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Joyce: the words, so beautiful and sad, like music

Tuesday, 17 March, 2015

Our reading for St Patrick’s Day is taken from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. The book explores the meaning of identity, authority, belief, autonomy, the Catholic Church and language. It was published in 1916, a seminal year in Irish history and mythology, and the fact that all the issues Joyce explored are still unsettled in the Irish psyche and in Irish society, shows his true genius. In this key scene, Stephen Dedalus has a confrontation with the Dean of Studies, an English Jesuit. Neither has any idea that the act of defining the innocent word “tundish” will have far-reaching consequences. Let us turn now to page 144:

To return to the lamp, he said, the feeding of it is also a nice problem. You must choose the pure oil and you must be careful when you pour it in not to overflow it, not to pour in more than the funnel can hold.
What funnel? asked Stephen.
The funnel through which you pour the oil into your lamp.
That? said Stephen. Is that called a funnel? Is it not a tundish?
What is a tundish?
That. The funnel.
Is that called a tundish in Ireland? asked the dean. I never heard the word in my life.
It is called a tundish in Lower Drumcondra, said Stephen, laughing, where they speak the best English.

A tundish, said the dean reflectively. That is a most interesting word. I must look that word up. Upon my word I must.

His courtesy of manner rang a little false and Stephen looked at the English convert with the same eyes as the elder brother in the parable may have turned on the prodigal. A humble follower in the wake of clamorous conversions, a poor Englishman in Ireland, he seemed to have entered on the stage of Jesuit history when that strange play of intrigue and suffering and envy and struggle and indignity had been all but given through — a late-comer, a tardy spirit. From what had he set out? Perhaps he had been born and bred among serious dissenters, seeing salvation in Jesus only and abhorring the vain pomps of the establishment. Had he felt the need of an implicit faith amid the welter of sectarianism and the jargon of its turbulent schisms, six principle men, peculiar people, seed and snake baptists, supralapsarian dogmatists? Had he found the true church all of a sudden in winding up to the end like a reel of cotton some fine-spun line of reasoning upon insufflation on the imposition of hands or the procession of the Holy Ghost? Or had Lord Christ touched him and bidden him follow, like that disciple who had sat at the receipt of custom, as he sat by the door of some zinc-roofed chapel, yawning and telling over his church pence?

The dean repeated the word yet again.
Tundish! Well now, that is interesting!

The little word seemed to have turned a rapier point of his sensitiveness against this courteous and vigilant foe. He felt with a smart of dejection that the man to whom he was speaking was a countryman of Ben Jonson. He thought:
The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.

Leaning against the fireplace Stephen heard him greet briskly and impartially every student of the class and could almost see the frank smiles of the coarser students. A desolating pity began to fall like dew upon his easily embittered heart for this faithful serving-man of the knightly Loyola, for this half-brother of the clergy, more venal than they in speech, more steadfast of soul than they, one whom he would never call his ghostly father; and he thought how this man and his companions had earned the name of worldlings at the hands not of the unworldly only but of the worldly also for having pleaded, during all their history, at the bar of God’s justice for the souls of the lax and the lukewarm and the prudent.

Rainy Day wishes all its readers, the lax and the lukewarm and the prudent, a very happy St Patrick’s Day.


Comments (1)

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  1. Gerry Slattery says:

    Amen.Happy St.Patrick’s day.Hope ye are well and happy.