*This was written on December, 2nd 2018.
Having recently read James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (which I would highly recommend), I decided to capture the effect it had on me in an extemporaneous poem. Joyce’s language in the work is rich and piercing. It would be difficult for one not to be inspired and put pen to paper following a first reading. Furthermore, the narrative speaks to me as someone who has struggled with reconciling traditional faith with Romantic tendencies and the desire for freedom of expression.
In the work, Joyce’s protagonist is a young man who is at a Catholic college in Ireland during a period of religious and social unrest in the early 20thcentury. His father is a bitter irreligious jock of sorts who longs for his youthful days again while his mother is a pious Roman Catholic. Stephen’s (the protagonist) experience in Catholic school and the dissonance between his parents and society, lead him to abandon the “narrow path” of faith. This eventually leads to him frequenting the bed of a prostitute. After becoming hardened to religion in the form of Irish Catholicism, Stephen trounces toward hedonism while a student at college. Later, Stephen is forced to go on a retreat with the school in remembrance of Saint Xavier. During the retreat, the priests spend hours teaching on The Last Four Things (death, judgement, heaven & hell). Each day they cover one of the four topics, and Stephen finds himself sitting under the intense and lengthy descriptions of the torments of hell from the priests. Here is an excerpt,
“The horror of this strait and dark prison is increased by its awful stench. All the filth of the world, all the offal and scum of the world, we are told, shall run there as to a vast reeking sewer when the terrible conflagration of the last day has purged the world. The brimstone too which burns there in such prodigious quantity fills all hell with its intolerable stench; and the bodies of the damned themselves exhale such a pestilential odor that as saint Bonaventure says, one of them alone would suffice to infect the whole world…Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing the grave, a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption…and then imagine this sickening stench multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all of this and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell.”
Upon hearing this, Stephen’s sense of condemnation becomes all-encompassing. He can’t breathe, and he feels as if he will die if he does not repent. He eventually goes to a priest and confesses. Following confession, Stephen dives headfirst into Catholic piety once again. He carries the rosary, denies himself physical comforts (even pleasant smells), and disassociates himself with sinners. Eventually, the brothers at the college notice his robust piety and invite him to join the priesthood. In a moment of decision, Stephen chooses to reject the mysterious power of the priesthood and instead begins to discover his longing for the world of aesthetics as he becomes fond of a girl he sees near the ocean. As he delves more deeply into his new philosophy of life, Stephen become more and more distant from his Irish Catholic companions and his family. At the end of the novel, following the recommendation of a friend, Stephen decides to move to Europe because of the stifling uncreative environment of Catholic Ireland despite the fact that he knows he will be lonely and suffer there. The novel exhibits a strong theme of conflict between identity and society, religion and art, the Romantic and the Pietistic.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Oscillate
From on High to far below
From rested assurance of mind to sweet chaotic caresses of Nature
Order & Truth!
Freedom & Feeling!
Can there be a medium?
From pious groaning and illogical temperance to beautiful ecstatic dross of ecstasy
Conform & Submit!
Liberate & Taste!
Should there be a medium?
Thomistic security of mind brings feelings of peace
Romantic sense breeds intemperance & imprudent negotiation
Crack the nut or break oneself on it
Will there be a medium?
Brittle pages birth the buckles of Puritans
Sweet smells of song seduce the young man to artistry
Is there a home for one like us?
Should Ole Ireland be left
Beatific visions call for the continent
Incarcerated mysteries call for contrition
Has there ever been a medium?