Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Who Speaks for Fergus? Silence, Homophobia, and the Anxiety of Yeatsian Influence in Joyce

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Who Speaks for Fergus? Silence, Homophobia, and the Anxiety of Yeatsian Influence in Joyce

Article excerpt

Of the many loves that dare not speak their name for Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, none remains more enigmatic throughout both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses than the love Stephen associates with Yeats. Stephen's juvenile love lyrics may resemble Yeats's early verse, but readers know that if Stephen is destined to metamorphose into a great writer, that writer will more likely resemble James Joyce than W. B. Yeats. Before Stephen can make this transformation, then, he must reconcile himself with the preeminent Irish writer of the previous generation. Stephen engages Yeats directly and indirectly throughout Ulysses, consciously pondering the phrase "love's bitter mystery" from Yeats's poem "Who Goes with Fergus?" whenever he remembers his mother's death and unconsciously reenacting the mystical "antique dance" from Yeats's story "Rosa Alchemica" in the brothel in "Circe." (1) However, given the extent to which Yeats obsesses Stephen, one wonders why he so rarely voices the fragments of Yeats's work that Joyce weaves throughout these texts. Why, to put it succinctly, is Stephen silent regarding Yeats?

This question first struck me as a tangential curiosity when I began thinking about the dynamics of Yeatsian influence in Joyce's works, but it grew increasingly provocative and important as my investigations progressed: provocative because it led to a new understanding of how Joyce's webs of signification complicate one another even when they concern matters as seemingly unrelated as homophobia and literary influence; and important because it revealed that silence, which many readers have celebrated in Joyce's works, also hinders Stephen Dedalus's growth as an artist. At the same time, the question requires us to distinguish Stephen's silent contemplation of Yeats from Joyce's very different strategies for dealing with his eminent precursor. Stephen serves as Joyce's alter ego insofar as his thoughts and experiences resemble Joyce's as a young man, but we must take care not to equate character with author. Joyce repeatedly allows Stephen to think about Yeats's poetry and even to deconstruct Yeats's language in his head or on paper, but almost never to voice Yeats's words aloud. The comic foil Buck Mulligan speaks for Yeats instead, emphasizing the degree to which Yeats's handling of love lies at the heart of Stephen's silence. As critic David Weir has argued, there is also apparently a "homoerotic complication" (221) at play in Stephen's friendship with Mulligan, imbuing Mulligan's digressions on Yeatsian love with a strong element of what Eve Sedgwick has called "homosexual panic" for Stephen. Understandably, then, the question of "love's bitter mystery" remains, to borrow Lord Alfred Douglas's phrase forever associated with Oscar Wilde, a love for Stephen that literally "dare not speak its name." (2)

Stephen's silence reflects two interrelated anxieties that Yeats and Wilde respectively embody: the anxiety of poetic influence, as famously defined by Harold Bloom, and the homosexual panic that Stephen experiences in his friendships with other men, as defined by Sedgwick and discussed in relation to Joyce by several critics including Joseph Valente and Kevin Dettmar. (3) Stephen is unable to deal with love as it relates to either of these anxieties. His anxiety over Yeats's influence stems from the latter's masterly handling of poetic love, and, through a characteristically Joycean chain of associations, he conflates this anxiety of influence with his seemingly unrelated anxieties regarding same-sex love. Stephen copes with these anxieties by containing them in an interior psychic space where he retreats whenever Yeats poses a threat, and where he attempts to subsume Yeats into his own literary compositions. Private Carr jostles this space when he hits Stephen at the end of "Circe" but does not fully collapse it, and Stephen never does reconcile himself with Yeats. However, by looking at Joyce's conflation of Yeats with St. …

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