John Milton, Lycidas, James Joyce, Ulysses

Poetry in Ulysses: Lycidas

—Tell us a story, sir. —O, do, sir. A ghoststory.

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

Did you ever have a teacher in school who had a tenuous-at-best grip on their lessons? They were easily distracted or maybe a little too much of a hippie. Maybe they were a substitute who wasn’t too invested in the job. Stephen Dedalus is this teacher, a learner uneasy as a teacher. Stephen’s heart is just not in this job, and it’s clear from the first lines of ‘Nestor’ that he is going through the motions on the surface. His thoughts continually intrude upon his focus as he listlessly carries out his uninspired lesson plan.  Not only does his student Armstrong know less than nothing about Pyrrhus, the rest of the boys are totally disinterested in the lesson and ready to distract their teacher. Stephen grimly realizes,“In a moment they will laugh more loudly, aware of my lack of rule and of the fees their papas pay.”

John Milton

When the history lesson doesn’t go well, Stephen leap-frogs to his own area of expertise – poetry. The little scrap of a literature lesson is a few lines recited from the John Milton poem “Lycidas.” The significance of this poem gets glossed over in some annotations, including my favorite Gifford annotation, but it’s worth pausing a moment and considering why Joyce included this poem in particular.

“Lycidas” is a pastoral elegy, that is, a poem written to commemorate and lament someone’s death, but rather than being direct, the poet uses a variety of classical and natural imagery to express their true emotions. “Lycidas” is considered one of the finest examples of this style of poetry. It was written in 1637 by John Milton, who was hugely influential on Joyce, mostly through his much more famous work Paradise Lost. Milton wrote “Lycidas” (pronounced liss-id-us) to mourn the death of his friend Edward King, a Cambridge scholar who died by drowning. Though it’s a longer poem, the lines found in ‘Nestor’ are as follows:

Weep no more, woful shepherds, weep no more For Lycidas, your sorrow, is not dead, Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor…

Again, Stephen is incredibly distracted throughout the lesson. Though it isn’t stated explicitly in the text, I think the image of drowning present in these lines is stirring up his antipathy towards Buck Mulligan, who saved a man from drowning. Stephen in ‘Telemachus’:

You saved men from drowning. I’m not a hero, however.

Stephen the hydrophobe has continued to ruminate on the early morning barbs he received from Mulligan and his inferiority complex regarding both Mulligan and Haines. After Stephen mentioned Mulligan’s bravery in ‘Telemachus,’ his next line was, “If he [Haines] stays on here I am off.” Beneath Stephen’s frustrations with Mulligan is his rapidly coalescing decision to leave the tower, which he pays for, because it has been usurped by a philistine and an Englishman. I suppose history is to blame. Previous to the “Lycidas” passage, Stephen is already fixating on Haines and Mulligan. He thinks, after his student mistakes Pyrrhus for a pier:

For Haines’s chapbook. No-one here to hear. Tonight deftly amid wild drink and talk, to pierce the polished mail of his mind. What then? A jester at the court of his master, indulged and disesteemed, winning a clement master’s praise.  

Haines is collecting Irish witticisms, and the boy’s flub could easily be tucked in among them. Too bad no one is present to record it for him. Stephen chafes at the notion that, if he were to write it down and present it to Haines, he’d simply be a jester entertaining his master, which, though once again unspoken, is how he sees Mulligan. Stephen is tormented by his current state of affairs and badly in need of a change. I imagine this is true to how Joyce felt when he had taken a job teaching in the spring of 1904 to pay the debts he owed to many, many of his friends and associates. Stephen’s (Joyce’s) ego is also bruised by the ignominy of having to teach bored little rich boys while Haines and Mulligan can gallivant around town doing as they please. An Artist deserves the freedom these two second-rate Oxford students enjoy. And so, I believe it is the drowning imagery that caused Joyce to choose “Lycidas.” Stephen pushes past the bitterness brought on by the line, “Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor…” and imagines instead his brief student life in Paris, studying in the library of St. Genevieve,

Fed and feeding brains about me: under glowlamps, impaled, with faintly beating feelers: and in my mind’s darkness a sloth of the underworld, reluctant, shy of brightness, shifting her dragon scaly folds.

Paris was a place where Stephen could stretch his intellectual muscles, where he could be appreciated as an Artist. He is resentful of being called back, and that resentment mixes in with a tremendous guilt over denying his mother her final wish – that Stephen should pray at her bedside. His guilt is conveniently narrated by Milton:

—Through the dear might of Him that walked the waves, Through the dear might…

“Him that walked the waves” is Jesus Christ, who famously walked on water. The religious imagery connects the dotted line to his mother. It’s too much for Stephen.

—Turn over, Stephen said quietly. I don’t see anything.

“Lycidas” is strongly critical of the protestant Church of England and its corrupt clergy. Milton mourns not only King’s untimely death, but also the injustice that King was taken so young while corrupt individuals (the clergy) are allowed to live on. Stephen, once very religious, has lost his faith and abandoned religion entirely, though it still lurks in his subconscious. Both King and Stephen had pursued a career in the Church before abandoning it for a career in teaching and writing, so perhaps Stephen saw himself in the lines of Milton’s elegy. Stephen is incredibly depressed and grief-stricken, so he is likely contemplating his own mortality as well, though he doesn’t put it into words. Fun fact: “Lycidas” is a poem about a man named Edward King, and Stephen is living during the reign of King Edward. I don’t know that this is significant, but there it is.

Stephen discovers you can leave Catholicism, but it never leaves you. He’s tormented by the Christian imagery in “Lycidas” and simply tells his student Talbot that the lesson is over. Turn over the page. The lurking shadow of Catholicism casts a pall over Stephen, his young students and over the “scoffer” himself, Buck Mulligan:

His hand turned the page over. He leaned back and went on again, having just remembered. Of him that walked the waves. Here also over these craven hearts his shadow lies and on the scoffer’s heart and lips and on mine.

The boys had asked Stephen for a ghost story previously, and now Stephen obliges them with a riddle, which turns out to be obtuse and unsolvable. (I wrote about this in more detail in a separate post). Stephen makes a mistake in the wording of the riddle that reveals he is continuing to be distracted by his mother’s shade. James Joyce, Ulysses, literature, Stephen Dedalus, riddle, Ireland, DublinAnd so, the boys hoped to extract a ghost story from their young, unconfident teacher on a half day, a perfect storm for slacking off. The ghost story they received was a 17th century elegy, and the riddle that followed it was the least fun riddle ever. There’s always hockey, I suppose.

Stephen is grieving. Though his relationship with his family is fraught, a mother is still a mother. That grief (and guilt) has wrapped its tentacles around Stephen’s every thought. He can’t focus on his lesson – instead he is distracted thoughts of the excesses of war. Then he bounces to the men in his life he bitterly believes are treating him condescendingly and unfairly. He tries to move onto a new subject, only to be blindsided by a poem about grief. Even his attempt at fun – the riddle – turns into a Freudian slip about his mother.

Stephen’s thoughts turn to Aristotle and Paris in an attempt to turn his mind from his real problems. Aristotelian thought plays a big role in Stephen’s defense of his Shakespeare theory later in ‘Scylla and Charybdis,’ so his distracted forays into Aristotle during class are setting him and us readers up to think about Aristotle later on. Bits of “Lycidas” find their way into the poem Stephen writes in ‘Proteus,’ particularly in the form of storm imagery, as well. Stephen’s thoughts are constantly sloshing together, and it can be hard to discern where one ends and another begins. Milton is just another sailor on this confused, distressed sea. One bit of relief for Stephen – the lines of “Lycidas” present in ‘Nestor’ depict Milton’s “spiritual victory” over grief. Stephen may not find solace on June the 16th, but perhaps soon he will find his safe harbor.


Further Reading

Jacobus, L. (1982). “Lycidas” in the “Nestor” Episode. James Joyce Quarterly, 19(2), 189-194. Retrieved from


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