the villanelle, Stephen reverts into the first-person lyrical style in his diary in the final section.

Stephen's villanelle, as evidenced especially by its repeated rejection of ardor and enchantment, allows the protagonist to remove from his imagination two nagging distractions as he begins to work toward the religionless, asexual soul of an artist "refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails" (483).

1-4 Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. Merriam-Webster, 1994.

All other citations from Joyce, James. The Portable James Joyce, ed. Harry Levin. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.