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"The Ache of Modernism": James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach and Their Literary Context

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 47, Number 2, Winter 2010
pp. 197-211 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0005



It has become a habit in recent literary criticism to read Joyce's collection of poems, Pomes Penyeach, in terms of a biographical sketch reflecting the impact that his relationship with Amalia Popper and his mother's death had on his life between 1913 and 1927. A closer look at the poems, however, clearly reveals that the biographical foundation of the collection is tenuous and that Joyce utilizes late-Victorian forms and images to redefine the modernist age as a period that is remote from the Georgian idiom and, to a significant extent, in line with the dreariness of the decadent period.

Deeply rooted in nineteenth-century literary contexts ranging from Matthew Arnold to William Butler Yeats, these poems deal with festering existential wounds, "the ache of modernism," from which the speakers, in the wake of Thomas Hardy's tragic heroine Tess, suffer. The woman who hears her dead lover's voice summoning her in the graveyard, the father who senses impenetrable darkness descending on his child's delicate shoulders, or the elderly man who ruthlessly watches his physical deterioration in the mirror—they all give expression to a feeling of paralysis and ontological pessimism that radically breaks with the Romantic tradition and serves as a dark matrix for Joyce's later experimental narratives.

When, in "The Nightpiece," even the speaker vanishes, and the emptiness of the night assumes the form of an ecclesiastical building, Joyce shows that he is familiar with a pervasive rhetoric of nihilism, making him an apt mediator between late-Victorian poets of despair and modern writers of absurdity.

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