As a young man Joyce notified Henrik Ibsen by letter, and W. B. Yeats by word of mouth, that higher and holier enlightenment lay beyond their reach and would have to await their successors. His admiration for these writers, while great, was not unbounded: in a poem about Ghosts later he would twit Ibsen for his obsession with spreading guilt, and at the end of A Portrait of the Artist he reproved Yeats for a nostalgic aestheticism. Imposing as they were, they were already receding into the past, precursors and not saviours. Joyce saw himself as advancing beyond them into the future of literature.
Yet he stepped backward as well as forward. Why he should have adopted ancient Greek originals for both Stephen Dedalus and Bloom is more than a literary question. Like other writers, he wished to invoke the collective past as well as his personal moment. "Ancient salt is best packing," as Yeats remarked long afterwards. In part it was for Joyce a way of aggrandizing his characters and his country, of connecting by continental drift the Ireland which in a notebook he rudely assailed as "an afterthought of Europe" with Greece. This anastomosis of antiquity, especially Greek antiquity, with a later age in another country, has been common enough from Virgil's Aeneid to Meredith's Harry Richmond, though rarely pursued by such intricate means.
Joyce could find encouragement in his epical aims from W. B. Yeats. In "The Autumn of the Body," included in Ideas of Good and Evil ( 1903), which Joyce had with him in Trieste, Yeats disagreed with Mallarmé that the present age would make its one medium the lyric and argued instead for a new Odyssey. "I think that we will learn again," Yeats wrote, "how to describe at great length an old man wandering among enchanted islands, his return home at last, his slowly gathering vengeance, a flitting shape of a goddess, and a flight of arrows, and yet to make all these so different things ... become ... the signature or symbol of a mood of the divine imagination." 1 Yeats was envisaging something on the order of his own The____________________