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The Art of Eloquence: Byron, Dickens, Tennyson, Joyce (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 1, Fall 2008
pp. 166-168 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0122

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In his new work, Matthew Bevis focuses his keen critical eye on a surprising selection of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century writers: two poets and two novelists. He includes James Joyce among this group, alongside Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, with the overt acknowledgment that Joyce and Ireland were both subject to British rule. While critics may initially draw back in surprise at Joyce's inclusion among such prototypically British writers, Bevis's juxtaposition productively illuminates some surprising elements in Joyce's work.

Bevis sets out to "chart how writers envisaged their work in relation to contemporary political voices" and to examine "how modern debates about relations between poetics and rhetoric are inflected by classical forbears" (27). He brings the discussion of these authors overtly into the public sphere but relies on classical rhetorical elements to shape his argument. Though his interest in the classical essentials of Joyce's work obliquely echoes that of R. J. Schork, Bevis does offer a highly original understanding of Joyce's relationship to British parliamentary processes. He defines "modern literary eloquence" as an "appreciation of literary style as a form of conduct as well as a mode of persuasion" (28). He views the works of all the writers he discusses as essentially argumentative modes of public discourse. Despite Joyce's notorious ambivalence, if not utter distaste for "smiling public m[e]n," Bevis shows the degree to which his art is consistently engaged with the political debates of Westminster.

The first three writers under discussion share an unproblematic unity of national identity and citizenship. The chapter on Byron identifies the Romantic poet as the only author in the book who actually began his career in parliamentary politics; he is placed amid the melodramatic stylistics of nineteenth-century bombastic print media and political speech. His best-selling work, Don Juan, reflects such declamatory, theatrical beginnings. Dickens follows in quick order. Bevis examines how this preeminent Victorian's "diverse careers as shorthand writer, journalist, speaker, and public reader informed his attempts to shape the … periodical novel into a mode of civil eloquence" (26). Bevis pays special attention to The Pickwick Papers as an engagement with the emerging public sensibilities related to contemporary political debates. The chapter on Tennyson then focuses on the poet laureate's development and use of the dramatic monologue as poetic form and device: "It … charts the ways in which the Laureateship asked the poet to speak for as well as to his public, exploring how Tennyson's reading of imperialist oratory (and his long-standing relationship with the most famous orator of the age, William Gladstone) influenced the rhetorical structures of Maud … and Idylls of the King" (26-27). Perhaps the work of most interest to the readers of the JJQ is "Ulysses," written by the poet Joyce rather notoriously mocked as "Lawn Tennyson, gentleman poet" (U 3.492). Tennyson's paean to imperial endeavor focuses on departure and exploration; mastery is what is sought and what must be pursued. Joyce's Ulysses, of course, charts this mythic journey from an opposing standpoint. Curiously, Bevis misses the opportunity for a transitional comparison between the two even as his book juxtaposes them.

In his turn to Joyce—a chapter devoted to early works through Ulysses and a coda focusing on Finnegans Wake—Bevis's volume achieves a rewarding conclusion. Though the commonalities and differences among the writers he discusses may interest various readers, what is of most note to Joyceans is his discussion of the Charles Stewart Parnell affair and its parliamentary context as read through Bloom and Molly in Ulysses. Parnell as a mythic figure of political aspiration and disappointment existed in the consciousness of Ireland and the pages of A Portrait long after the man himself was dead. Parnell's importance for and presence in Ulysses, however, has been often overlooked in terms of the issue of adultery (though along with Bevis's chapter, an excellent paper given at the recent Tours Joyce conference by Janine M. Utell on Ulysses and "ethical love" portends an end to such oversights). Bevis wisely places Joyce's use of parliamentary and personal maneuverings within a Joycean family context. He notes Joyce...

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