Volupcy and mystic bliss

U 12.354-5: The highest adepts were steeped in waves of volupcy of the purest nature.

Volupcy is a puzzle. Don Gifford (Ulysses Annotated) wonders whether Joyce invented the word:

When the ascetic has evolved to the atmic plane, the reward is pure ‘volupcy’ (Joyce’s coinage?) or bliss.

But there is evidence for the word before Ulysses, and enough to suggest that Joyce borrowed it. We find it, for example, in the first issue of a short-lived American magazine of 1900 called Les Jeunes. Its ‘Song of Love’ contains the verse:

I wish my lover were a tear,

That I might drink with burning lip;

Can there be rarer volupcy,

Than all his life and love to sip,

With passion-trembling lip?

The sense here involves sensual or sexual pleasure (voluptuousness). Joyce extends this to mystic bliss.

The poem from Les Jeunes received a certain amount of publicity in 1900, in the Academy (vol. 58, p. 244), in Literature (no. 145, p. 58), and in newspapers such as the Atlanta Constitution (6 March, p. 4). The Academy was not impressed:

Les Jeunes – a new American monthly magazine – is redolent of new art and vague ideals. The cover is of brown paper, and the letterpress and illustrations are printed in a bricky red. We really do not know what Les Jeunes is bent on doing, except to write Art with a capital A. It is lurid and languishing, or both.

[As regards the question posed in the verse] We must find time to run over our list of volupcies before we answer this.

But the word was apparently invented a century earlier (in the form volupsy) by the journalist, translator, and inveterate coiner of words which often didn’t quite make it: William Taylor of Norwich (1756-1836). His life story may be found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Volupsy appears in a letter Taylor wrote to the poet Robert Southey in 1799:

His [sc. Sir William Jones’s] poems are the sweetest blossoms of the rose-garden of volupsy; his dissertations are cameos, which display at once the artist and the most recondite lore of antiquity.

Letter 28 January in J. W. Robberds Mem. Life & Writings William Taylor (1843) vol. I, p. 251

It’s possible that the much more widely recorded volupty (‘pleasure, desire’), from French volupté or from the stem of Latin voluptas ‘pleasure’, was an impetus for Taylor’s volupsy.

Volupcy in Joyce’s notesheets

Although Joyce’s volupcy appears in the Cyclops episode, the word is listed in the notesheets for Circe (Herring, p. 294). It is not always possible to determine the sources from which Joyce selected words and ideas for his notesheets. He did not necessarily copy out text exactly as he found it, but abbreviated some words and changed others (presumably to forms he thought he might subsequently use). But he usually copied words down in the general order he found them in his text.

Herring himself was unable to identify Joyce’s source, which appears to supply notesheet material from lines 68 – 84 on p. 294. He writes:

The most complete and scholarly book on palmistry of the eight or ten I have seen in my unsuccessful search for Joyce’s source is a 600-page book by Adolphe Desbarrolles entitled Les Mystères de la main. (Herring, p. 46)

With many more online sources available to today’s researcher it seems possible to identify Joyce’s source as the chapter entitled ‘The Forehead and Eyebrows’ in The Influence of the Stars (first edition: 1889, pp. 117-33), by the popular palmistry writer and handwriting analyst Rosa Baughan.1 Here is a consecutive sequence of correspondences (with notesheet text shown here in italics and equivalent Baughan text highlighted in yellow):

face is transparent

The skin of the face […] is more transparent than that of the other parts of the body. (p. 118)

<Wrinkles: 1. Saturn, 2. Jupiter, 3 Mars,>

Though the skin of the forehead may be equally wrinkled in different faces, the forms which these lines take vary very much. The first line next the hair, which is rarely seen till past middle age, is referred to the influence of Saturn; the second to Jupiter; the third to Mars; [etc.]. (p. 120-1)

over r. brow sun, over left moon, between

brows Venus, Mercury on bridge of nose

the fourth, over the right eyebrow, to the Sun; the fifth, over the left eyebrow, to the Moon; the sixth, between the eyebrows, to Venus, and Mercury is assigned his place on the bridge of the nose. (p. 121

<prudence volupcy courage>

When the Line of Saturn is long and well-defined, it indicates the prudence and sagacity which ought to come with age […] The Line of Jupiter […] shows an honourable and just person; if broken or taking oblique curves it indicates a very voluptous person. If the Line of Mars should be long and clear… it denotes courage and much warlike ambition. (p. 121)

Mercury on bridge, 3 wit; 4 deceit

If three lines appear in the place of Mercury across the bridge of the nose, they denote eloquence and wit; if more than three, loquacity and deceit. (p. 121)

Arched forehead artistic, project eyebrows research

Arched foreheads […] This sort of brow..is seen in poets, musicians, and artists of all kinds. A forehead with sharp projecting eyebones – that is, the bone on which the eyebrows appear – shows an acute intellect and fondness for research. (p. 122)

Notice that volupcy does not occur in Baughan, but Joyce writes it in place of voluptuous.

In addition, <Wrinkles: 1. Saturn, 2. Jupiter, 3 Mars,>” and “<prudence volupcy courage>” and the Baughan text behind this become a source for this line in Circe:

U 15. 3657-8: (she counts) Two, three, Mars, that’s courage.

John Simpson


1 Rosa Baughan had previously published this chapter in her Handbook of Palmistry (1882) and also in her Handbook of Physiognomy (1885), but in an altered form which does not include some of the necessary correspondences.

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