Reading Joyce: Stephen Hero

stephen heroHaving backed slowly away from Ulysses, I am now putting one toe back in the water with Stephen Hero, hoping it will give me a handle on the longer work. In the book the protagonist Stephen Daedalus is a young university student in some unnamed place–a school where the other students come from places like Limerick and the professors are priests–presumably the school is in Ireland. There are descriptions of his classes, names of authors he reads–Shakespeare, Ibsen–and a particular writing class where he early distinguished himself, but I’m mainly interested in his description of his own writing process and anything that sheds light on his interpretation of what he is doing.

Here are several passages that illustrate a preoccupation with sound:

(p.25)

[Two pages missing]
of verse are the first conditions which the words must submit to, and rhythm is the esthetic result of the senses, values and relations of the words thus conditioned. The beauty of verse consisted as much in the concealment as in the revelation of construction but it certainly could not proceed from only one of these. For this reason he found Father Butt’s reading of verse and a schoolgirl’s accurate reading of verse intolerable. Verse to be read according to its rhythm should be read according to the stresses; that is, neither strictly according to the feet nor yet with complete disregard for them….

p. 26

He was at once captivated by the seeming eccentricities of the prose of Freeman and William Morris. He read them as one would read a thesaurus and made a of words. He read Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary by the hour and his mind, which had from the first been only too submissive to the infant sense of wonder, was often hypnotised by the most commonplace conversation.

p. 27

Stephen laid down his doctrine very positively and insisted on the importance of what he called the literary tradition. <Words, he said, have a a certain value in the literary tradition and a certain value in the market-place–a debased value.> Words are simply receptacles for human thought: in the literary tradition they receive more valuable thoughts than they receive in the market-place.

p. 30

As he walked thus through the ways of the city he had his ears and eyes ever prompt to receive impressions.  It was not only in Skeat that he found words for his treasure-house, he found them also at haphazard in the shops, on advertisements, in the mouths of the plodding public.  He kept repeating them to himself till they lost all instantaneous meaning for him and became wonderful vocables.

So although at one point he pays lip service to the content of the writing, it is primarily the sound he is concerned with.  And what are the criterion for something to sound “good” or ” right” or whatever he is aiming for?  He doesn’t say.

Now here is something else to think about.  What did Joyce speak?   With what accent, what pronunciation?  I can tell the difference between someone speaking with an Irish accent and someone speaking in a British accent–heaven know there are enough South Side Irish here, but what happens when that person hangs out with people from Oxford, as Joyce’s somewhat autobiographical protagonist does in the fictional accounts, or even moves to any other country, like Switzerland? My accent has certainly changed with my various moves. Did Joyce’s? [For one thing, I no longer say “George Warshington”, squarsh, warsh,  with that “Midwestern twang” :~)]  And did Joyce’s accent affect the sound of his writings?

Now yet another question.  In a recent thread at Language Log, various commenters were trying to describe the ways to pronounce the vowel “a” on both sides of the pond (Britain and the US).  It’s not the same at all.  Now, will American readers experience Joyce in a different way because of their different pronunciation?  And what about vowel shifts over time?  Five hundred years from now, how will anyone be pronouncing Joyce?

And more importantly, if I can’t figure out how Joyce is pronounced, can I still enjoy it?

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