restricted access James Joyce's Infernal Clock
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James Joyce's Infernal Clock

In the third chapter of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus and his classmates at Clongowes Wood College attend a retreat, during which they hear two sermons on future punishment preached by Father Arnall, a Jesuit. In the course of his second sermon, striving to impress on his young hearers the misery of eternal separation from God, the priest produces the following grim illustration:

—A holy saint (one of our own fathers I believe it was) was once vouchsafed a vision of hell. It seemed to him that he stood in the midst of a great hall, dark and silent save for the ticking of a great clock. The ticking went on unceasingly; and it seemed to this saint that the sound of the ticking was the ceaseless repetition of the words: ever, never; ever, never. Ever to be in hell, never to be in heaven; ever to be shut off from the presence of God, never to enjoy the beatific vision; ever to be eaten with flames, gnawed by vermin, goaded with burning spikes, never to be free from those pains; ever to have the conscience upbraid one, the memory enrage, the mind filled with darkness and despair, never to escape; ever to curse and revile the foul demons who gloat fiendishly over the misery of their dupes, never to behold the shining raiment of the blessed spirits; ever to cry out of the abyss of fire to God for an instant, a single instant, of respite from such awful agony, never to receive, even for an instant, God's pardon; ever to suffer, never to enjoy; ever to be damned, never to be saved; ever, never; ever, never.

(132-133)

As James R. Thrane demonstrated conclusively and in great detail, the structure and the major images of Father Arnall's two sermons were drawn by Joyce from a seventeenth-century treatise, Hell Opened to Christians, by the Jesuit Giovanni Pietro Pinamonti, published in an anonymous English translation in Dublin in 1868 and subsequently in England. But Father Pinamonti's book contains nothing remotely suggestive of this image of the infernal clock. Yet the strange particularity [End Page 203] of the image makes it virtually certain that Joyce drew the passage from some single source. By the time he composed the Portrait, as Father Arnall's parenthesis suggests, he had apparently forgotten exactly what the source was, and in the seventy-three years since the novel was first published no one has succeeded in identifying it, at any rate in print. Yet there is a passage in a widely read work published less than twenty years before the Portrait which may very well be the source and which, if it is not itself the source, furnishes at least some valuable clues to its detection. The author concerned is no less a figure than Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

In 1823, at the age of fourteen, Alfred Tennyson decided to try his hand at a play. Taking the germ of his story from an anecdote in the Quarterly Review, he reeled off, under the title of The Devil and the Lady, two energetic, gawky, adolescent acts and part of a third in obvious imitation of Elizabethan-Jacobean drama. Having worked at the play for three years or so on and off, he left it unfinished. His grandson, Sir Charles Tennyson, published it in 1930. The Devil in the play—not Satan himself but a junior minion—is a signally inconsistent character: now an impish, mischievous sprite, now a grisly minister of Hell reeking of wrath and brimstone. In his latter guise he brings Act One to a close with a soliloquy containing these lines (added, incidentally, after the first draft):

Half after midnight! these mute moralizers [clocks],Pointing to the unheeded lapse of hours,Become a tacit eloquent reproachUnto the dissipation of this Earth.There is a clock in Pandemonium,Hard by the burning throne of my great grandsire,The slow vibrations of whose pendulum,With click-clack alternation to and fro,Sound "Ever, Never" thro' the courts of Hell,Piercing the wrung ears of...


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