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CHAPTER FIVE (continued)


As a self-proclaimed priest of art, Stephen needs his own dogma-a system of belief. He claims to base his aesthetic views on those formulated by Aquinas.

Stephen's aesthetic discussions are among the most complex and intellectually demanding sections in Portrait of the Artist. Many readers have debated their meaning, wondering whether Joyce shared Stephen's theories or whether he wanted to show them to be inconsistent and immature.

To make Stephen's long discussion easier to understand, Joyce has Stephen expound his theory to Lynch, whose down-to-earth responses to Stephen's high-minded discourse provide comic relief by poking fun at his friend's solemn literary pretensions. Some think that Lynch is really the voice of Joyce taking the opportunity to mock his own youthful dependence on Jesuit modes of philosophy, modes that give Stephen's theory "the true scholastic stink." (The word "scholastic" refers not only to school in general, but in particular to medieval philosophy that was based on the Church fathers and Aristotle, especially as the two were combined in the writings of Aquinas.)

Stephen begins by saying that the feelings inspired by true art are static, unmoving, while the feelings inspired by untrue, improper art are kinetic, or moving. Improper art excites the emotions; it urges us to go out and do something. For example, art that is improper and didactic (designed to morally instruct) might be intended to make us sign a petition, join a worthy cause. At the other extreme, pornography is improper art because it seeks to inspire us to commit acts of lust.

Proper art, however, doesn't inspire us to do anything: it raises the mind above desire and loathing to a purer state. (Aristotle called this result catharsis.)

What do you think of Stephen's distinction between proper and improper art? Can you name any works of art (literature, painting, or music) that Stephen might categorize as improper? How would you defend them?

Stephen goes on to say that true art is beautiful and that beauty and truth are closely related. Truth appeals to the intellect and beauty to the imagination.

Again quoting Aquinas, Stephen says that while people's taste in beauty may vary, all beautiful objects must meet three requirements. They must possess wholeness, harmony, and radiance. Wholeness (integritas) means that the object at first presents itself to the observer as a single image, a complete whole. After that, the object is seen to possess harmony, consonantia. That is, the complete whole is seen to be made up of many separate parts, but the parts are so well-balanced and arranged that they form a unity. The third quality, radiance-claritas-is the most difficult to define; it can be seen as the product of the first two qualities. A beautiful object makes you see it as a single whole; then it makes you see it as a harmonious composition of many parts. Finally it makes you understand that this wholeness and harmony could only have been achieved in one way. The object is unique. It could not exist in any other form. That's radiance, the "whatness" of a thing.

Goaded by the laughing Lynch, Stephen further refines his theory. Even among true works of art one must make distinctions. Art can be categorized as lyric, epic, and dramatic. The lyric form expresses the emotions of the artist only; it's a completely personal narrative. The epic form expresses the emotions of characters other than the artist, but the presence of the artist remains continually visible in the narrative. In the dramatic form the artist vanishes completely. Only his characters appear. You can think of these three forms as proceeding from the personal to the semi-personal to the impersonal. One work can contain more than one form. Some readers have called Portrait of the Artist essentially lyric. Would you agree or disagree? Does it contain other forms as well?

Stephen's speech on art is not a mere sideshow, as some readers contend. Even if Joyce doesn't want you to agree with Stephen's theories, he wants to show that Stephen has a right to some intellectual pretensions. His theory has already made his reputation on campus, and it's one of the reasons Stephen's friends tolerate his aloofness.


Now Stephen puts his theory into practice by creating his own work of art. The tone of this section is lyrical, in contrast to the dry prose he used earlier to explain his aesthetic theory.

Emma has been on his mind. He has been bitter about what he thinks is a flirtation between her and a young priest. Now he wonders whether he has judged her too harshly. He wakes up near dawn, "dewy wet" after an enchanted night's dream. (Some read this to mean he has had a wet dream.) His room is squalid, but the glow of "a rose and ardent light" (another image of sexual arousal) inspires him to write a poem. As he scribbles the first lines, he relives his relationship with the girl he is writing about, from their first ride together on the streetcar to the recent incident that aroused his jealousy. He resents the fact that she will speak freely into the priest's "latticed ear" (an image of the grille that separates priest and parishioner in the confessional booth) rather than to him, "a priest of the eternal imagination."

Stephen's emotions, as in his theory of lyric expression, are the raw material of his poem. You see the process of creation as thoughts become images and words fall into rhythmic patterns. The poem is in the form of a villanelle.


A villanelle is a poem made up of five 3-line stanzas (tercets) and one 4-line stanza (quatrain), all using only two rhymes. The lines are repeated in a regular pattern: a-b-a (five times) and a-b-a-a (one time). The form was popular in the 1890s. This poem-or a version of itwas actually written by Joyce prior to Portrait of the Artist and was originally entitled "The Villanelle of the Temptress." Another well-known twentieth-century villanelle is "If I Could Tell You," by the British poet, W. H. Auden.

To finish his poem, Stephen turns Emma into a temptress. She is luring the fallen angel Lucifer, who is also Stephen. (He will compare himself again to Lucifer later on.) The images in this section are lush and sexual: scarlet flowers, rose light, broken cries, lavish limbs, and the "liquid life" of water. He offers the woman a "chalice" (his body) of worship, as a reminder of his rival for Emma's affection, Father Moran, and perhaps to connect her with the Virgin Mary.

The villanelle has an important place in Portrait of the Artist. What you think of it as a poem will greatly influence what you think of Stephen. You've seen Stephen reject family, country, and church for art. You've seen him propose elaborate theories of aesthetics. Now, for the first time, you see an example of the art he's thought so much about, the art he's given up so much to create. You'll have to judge: is the villanelle worth his struggles?

It's a question that has inspired much debate. Some readers have scoffed at the poem. They feel that while the verses are technically skillful, they're too imitative of French verse forms and prove that Stephen is only a clever, pretentious scribbler. Other readers, however, make allowances for the villanelle as an immature but very promising effort. And still others regard it as brilliant, finding within it many layers of meaning. Where do you stand?

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