Stephen Dedalus, W.B. Yeats, The Tables of the Law, James Joyce, Ulysses

Houses of Decay

The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.  – H.P. Lovecraft

To listen to a discussion of this topic, check out the podcast episode here.

James Joyce had a penchant for nesting obscure references in his writing that are indecipherable to nearly anyone who isn’t James Joyce (have you noticed?). There’s something appealingly stubborn about this style of writing – the writer communicating to their reader, “Look, I’m not going to throw you a branch. Either learn how to swim or enjoy drowning.” If you do learn to swim, though, there are rewards. Tucked into Stephen’s inner monologue in “Proteus” is a passage, obscure at first (naturally), that reveals the story of a Christian mystic, a W. B. Yeats short story and an obstinate young Artist:

Houses of decay, mine, his and all. You told the Clongowes gentry you had an uncle a judge and an uncle a general in the army. Come out of them, Stephen. Beauty is not there. Nor in the stagnant bay of Marsh’s library where you read the fading prophecies of Joachim Abbas. For whom? The hundredheaded rabble of the cathedral close.

I’ll leave this passage here for now. I’m going to wend my way through a few anecdotes, but I promise we’ll circle back to this passage in the end.

The whole affair begins onstage in Dublin in 1899. The Irish Literary Theatre, founded by W.B. Yeats, among other Irish literary luminaries, staged its inaugural show, The Countess Cathleen, also by Mr. Yeats. The play tells the story of the titular countess, who sells her soul to the Devil to save the lives of peasants during a famine. Prior to its opening, the play had already been denounced as blasphemous by a cardinal who hadn’t read it. Opening night was well-attended by a group of students from University College Dublin who were determined to cause a ruckus as well. Police were on hand for security. The young fellows objected to Yeats’ portrayal of Irish peasants. A condemnatory letter was passed around their college to be signed by one and all, stating Cathleen had portrayed “the Irish peasant as a crooning barbarian, crazed with morbid superstition, who, having added the Catholic faith to his store of superstition, sells that faith for gold or bread in the proving of famine.”

One young man in attendance was quite at odds with both these impressions, however. Young James Joyce, who was at the time in his late teens and a student at UCD, refused to sign the letter of protest, though it bore the signatures of several friends. Joyce felt the play was well-done and was especially fond of the song “Who Will Go Drive with Fergus Now?” The song left such an impression that is referenced several times in Ulysses.

Young Joyce, a man of many strongly held opinions, believed that drama was the highest of all art forms, but that Ireland’s own theatre scene was woefully benighted. In his view, because Ireland didn’t have a strong theatrical tradition, the Dublin scene needed to look abroad for inspiration. Joyce was particularly enamoured with the truth-seeking drama of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Young Joyce was so taken with Ibsen that he had taught himself Norwegian so that he could send Ibsen a letter in his native language. The story goes that when Joyce proposed staging an Ibsen play, however, a secretary took down the suggestion as “Henry Gibson” and asked Joyce if he knew where to reach the playwright in Dublin.

W. B. Yeats in 1908

The Irish Literary Theatre continued to support the work of writers involved in the Irish Literary Revival, a movement prominently lead by Yeats. In 1901, they staged Douglas Hyde’s Irish-language Casadh an-tSugáin and Yeats’ Diarmuid and Grania, a dramatization of an Irish legend, for instance. Young Joyce was completely turned off by the work he saw coming out the Irish Literary Revival. Revivalist writers often focused on conveying the beauty of a fictionalized, folkloric Ireland – a world populated by comely maidens, courageous heroes, fairies, gods, goddesses, etc. Joyce found this type of work completely empty and pointless, mired in an aestheticism totally unconcerned with mining any deeper truths, what he referred to as  “the broken lights of Irish myth.”

Before we dive into the next stage of this story, it’s important to remember that though we now consider James Joyce to be an unparalleled genius of the written word, he did not spring fully-formed from the mind of a god as one might assume.  In 1901, he was an upstart 19-year-old who’d never had a word published and had no standing whatsoever in the literary scene in Dublin. He was, however, incredibly stubborn, self-assured and cocky. So frustrated was he by the poor taste of the Irish Literary Theatre that he wrote and self-published an article called “The Day of the Rabblement” decrying the lack of intellectual risk-taking on the part of the Theatre. His point-of-view wasn’t wrong, really, but it’s worth considering that he was a mouse roaring at a giant. “Rabblement” was self-published out of necessity – no one else was willing to elevate the mouse’s roar. And for good reason. No publication in Dublin was willing to sully their reputation criticizing Yeats and the Theatre by publishing the angry rant of a spunky teen.

“The Day of the Rabblement” certainly did cause a stir, although not in the way that Joyce might have hoped. Young Joyce was not one to mince words in his critical works,  and “Rabblement” was no exception, decrying the Irish Literary Theatre for sacrificing its integrity to “rabblement” and “trolls,” both the Catholic Church and the protesters alike.  Thus spake Joyce:

If an artist courts the favour of the multitude, he cannot escape the contagion of its fetichism and deliberate self-deception, and if he joins in a popular movement, he does so at his own risk. Therefore, the Irish Literary Theatre by its surrender to the trolls has cut itself adrift from the line of advancement.


The Irish Literary Theatre must now be considered the property of the rabblement of the most belated race in Europe.

Joyce rejected mission of the Irish Literary Revival as pure aesthetic, and worse than that, it was the aesthetic of “the most belated race in Europe,” meaning he thought the Irish were a bunch of philistines. Joyce was quite critical of the aesthetic movement of art that had arisen in the late 19th century, the main focus of which was art for art’s sake and that beauty was the most important element of life. In literature, this style was exemplified in the works of Oscar Wilde and the poet Algernon Swinburne (aka “Algy,” a favorite of Oliver St. John Gogarty/ Buck Mulligan). These artists sought to create work that advanced aesthetic beauty alone and had no moral agenda. Joyce saw this as being in direct opposition to Ibsen’s work, which prioritized truth over beauty. Diarmuid and Grania was pretty words, but nothing more. In his eyes, a theatre that opted for such shallow drama had diluted its purpose, which was to seek the truth.

Joyce’s claims were met with bemusement rather than acceptance. This was due in part to his insistence on including obscure references that were totally opaque to most readers. “Rabblement” opened with the line, “No man, said the Nolan, can be a lover of the true or the good unless he abhors the multitude; and the artist, though he may employ the crowd, is very careful to isolate himself.” The issue here is “the Nolan.” No one save Joyce himself got the reference (Giordano Bruno of Nola), and many assumed it was some obscure Irish writer by the name of Nolan. Joyce had hoped that his readers might be intrigued by this morsel and feel inspired to seek out the wisdom of Bruno. Instead, it inspired ridicule, with the phrase “said the Nolan” becoming a well-heeled joke around campus at UCD for a while. Furthermore, Joyce’s assertive (uppity?) tone not only pissed off the Dublin literary establishment, but it also irritated the religious establishment at UCD since Joyce had refused to denounce the blasphemous Countess Cathleen. As Richard Ellmann put it, “[Joyce] had found his private mountaintop.”

Young Joyce’s attitude towards Yeats is sometimes summed up in the anecdote of how the two first met at Yeats’ birthday party. Upon learning that Yeats was turning 40, the young Artist sighed that in that case, Yeats was of no use to him because he was too old to be influenced by Joyce. Joyce’s brother Stanislaus wrote that this story is a distortion spread by Gogarty (I did first encounter it in one of Gogarty’s autobiographies), but it does nicely sum up their relationship – that of a self-aggrandizing unknown butting heads with a revered literary figure.

The obscure Yeats short story “The Tables of the Law” seemed to be one intersection in their sensibilities. The story tells the story of two friends, one of whom has discovered the lost apocalyptic prophecies of the 12th century Cistercian monk Joachim of Fiore. They lose contact, and when the narrator tracks down his friend, the friend has gone mad, plagued by shadowy figures conjured by contradictory truths and the discovery of secret knowledge. The narrator flees in terror, never looking back. It’s a very un-Yeats-ian piece,  more reminiscent of Lovecraft than Diarmuid and Grania. By Yeats’ own admission, he may have abandoned the story altogether if not for Joyce’s enthusiasm:

I do not think I should have reprinted [“The Tables of the Law”] had I not met a young man in Ireland the other day who liked [it] very much and nothing else that I have written.

Young Joyce found the story so gripping that he spent spent a couple October afternoons in Marsh’s Library poring over a 16th century book detailing the prophecies of Joachim of Fiore. Found in the close of St. Patrick’s cathedral, Marsh’s Library is Dublin’s oldest public library. Since its inception in 1707, Marsh’s Library has been home to many old and valuable books and manuscripts that are accessible by the general public. After an inventory revealed that several hundred books had gone walkabout, the library installed metal cages in which patrons would be locked while perusing the most valuable items in the collection.

The stagnant bays of Marsh’s Library

Joyce was fascinated with the idea of historical cycles, as we’ve explored previously when talking about his interest in the historical philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Vico believed in a cyclical view of history, with similar persons and events repeating in increasingly degraded forms. Joachim of Fiore (also known as Joachim of Flora) also believed that history was unfolding over the course of three cycles, roughly corresponding to the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit) and the Bible (Old Testament, New Testament, and a yet-unwritten third Testament aligning with the Holy Spirit). Joachim believed he was living in the age of the Son, correspondent with the New Testament, but that the Antichrist would soon emerge, leading to a crisis and then a utopian age of monastic contemplation and peace. Joachim was condemned posthumously as a heretic by the Church, and his prophecies were destroyed. Young Joyce was eager to find any information he could, even from a secondhand source.

Joachim of Fiore

In “The Table of the Laws,” the discovery of Joachim’s Eternal Gospel (the one associated with the Holy Spirit) expresses a beauty (aestheticism) of past artists that has been obscured by the dominant Catholic morality. These two – beauty and truth – are unable to be reconciled in Yeats’ story, leading to madness and damnation. Young Joyce read this story at a time in his life when he was struggling to achieve the right balance of beauty and truth in art. He had painted himself into a corner in “Rabblement” by embracing truth so fully as a function of art while decrying beauty as shallow aestheticism, since beauty in art is not actually such a terrible thing. In “The Tables of the Law”  and several other contemporary stories, Yeats blended these ideals, along with struggles of Catholic morality and occultism in a way that resonated with Young Joyce, all while working within an Irish context.

“The Tables of the Law” clung to Joyce’s imagination. A lengthy critique of the story was written into Joyce’s unpublished novel Stephen Hero, which included scenes of Stephen Dedalus discovering the story, memorizing and intoning its contents and then cloistering himself in Marsh’s Library, obsessed with finding the truths discovered upon reading Joachim’s prophecies. Interestingly, Joyce portrayed Stephen misinterpreting the story, believing is to be a myth about the artist’s function as a prophet for society.

Let’s circle back to the passage from “Proteus.” Here it is once more:

Houses of decay, mine, his and all. You told the Clongowes gentry you had an uncle a judge and an uncle a general in the army. Come out of them, Stephen. Beauty is not there. Nor in the stagnant bay of Marsh’s library where you read the fading prophecies of Joachim Abbas. For whom? The hundredheaded rabble of the cathedral close.

The “houses of decay” refer to Stephen’s own home and to his uncle Richie Goulding’s home, contexts devoid of beauty for a budding Artist. In his younger years, Joyce saw the Irish Literary Theatre as a house of decay as well, swapping its artistic duty for empty aestheticism. Attempting to reach for a higher echelon of truth left the man in “The Tables of the Law” in his own house of decay.

We also learn here that Stephen lied about having more impressive family connections while at the elite Clongowes Wood College as a boy. He now realizes that staking his reputation on the status of his family is not the path to beauty or truth nor is it the path of the artist. He also found no beauty digging through dusty tomes in Marsh’s Library in search of a lost prophecy. The paths available to him in Dublin are crowded by “the rabblement” – those artists, tastemakers and elites in the way of Irish art elevating to anything more than “the broken looking glass of a servant,” cast-off and functionless. Stephen is, by necessity, left to his own devices, ambling into eternity along the shore in Sandymount.  


Further Reading:

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

Fargnoli, A.N., & Gillespie M.P. (1995). James Joyce A to Z: The essential reference to his life and writings. New York: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from

Gilbert, S. (1955). James Joyce’s Ulysses: a study. New York: Vintage Books.

Gifford, D., & Seidman, R. J. (1988). Ulysses annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gogarty, O. (1948). Mourning became Mrs. Spendlove and other portraits grave and gay. New York: Creative Age Press.

Greer, J.M. History’s Arrow. The Archdruid Report. Retrieved from

Hart, M. F. (1994). The Sign of Contradiction: Joyce, Yeats and ‘The Tables of Law.’ Colby Quarterly, 30 (4), 237-243. Retrieved from

Joyce, J. (2018). Critical writings. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications.

Joyce, S. (1958). My brother’s keeper: James Joyce’s early years. New York: The Viking Press.

McGinn, B. Apocalypticism explained: Joachim of Fiore. Frontline. Retrieved from

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