White silence in marble

U 6.461-2: Fragments of shapes, hewn. In white silence: appealing.

Joyce’s contemporary readers could hardly have read the phrase “white silence”1 without thinking of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous poem - one of the most popular sonnets of the Victorian age - on Hiram Powers’s even more famous statue “Greek Slave”.2

Hiram Powers’s Greek Slave (1851), on display at the Düsseldorf Gallery in New York (Wikimedia Commons)

The New York Herald of 4 June 1845 thought it worthwhile to report that His Royal Highness Prince Albert had viewed the statue at a Pall Mall arts dealer. The sonnet was also known to Queen Victoria and the sculpture was seen by her when it was exhibited at the centre of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. The Brownings met and befriended Powers in Florence in May 1846 and saw the statue in his studio. The sonnet was first published in Household Words on 26 October 1850 under the title “Hiram Powers’ Greek slave”.

They say Ideal beauty cannot enter

The house of anguish. On the threshold stands

An alien Image with enshackled hands,

Called the Greek Slave! as if the artist meant her

(That passionless perfection which he lent her,

Shadowed not darkened where the sill expands)

To so confront man's crimes in different lands

With man's ideal sense. Pierce to the centre,

Art's fiery finger! and break up ere long

The serfdom of this world. Appeal, fair stone,

From God's pure heights of beauty against man's wrong!

Catch up in thy divine face, not alone

East griefs but west, and strike and shame the strong,

By thunders of white silence, overthrown.

The sculpture, now at the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut (Wikimedia Commons)

Joyce not only quotes the phrase “white silence”, but also clearly alludes to “Appeal, fair stone”. Later in the novel, when Buck Mulligan speaks of “O, the thunder of those loins!” (U 9.616) in connection with a statue of Venus Kallipyge that he saw Bloom looking at in the National Museum, the “thunders of white silence” are not far away from his thoughts.

Harald Beck


1 Recorded earlier also as a stock poetical periphrasis for “snow”.

2 Hiram Powers was an American neo-classical sculptor. Born in Vermont in 1805, he worked in Washington before moving to Italy and settling in Florence. He died in Florence in 1873 and is buried in the English Cemetery there.

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