James Joyce Ulysses Buck Mulligan

Poetry in Ulysses: The Ballad of Joking Jesus

-We oughtn’t to laugh, I suppose. He’s rather blasphemous. I’m not a believer myself, that is to say. Still his gaiety takes the harm out of it somehow, doesn’t it?

For all posts on music and poetry in Ulysses, visit this page.

In “Telemachus,” Stephen Dedalus and the boys head down to the sea beside their Martello tower home in Sandycove to bathe in the sea. On the way, Buck Mulligan regales them with a blasphemous tune he’s composed called “The Ballad of Joking Jesus.” Haines, the English student, is amused, but we learn that Stephen is tiring of the “Ballad,” having heard it “three times a day, after meals” for God knows how long.

joyce ulysses buck mulliganThe inclusion of “The Ballad of Joking Jesus” establishes Buck Mulligan as a low-brow blasphemer – a man whose irreverence has no deeper meaning behind it, unlike that of an artist such as Dedalus. Mulligan is just saying rude things to get a rise out of his friends or maybe a few laughs. He’s basically that one friend who constantly posts edgy memes on Facebook with the comment, “I’m going to hell lol.” Stephen’s rejection of the Church comes from a deeper more philosophic place. Stephen also refused to pray at his mother’s deathbed on principal, so I have a hard time taking his side here.

This reflects the real-life rivalry between James Joyce and his onetime friend and roommate Oliver St John Gogarty, who Mulligan was based on. Joyce and Gogarty lived together in the Sandycove Martello tower in 1904 and had a falling out when Joyce moved out in dramatic fashion. We know Joyce found Gogarty crass and shallow because he said so in numerous letters and personal notes. Joyce wrote in his Trieste notebook (which I have come to think of as Joyce’s burn book), “[Gogarty’s] coarseness of speech is not the blasphemy of a romantic.”

Gogarty really did write a poem called “The Song of The Cheerful (and Slightly Sarcastic) Jesus.” He’s believed to have written it in late 1904 to mend the falling out between himself and Joyce. Gogarty attempted to make amends with his erstwhile friend many times throughout his life for fear of what Joyce would write about him. Gogarty, a poet in his own right, never intended “Song” for publication, only for a laugh amongst friends, but, as it turned out, Joyce had the last laugh.

Joyce took it upon himself to publish “Song” in the first chapter of Ulysses, where Buck Mulligan recites a slightly modified version of its first, second and final stanzas. Since the poem was an in-joke and not well-known, it was assumed that Joyce had written it himself and so he was given credit for Gogarty’s verse. Gogarty admitted to having penned the poem in the 1950’s, well after Joyce’s death.


Further Reading:


Ellmann, R. (1959). James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press.

Trieste Notebook:


Turner, J., & Mamigonian, M. (2004). Solar Patriot: Oliver St. John Gogarty in “Ulysses”. James Joyce Quarterly, 41(4), 633-652. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25478099

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