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Parodic Romance: Joyce, Byron, and Sir Tristan in Finnegans Wake II.4

From: Joyce Studies Annual
pp. 263-272

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In the “Tristan and Isolde” section of Finnegans Wake (II.4), Joyce created his last romantic portrait of the artist as a young man. (Shem the Penman is a fuller and more satiric portrait of the young artist.) He did so by using the romantic lover Tristan and, less expectedly, the Romantic poet, Lord Byron. Taking his nineteenth-century predecessor’s playful entanglement of protagonist and self in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage as a model, Joyce constructs an alter-ego by playing with the “unknightly” characteristics of Sir Tristram and subjecting himself to the same parody to which he subjects other characters and texts. Although Byron’s hero, Childe Harold, is autobiographical and Byron’s treatment of him is primarily sympathetic, albeit sometimes tinged with irony, the poet’s description of Childe Harold as, “perfectly knightly in his attributes—By the by, I fear that Sir Tristan and Sir Lancelot were no better than they should be, although very poetical personages,” sets an ironic tone that Joyce later develops in his version of Tristan. Joyce, however, splits his hero into parts: One part is the Tristan figure, who is closely connected to Childe Harold, but the other part consists of the older, impotent, and voyeuristic quadruple figure Mamalujo (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), listening in the sea below. In Joyce’s 1923 version, Tristan recites the line, “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll” (CHP IV.1603) to Isolde, whereas in the final version, he “sings to one hope a dozen of the best favourite lyrical national blooms in Luvillicit” to Isolde as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (Mamalujo) listen in the water below. By tracing the development of Byron’s line, “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean—roll” (CHP IV.1603) in the first-draft version of FW II.4 to its final-draft version, we see how Tristan and his aged counterpart Mamalujo function rhetorically for Joyce to parody the idea of romance and the very concept of a singular hero. Joyce’s rendering of old age is comic, whereas Byron’s is brooding in the spirit of his Byronic heroes. Instead of conflating himself with his protagonist, as Byron does with Harold, Joyce’s addition of the aged “hero” counterpart Mamalujo frustrates romantic attempts to regard an author solely as the embodiment of his fictional avatars.

Joyce’s “Tristan and Isolde” section is a complex and comic representation of “romanticism” (both young romantic love and the Romantic Movement) as a blend of idealization, nostalgia, and memory that is not restricted to the young: Mamalujo romanticizes too, but differently from their speakers’ positions at the four “corners” of the ship and from their older ages. Taking the form of four waves, Joyce’s Mamalujo comically literalizes the voice of poetic inspiration that the Romantic poets conventionally sought in nature. Mamalujo hears and jests in the water below as Joyce’s 1939 Tristan, drunk from the love-potion he shared with Isolde, mutters almost incoherently from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. “Listening, to Rolando’s deepen darblun/Ossian roll” (FW 385.3–6), Mamalujo begins to sing their “song sang seaswans” (FW 383.16) as they bring the “dear prehistoric scenes all back again” (FW 385.18–19) in a distinctly Joycean version of the knightly Tristan. Mamalujo reflects on the “romance” of Tristan and Isolde and remembers poetry as a vehicle for sexual pleasure. Joyce’s pun on the word “knight” (“knightly” Tristan and his “nightly” romance with Isolde) both characterizes and parodies Tristan’s mythic predecessors. The pun on “knightly/nightly” humanizes the romantic hero by recognizing the physicality of his erotic desires, while it also mocks him.

Drawn in part from the “monstrous mummeries of the middle ages,” Byron’s Childe (the title of a “young noble awaiting knighthood”) personifies the “unknightly” attributes that “flourished [in] the most profligate of all possible centuries.” Byron identifies Childe Harold with “Sir Tristram and Sir Lancelot” as “knights templar” who are “no better than [knights] should be” (Major Works 19–21), and he treats Harold’s profligacy as a drive for sexual “satiety” (CHP I.34). Nineteenth-century readers identified the roving Harold with...

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