To put it nicely, James Joyce was a prickly pear. It’s well known that he left Dublin for continental Europe in 1904, never to return. His exile was self-imposed, but that didn’t stop him from metaphorically backing out of the room with two middle fingers raised. This reaction was simultaneously over-the-top and kind of justified. Joyce struggled to find his place amongst the literary set in Dublin because his own ego was frequently a major stumbling block. In fact, Joyce had a track record of throwing down poetically when things didn’t go his way. Joyce’s angry poetry reveals a lot about his personality and worldview, and since Ulysses is heavily autobiographical, it can help us understand where Joyce’s head was when he was constructing the oft unflattering portrayals of his friends in his novel.
The Holy Office
In order to understand this poem, we need to take a look at Joyce’s relationship with the movers and shakers behind the Irish Literary Revival underway in the early twentieth century. Often associated with people like W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and John M. Synge, this movement is associated with a flowering of Irish talent and a promotion of Irish traditional culture and nationalism. Though Joyce’s poetry is arguably in line with the style of the time, he felt that he was left behind by the literary bigwigs of his day.
According to Oliver St John Gogarty, a friend of Joyce’s and the real-life model for Buck Mulligan, Lady Gregory, who used her influence to promote the poetry of Yeats, had little interest in Joyce’s poetry. Gogarty said that she felt Joyce “was not ‘out of the top drawer.’” He then recalls Joyce composing the following limerick after a direct rejection by Lady Gregory:
There was an old lady called “Gregory”
Said, “Come to me, poets in beggary”;
But found her imprudence
When thousands of students
Cried, “All, we are in that category!”
Cheeky for sure, but nothing worse than a joke between friends.
Joyce chafed at being rejected by Lady Gregory and her circle. He found their work too pretty, too watered-down. Too vanilla, to use a modern term. He felt that they lacked human-ness, a naturalism he hoped to pursue and which is evidenced in Ulysses where he never shies away from describing human body parts and functions. No fart left undescribed. Ultimately, the work being promoted in the revival lacked teeth. It was impotent and, at worst, fraudulent. It captured a delicate, fictionalized Ireland, while Joyce was dedicated to writing Ireland as it truly was, warts and all. To put it into context, one of Yeats’ first published poems was The Wandering of Oisín, an epic poem retelling an Irish myth, whereas Joyce’s first published book contained a story about two boys skipping school who are approached by a pedophile (“The Encounter”).
Add to this a healthy dollop of egoism as Joyce was thoroughly and completely convinced of his own brilliance and his own ability to remake Irish literature in his personal vision. What really chafed at him was the fact that the Literary Revival failed to recognize his genius. He considered the literary establishment “trolls” (like, he literally called them trolls) and was convinced they were conspiring to ruin him. Oh yeah, and he was in his early twenties and unpublished by anyone at this point. So Joyce did what any of us would do: he put his feelings into a grandiose poem.
Entitled “The Holy Office,” Joyce laid out in verse the many ways in which he surpassed creatively and suffered at the hands of the hack writers in the Irish Literary Revival. A few choice lines:
“So distantly I turn to view
The shamblings of that motley crew,
Those souls that hate the strength that mine has
Steeled in the school of old Aquinas.
Where they have crouched and crawled and prayed
I stand, the self-doomed, unafraid,
Unfellowed, friendless and alone,”
“My spirit shall they never have
Nor make my soul with theirs as one
Till the Mahamanvantara be done:
And though they spurn me from their door
My soul shall spurn them evermore.”
Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann described “The Holy Office” as the Artist’s “first overt, angry declaration that he would pursue candor while his counterparts pursued beauty.”
Joyce attempted to publish “The Holy Office” through his friend Constantine Curran at University College Dublin, but Curran quickly refused to touch such an “unholy thing.” Joyce then tried to self-publish, but couldn’t afford to pay the printer.
The following year (1905), Joyce finally had “The Holy Office” printed in Trieste, Italy where he was living with his family and sent copies to the targets of his poetic barbs back in Dublin. This was a full year after he had first written the poem and a year after he left Ireland for good following his famous falling out with Gogarty. Ellmann says, “To take so much trouble to print the broadside almost a year after writing it did not strike Joyce as strange; his quarrels had lost nothing from a distance.”
Joyce maintained this level of paranoid revenge against his suspected rivals not only for that year, but for much of his adult life. He wrote to his brother Stanislaus in 1905, “…if I don’t sharpen that little pen… and write tiny little sentences about the people who betrayed me send me to hell.” The publishing hell he went through getting The Dubliners to press only exacerbated this paranoia.
Gas from a Burner
In 1910, Joyce got what should have been his big break – he signed a contract with Dublin publishing house Maunsel & Co. to publish his collection of short stories called The Dubliners. The publishing process jogged ahead, and by 1912, Maunsel & Co. had 1,000 copies printed and ready to go. It was at this point that they actually took a close look at what Joyce had written. Dubliners contained openly critical language against Edward VII and stories that suggested sex more openly than the mores of the day allowed, so, sorry, they couldn’t publish the book after all.
Joyce, who was living in Europe at the time, and his brothers tried to recover the printed copies and publish them themselves. The editors at Maunsel & Co. felt the work posed such a moral threat that they could not, in good conscience, ever allow their publication by their own publishing house or even at the hands of the author himself. It wasn’t just that the moralists of the day would find the content objectionable, but the publishers themselves felt it would be immoral for it to ever see the light of day. They informed the Joyces that the copies would be burned as such.
The real burn, if you’ll allow the pun, was that Maunsel & Co. had been a leader in publishing the works of many other Irish Revival writers, including ones that Joyce has obliquely “spurned” in the lines of “The Holy Office”. The one defense that can be offered Maunsel & Co. is that they were a small and relatively new publishing house and likely feared for their own survival if they were ever associated with such a controversial work as Dubliners, which did indeed flout the morals of its day.
In any case, this experience was enough to push Joyce over the edge. He blamed not only the publisher, but Lady Gregory and her circle in Dublin. Fueled by righteous anger, Joyce again chose to take on his betrayers poetically, this time in a poem called “Gas from a Burner,” a poem described by Gogarty as “all revolt, all bitterness.”
“The Holy Office” took on the Irish Revival in more general terms and tended to focus on Joyce’s superiority, though its targets would be obvious to anyone familiar with the Dublin literary scene of the day. “Gas from a Burner,” however, named names and took no prisoners. It is written as if spoken by a manager of Maunsel & Co. and focuses on why Joyce’s work was rejected while less potent works by Irish Revival writers were deemed fit to print. It opens:
Ladies and gents, you are here assembled
To hear why earth and heaven trembled
Because of the black and sinister arts
Of an Irish writer in foreign parts.
I printed it all to the very last word
But by the mercy of the Lord
The darkness of my mind was rent
And I saw the writer’s foul intent.
But I owe a duty to Ireland:
This lovely land that always sent
Her writers and artists to banishment
And in the spirit of Irish fun
Betrayed her own leaders, one by one.
The same people who claimed to love and protect Ireland also chased away her truly gifted thinkers as well as leading to the downfall of great leaders, specifically Charles Stewart Parnell.
Like I said, Joyce named names in this one. He clearly blamed not only the publishing company, but those writers who they had accepted, who had written soft, pretty, inoffensive works to please the Anglo-Irish benefactors and tastemakers. Their vision of Ireland may be pure, but it wasn’t real. It was a genteel Ireland that cast a sweet gauzy gloss over (or totally ignored) the grime of the average Irish person’s life. To add insult to injury, Maunsel & Co. had taken chances on works that contained obscenity, but not Joyce’s:
I printed the poems of Mountainy Mutton
And a play he wrote (you’ve read it I’m sure)
Where they talk of bastard, bugger and whore”
And a play on the Word and Holy Paul
And some woman’s legs that I can’t recall
Written by Moore, a genuine gent
That lives on his property’s ten per cent:
I printed mystical books in dozens:
I printed the table-book of Cousins
Though (asking your pardon) as for the verse
‘Twould give you a heartburn on your arse:
I printed folklore from North and South
By Gregory of the Golden Mouth:
Joyce closes the poem with these lines:
This very next lent I will unbare
“My penitent buttocks to the air
And sobbing beside my printing press
My awful sin I will confess.
My Irish foreman from Bannockburn
Shall dip his right hand in the urn
And sign crisscross with reverent thumb
Memento homo upon my bum.”
One final detail: “Gas from a Burner” was originally written on the back of Joyce’s broken contract with Maunsel & Co. publishers after they had destroyed his proofs of Dubliners.
Burgess, A. (1968). ReJoyce. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Ellmann, R. (1959). James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gogarty, O. (1948). Mourning became Mrs. Spendlove and other portraits grave and gay. New York: Creative Age Press.
Killeen, T. (2014, June 7). James Joyce: down and out in Dublin. The Irish Times. Retrieved from https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/james-joyce-down-and-out-in-dublin-1.1820565
From the James Joyce Centre:
On “The Holy Office” http://jamesjoyce.ie/on-this-day-14-august/
On “Gas from a Burner” http://jamesjoyce.ie/on-this-day-14-september/