The tree of heaven
U 17.1039: The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.
U 17.1139-41: That it was not a heaventree, not a heavengrot, not a heavenbeast, not a heavenman. That it was a Utopia, there being no known method from the known to the unknown.
Heaventree is a little-used expression that is not glossed by Don Gifford in his Ulysses Annotated, and yet the term is not Joyce’s invention. We might expect this, as Philip Herring’s transcription of Joyce’s Ulysses Notebooks in the British Museum (1972, p. 450) records “<heaventree & its nightblue fruit>” (also <heaventree> on p. 470), implying that Joyce copied the term from another as-yet-undiscovered source.
It is possible at this point, however, to sketch in the history of the heaven-tree, or the tree of heaven. The OED finds the term in English use from 1835, and in this case it is used as the name for a particular type of tree: “a tree of the genus Ailanthus, esp. Ailanthus altissima; a tree of heaven”. The English name comes from a Malay expression translated as “tree reaching to the sky”:
Ailanthus altissima, the heaven-tree
But Joyce is not referring to a real tree, but to a mythological one. The OED’s other definition fits this bill, defining the heaven-tree as “a mythical tree growing from the underworld, through the earth, and up to heaven, which figures in some Malay and Polynesian beliefs”. Evidence for this use is found predominantly in works of cultural anthropology, though the term is said to be “rare”. The OED’s first reference to this use dates from 1865:
It is not unusual for mythologies to make reference to a tree which crosses the divide between realms. The Scandinavian Yggdrasil is sometimes drawn into the comparison:
Sometimes the leaves of the heaven-tree are described, as in Joyce, as stars:
The mythological spread of the heaven-tree is wider than Malay and Polynesian belief. It recurs in the scenery of numerous mythological systems, in this case with reference to Egypt:
Joyce’s reading of myth was extensive. It would be good to know from precisely which text he extracted his own description of the heaven-tree.
Joyce's Words >