Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Gerty MacDowell, Poetess: Butler's the Authoress of the Odyssey and the Nausicaa Episode of Ulysses

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Gerty MacDowell, Poetess: Butler's the Authoress of the Odyssey and the Nausicaa Episode of Ulysses

Article excerpt

A few hours before Bloom meets his Nausicaa on Sandymount beach, Stephen meets his Scylla and Charybdis in the Irish National Library. The Dublin intelligentsia have convened to discuss art and artists, in particular Shakespeare, and there seems to be a general agreement that a work of art should be approached by way of its author's biography. When Stephen has expounded his theory that Shakespeare is to be equated with Hamlet's father, the talk turns to other recent scholarship in that vein:

  The most brilliant of all is that story of Wilde's, Mr Best said,
  lifting his brilliant notebook. That Portrait of Mr. W. H. where he
  proves that the sonnets were written by a Willie Hughes, a man all
  hues. ... It's the very essence of Wilde, don't you know. The light
  touch. (9.522-30)

Wilde's short story, which suggests that the sonnets were written for (not by) a Willie Hughes, was published in 1889, adding to a controversy more than a century old. As early as 1766, Thomas Tyrwhitt had argued that "Mr. W. H.," according to Shakespeare's dedication the "onlie begetter" of his sonnets, was a young actor named Willie Hughes. There was virtually no historical evidence to support this hypothesis; its proponents mainly relied on the line from sonnet 20, "A man in hue all hues in his controlling," and on the recurrent puns on the name Will, which, of course, might just as well refer to the author himself. For the informed scholar of 1904, however, Wilde's would not have been the most recent contribution to the debate. Only five years before, in 1899, Samuel Butler had published Shakespeare's Sonnets Reconsidered, where he took up Tyrwhitt's hypothesis to argue that if read in the "proper" sequence, the sonnets yield further information about the background and character of Mr. Hughes. The addressee, he claimed, was a young man of modest standing, good-looking and popular but vain and heartless; in consequence, "his character developed badly, and ... before the end of the year he had got himself a bad name" (137). Given the discussion that precedes Mr. Best's remark, it is reasonable to assume that his mistaken attribution of authorship to Willie Hughes is not an error on Joyce's part but another allusion to the theme, recurrent in Ulysses, of covert self-portraiture. The same, I believe, applies to the indirect reference to Butler, which acquires unexpected significance at a later point in the novel.

The works of Samuel Butler have often been identified as a probable influence on Joyce. Until recently, scholars focused on The Way of All Flesh as a precursor to the Joyce canon, and especially to that other bildungsroman on the verge of modernism, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. (1) New inquiries were incited when the list of books in Joyce's Trieste library was published in Richard Ellmann's The Consciousness of Joyce (1977). Besides The Way of All Flesh, the list includes four other works by Butler: Shakespeare's Sonnets Reconsidered, Erewhon, The Humor of Homer, and The Authoress of the Odyssey. As its title suggests, it is the last of these books that can be read most profitably against Joyce's works, especially Ulysses. A scholarly study published in 1897, 'The Authoress argues that the Homeric Odyssey was actually written by a Sicilian girl who portrayed herself in the figure of Nausicaa. The book met with critical reservations on its appearance but soon achieved a certain notoriety among students of the Homeric poems. Joyce was among these students, and since The Authoress was on his bookshelf at the time, it is reasonable to assume that he had Butler's hypothesis in mind when he wrote the Nausicaa episode of Ulysses in 1919-20. (2)

Critics have occasionally speculated about the influence Butler's study might have had on Joyce's conception of Ulysses. Hugh Kenner, who first drew attention to specific intertextual links, sees a parallel between the description of Telemachus's tower in The Authoress and the Martello Tower where Ulysses opens ("Homer's Sticks and Stones" 293). …

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