Joyce uses the Catholic metaphor of “rosary of hours” for the first time in one of his epiphanies:
The quick light shower is over but tarries, a cluster of diamonds, among the shrubs of the quadrangle where an exhalation arises from the black earth. In the colonnade are the girls, an April company. They are leaving shelter, with many a doubting glance, with the prattle of trim boots and the pretty rescue of petticoats, under umbrellas, a light armoury, upheld at cunning angles. They are returning to the convent — corridors and simple dormitories, a white rosary of hours—having heard the fair promises of Spring, that well-graced ambassador … (James Joyce Archive 8:611,13)
He includes this in the narrative of Stephen Hero, at the point where he describes the event held to celebrate the first publication of St. Stephen’s: A Record of University Life in 1901 at the National Library, in the presence of Emma, his desired companion.
In a slightly different context in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man this is modified to:
And if he had judged her harshly? If her life were a simple rosary of hours, her life simple and strange as a bird's life, gay in the morning, restless all day, tired at sundown? Her heart simple and wilful as a bird's heart?
The metaphor has more religious depth than might be obvious if regarded in isolation. In the first part of chapter IV, showing Stephen’s brief “life of grace, virtue and happiness” after the Hell sermon we are told:
The rosaries, too, which he said constantly — for he carried his beads loose in his trousers' pockets that he might tell them as he walked the streets — transformed themselves into coronals of flowers of such vague unearthly texture that they seemed to him as hueless and odourless as they were nameless. He offered up each of his three daily chaplets that his soul might grow strong in each of the three theological virtues, in faith in the Father Who had created him, in hope in the Son Who had redeemed him and in love of the Holy Ghost Who had sanctified him; and this thrice triple prayer he offered to the Three Persons through Mary in the name of her joyful and sorrowful and glorious mysteries.
Joyce obviously liked the potential of this metaphor to indicate incremental routine and his beloved’s innocent Catholic mindset. He may very well have thought himself to be its inventor, though he may have known he was using existing imagery. Even in the latter case it would be misleading to call it an allusion, as there is no specific source that would come to the reader’s mind.
The metaphor of the rosary of hours first turns up in the 1860s and makes fairly regular appearances afterwards, specifically in poetry by women. The late date shows that the rosary of hours was not part of Catholic ritual in connection with the rosary or it would have been documented centuries earlier. The following examples show contexts for it.
In James Chute Peabody, Key-notes (1864), p. 34, we find the earliest occurrence so far uncovered (though later than the parallel “rosary of flowers”):
And here mid Dummer's hallowed bowers
We'll quaff rich draughts of storied lore,
And on the rosary of the hours
Count all the by-gone century o'er.
But the phrase took off, and finds a place in the poem “My House upon the Sands” by “Howard Glyndon” (the pseudonym of journalist Laura C. Redden/Laura Redden Searing) in the May 1869 issue of Hours at Home: a Popular Monthly of Instruction and Recreation (p. 51). She publishes it in her Sounds from Secret Chambers in 1873 (p. 46):
And every time the sun goes down,
His feet are one day nearer home;
I count my rosary of hours
In patience till he come.
Dulcina Mason Jordan uses the image too, as she counts out the months of August to October, in her collection Rosemary Leaves (1873, p. 25). This description fall into “September”:
We welcomed May with all her changing skies,
And hailed with joy the queenly month of flowers;
Counting some blessing in each fleeting day,
Telling them on a rosary of hours.
Some idle tears must fall above the past
For all the sweet, dead days that we remember.
In 1896 the prolific and productive (Isobel) Violet Hunt, poetess, short-story writer, and feminist novelist celebrated for her literary salons, included the expression in her poem “The Doubting Heart”:
She hated song, and light, and flowers
Life was a burden to be borne,
A heavy rosary of hours
Told listlessly from morn to morn.
And finally, from amongst the work of one of the most popular poets of his day, the rosary of hours appears in “Love’s Rosary” in Alfred Noyes’s Poems (1904, p. 3):
All day I tell my rosary,
My rosary of hours:
And here's a flower of memory,
And here's a hope of flowers.