“He told me about, hold on, Swinburne, was it, no?” Buck Mulligan and the poet


9.731-2 Lovely! Buck Mulligan suspired amorously. I asked him what he thought of the charge of pederasty brought against the bard.

The "Scylla and Charybdis" chapter of Ulysses consists mostly of dialogue, and as a result we are confronted with many variations of "he said." One example is how Mulligan tells the company in the National Library what his Trinity professor and mentor, the Shakespeare scholar Edward Dowden, had told him. This is the oldest version of the passage:

Lovely! Buck Mulligan said gaily. I asked him what he thought of the charge of pederasty brought against the bard. He lifted his hands and said: All we can say is that life ran very high in those days. Lovely.
<Catamite> (NLI ms II.ii.2.b, notebook B)

The final word (Stephen's silent reaction to Buck's comment) was added in the margin at a later stage. In the next stage, the Rosenbach manuscript, we already have what will be the published version of the passage, with a different verb and adverb in the first sentence.

—Lovely! Buck Mulligan suspired amorously. I asked him what he thought of the charge of pederasty brought against the bard. He lifted his hands and said: All we can say is that life ran very high in those days. Lovely!
(9.731-3; RMS,'Scylla & Charybdis', 22)

In a densely Shakespearean context it is not strange that the narrator makes Mulligan suspire: the verb is attested in the plays. But the combination of verb and adverb does not occur in Shakespeare.

                We know from his surviving correspondence that Joyce's friend Oliver St John Gogarty, the original of Buck Mulligan, was obsessed with Algernon Swinburne’s work, which he quotes copiously in his letters to Joyce and to his Oxford friend G.K.A. Bell. In his 1903 and 1904 letters to Joyce and in the slightly later correspondence with Bell, Gogarty even talks of plans to go on a pilgrimage to meet the old English poet at the Rose and Crown pub in Wimbledon. The language of these letters is infused with Swinburnean phrases, especially in the letters to Bell, who shared his obsession. James F. Carens, who edited the letters to Bell for Dolmen Press, has two footnotes for the first letter (of 26 June 1904) that identify quotations from Swinburne poems, one of them the famous Mulligan quote in "Telemachus" about the sea being a "great sweet mother"). In reality, that first letter alone has five additional references to four different Swinburne poems: "Anactoria," "The Triumph of Time," "Ave atque Vale" (twice) and "Ode on the insurrection in Candia".

            In the same letter Gogarty mentions that "it's too bad to parody 'my master Swinburne'" and, as the quotation marks indicate, this is a rather oblique reference to W. B. Yeats, who had called William Blake "his master" (Uncollected Prose I, 273.) From the correspondence with Bell (who won the 1904 Oxford Newdigate Poetry Prize before Gogarty), it is obvious that the Irishman Gogarty admired Swinburne in the same way that his English friend considered Yeats his master in poeticis.

            It is thus appropriate that from the first chapter of Ulysses, Buck Mulligan is associated with Swinburne, whom he quotes and affectionately calls “Algy” as early as line 77. In their “Ulysses” Annotated, Gifford and Seidman identified numerous quotations from Swinburne’s oeuvre. Still in the first chapter, Mulligan tells Stephen that the latter needs to be Hellenised and he promises to take him on a trip to Greece. In “Wandering Rocks” Mulligan tells Haines that Stephen will never be a poet precisely because he misses “the Attic note. The note of Swinburne, of all poets, the white death and the ruddy birth” (1073-74), with the last seven words a quotation from another Swinburne poem (“Genesis”).

            The final chapter in which Mulligan has a significant speaking part is “Scylla and Charybdis” and it is here that another Swinburne reference has been hiding in the combination of "suspire" and "amorously". This is the first stanza of Swinburne’s poem “Hermaphroditus”:

Lift up thy lips, turn round, look back for love,
Blind love that comes by night and casts out rest;
Of all things tired thy lips look weariest,
Save the long smile that they are wearied of.
A sweet, albeit no love be sweet enough,
Choose of two loves and cleave unto the best;
Two loves at either bosom of thy breast
Strive until one be under and one above.
Their breath is fire upon the amorous air,
Fire in thine eyes and where thy lips suspire:
And whosoever hath seen thee, being so fair,
Two things turn all his life and blood to fire;
A strong desire begot on great despair,
A great despair cast out by strong desire.

The two words seem to contribute to a considerable homosexual subplot in the chapter, which is appropriate, given the theories about Shakespeare's sonnets. But Swinburne is relevant in this context: the poet was infamous for his libertine lifestyle (sex and alcohol), so the reference to one of his poems is not inappropriate here. What is interesting is that most of the homosexual references associated with Mulligan concern Leopold Bloom. In the first instance, Mulligan recognises Bloom from the National Gallery, and he warns Stephen:

—He knows you. He knows your old fellow. O, I fear me, he is Greeker than the Greeks. His pale Galilean eyes were upon her mesial groove. Venus Kallipyge. O, the thunder of those loins! The god pursuing the maiden hid (614-617)

Typically, Mulligan's language is a mixture of Shakespeare (I fear me) and Swinburne (pale Galilean eyes and the final italicised line).  But it is also medical (mesial) and Hellenic, of course, in Arnoldian opposition to the Hebrew Bloom. Gifford and Seidman write that "Greeker than the Greeks" means that Bloom “indulges in pederasty" but they miss the reference on the one hand to the famous expression "hibernicis ipsis hibernior" (more Irish than the Irish), and on the other the fact that Gogarty had used the phrase in his poem "The Isles of Greece" which was written in 1904 but only published in Secret Springs of Dublin Songs (with its Swinburnean title) in which he mocks his own "Hellenizing." In that context there is no hint of homosexuality.

            In the chronology of the chapter we have the "catamite" passage and then at the end, when Stephen and Mulligan are leaving the library, Bloom passes between them:

The portico.
Here I watched the birds for augury. Aengus of the birds. They go, they come. Last night I flew. Easily flew. Men wondered. Street of harlots after. A creamfruit melon he held to me. In. You will see.
—The wandering jew, Buck Mulligan whispered with clown’s awe. Did you see his eye? He looked upon you to lust after you. I fear thee, ancient mariner. O, Kinch, thou art in peril. Get thee a breechpad.

            Manner of Oxenford.

Mulligan repeats his warning that Bloom lusts after Stephen, in language that is biblical, poetic (Coleridge) and Shakespearean, and Stephen's reaction is similar. Instead of the single word "catamite," he now refers to the "manner of Oxenford" which Gifford and Seidman gloss as a "homosexual preoccupation".

            The original identification of Mulligan's way of speaking as "said gaily" may seem more explicit to our contemporaries (though the homosexual use of "gay" had not emerged in the 1920s), but "suspired amorously," through the Swinburne reference, manages to contribute to the homosexual triangle consisting of Stephen, Mulligan and Bloom.

Geert Lernout

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