“He told me about, hold on, Swinburne, was it, no?” Buck Mulligan and the poet
U 9.731-2: —Lovely! Buck Mulligan suspired amorously. I asked him what he thought of the charge of pederasty brought against the bard
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”).
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.
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.
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