Skip to main content

Edwin Muir on James Joyce

I agree with you about every work of art being too long, even those of Stendahl, which I adore. Lawrence’s are certainly all too long, except perhaps some of his short stories … Ulysses is certainly far too long, I think, even admitting that its bulk in itself has a sort of aesthetic value. Joyce, it seems to me – my opinion of him is always changing – is au fond a very meretricious artist, a getter of effects, and quite incapable of attaining the simplicity which is the condition of the most real and great art. (I don’t mean simplicity of mind, but of spirit, singleness, rareness.) I think I have made quite a valuable discovery regarding him – that he is primarily an artist in words, that he is more interested in language than in his subject matter, and that his interest in the one gets between us and the other – a very fundamental sin against art, it seems to me. I hope by the time I come to write at length about him I shall cease to be astonished by him, for at the other side of that astonishment (which he exerts all his histrionic genius to arouse) I fancy I shall find a great amount of sham work …

Edwin Muir, in a letter to Stephen Hudson, October 6, 1924, first published in Encounter, Vol. XXVI, No. I, January 1966. 

Is Ulysses too long? Thus we enter the reader-response world of the 1920s and one of its attentive practitioners, the Orkney poet Edwin Muir. Muir is famous for his poetry of spare language and memorable images, a survivor of the Edwardian old school style. He is the translator of Franz Kafka, someone who never wrote a long novel, whose stories are amongst the most concentrated works of psychology in literature. So it is worth reading someone with such a different set of aesthetic expectations to James Joyce coming to terms, so early in the day, with Ulysses. For indeed the novel had only been out two years, a work with a massively original structure and a use of English that overrode the very conventions of the authorial voice. No wonder Muir’s opinion was changing all the time: there was a lot to absorb and comprehend. When he labels Joyce “a getter of effects” we are reminded of how new were the Flaubertian methods of subjective and objective presentation in the English novel; indeed, Joyce is the one who makes them come alive. If they were simply effects we would have stopped reading the book years ago, but it is the cumulative networking of effective meaning through the whole book that pushes our appreciation of the lived experience of the characters. An object or event described one way early in the account reappear with telling and moving effect in say the brothel scenes or Molly Bloom’s monologue, and it is the memorable “effect” that catches our imagination in order to strengthen our picture of that one day in Dublin. That Joyce is an “artist in words” is immediate and extravagantly apparent on every page; Muir’s criticism reveals the surprise that Joyce’s readers felt, and still feel, confronted everywhere with such rich English. That this therefore means he is less interested in his subject matter is an argument hard to sustain. We know, for example, that Muir’s own list of values (“spirit, singleness, rareness”) are the very words that the literary artists in the Martello Tower argue about at length, each caught inside their own drives and expectations. Joyce’s sensitivity to the desire, as well as the ironies, inherent in such words is at work all the way through the novel. What is the most effective way of getting “spirit, singleness, rareness”? From the proximity of 1924 Edwin Muir is astonished by Ulysses, while his critical mind is suspicious of his astonishment and cannot avoid feeling that the book may not be all that other readers are claiming it to be. Another reader at the time was the iconoclastic Englishman Wyndham Lewis. Three years after this letter, Muir writes again to Hudson after taking in Lewis’s views of Joyce’s novel. It is almost comical, from this distance in time, to find that Muir now thinks parts of the book are “atrociously written”, given what we know about Joyce’s scrupulous attention to every detail of the work, right up to the day of publication in Paris. Even more so is the accusation of sentimentality, which Lewis wanted to find and expose, if not blast out of existence, at every opportunity, wherever it raised its pretty head. That Ulysses is one of the most extended exercises in literature on the questions of sentiment and sentimentality is today a commonplace. However, it is Edwin Muir not Wyndham Lewis who can see that the main character is a sustained and original portrait of one human being over hundreds of closely written pages. He rejects Lewis’s narrow views about Leopold Bloom. He thereby accidentally seems to be saying that the novel’s length may even be a virtue.      

The criticism of Joyce [by Wyndham Lewis] is certainly far and away the best thing I have read upon him; it is a brilliant and decisive piece of work. It has set me reading Ulysses again, and I find that it has cleared up a great number of things for me; has shown me that a large part of the work is atrociously written, for one thing, and that it is packed with sentimentality, for another. About Stephen I agree entirely, but I feel that Lewis is altogether wrong about Bloom, who I still think is the greatest character in contemporary fiction. Lewis takes him as a Jew, but I never think of Bloom particularly as a Jew, but as a human being, like Shylock, who is much more human than Jewish. One must always do that finally, I think: we know that the Karamazovs are Russian, but it is because they are human that we understand them and they move us. And if Lewis says that there has never been a Jew like Bloom, the only thing one can reply is that there have been quite a number of human beings like him.

Edwin Muir, in a letter to Stephen Hudson, April 18, 1927. 


Popular posts from this blog

Why did Dante write The Divine Comedy?

This is one of two short papers given by Philip Harvey at the first Spiritual Reading Group session for 2014 on Tuesday the 18 th of February in the Carmelite Library in Middle Park. He also gave a paper on that occasion, which can be found on the Library blog, entitled ‘A Rationale for Purgatory’ . Nadezhda Mandelstam recalls in one of her books how her husband, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, would say that when reading poetry we can spend a great deal of time discussing what it means, but the first and main question about a poem is not what does it mean, but why was it written. That is the place to start. Here are eleven reasons that I offer quietly to help us think about this poem: Why did Dante write The Divine Comedy? You may have other reasons and these are invited. We will spend most of our time today looking at meanings, but also at why. I wrote these out as they occurred to me, so there is no priority order. 1.      He wrote the poem because of Florence. Many o

The Walk (Seamus Heaney)

This poem was read aloud at Janet Campbell’s funeral in Hamilton in Victoria in December 2006. Janet was a great lover of poetry all her life, a great reader of poetry, and she read everything of Seamus Heaney. Indeed, when she worked in Melbourne or London bookshops Janet would grab hold of Faber pre-publication copies of Heaney if they came into the backroom, and disappear for days, copying lines onto postcards for her friends, transferring lines into her lifetime of diaries. Diaries that were also a lifeline. Janet read everything, but Heaney was one of the regulars. Seamus Heaney keeps a tight line. He is rarely though completely opaque and the way into this poem is the word ‘longshot’. We only find in the second of the two poems that we are being asked to look at two photographs. Or, at least, poems that are like photographs. Or, better still, strong memories that have taken on in the mind the nature of longshots. The two poems in one are reminders of close relationships.

The Poetry of Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams delivers the twelfth John Rylands Poetry Reading last year   This is a paper given by Philip Harvey in the Hughes Room at St Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne on Sunday the 6 th of December as one in an Advent series on religious poets. The original title of the paper was ‘The text that maps our losses and longings’. Everything Rowan Williams says and writes reveals a person with a highly developed sensitivity to language, its force, directness, instantaneousness, its subtlety, indirectness, longevity. A person though may speak three languages fluently and read at least nine languages with ease, as he does, and still not engage with language in the way we are looking at here. Because Rowan is unquestionably someone with a poetic gift. By that I don’t just mean he writes poetry, I mean he engages with the life of words, their meanings, ambiguities, colours, their playfulness, invention, sounds. We find this in those writings of his that deliberate