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The Child’s Perspective: Hardy, Joyce, and the Redefinition of Childlike Romantic Sensibilities

From: Joyce Studies Annual
2013
pp. 151-171

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Early twentieth-century writers often felt the need to emphasize their radical break with the Romantic and Victorian eras. Their declared antagonism to substantial chunks of nineteenth-century literature has led critics to regard Romanticism and Modernism as antithetical modes. T. S. Eliot famously disparaged “the popular and pretentious verse of the Romantic Poets and their successors,”1 while Ezra Pound dismissed William Wordsworth as a “silly old sheep with a genius” whose talent was “buried in a desert of bleatings.”2 Similarly, James Joyce once explained in a conversation that “Romanticism was closely associated with a kind of false and evasive idealism which is the ruin of man.”3 Joyce’s own style and narrative technique, often regarded as a revolution against the literary conventions of the previous century, led Eliot to tell Virginia Woolf in 1922 that Joyce had admirably “destroyed the whole of the nineteenth century.”4

The undeniable Modernist resistance to the Romantic tradition, however, should not blind us to the existence of certain aesthetic and ideological continuities between Romantic and Modernist sensibilities, forms, and devices. Several critics, among them Herbert F. Tucker, Robert Langbaum, Hermione de Almeida, Jacques Aubert, and Cristina Flores Moreno, have pointed out some of these continuities.5 Other critics have shown that Joyce’s response to English Romantic poetry was complex, and that long after the early youthful admiration he had expressed for Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron, their poetics continued to influence his writing. Thus, Percy Shelley’s aesthetic theory served as a prominent influence on Stephen Dedalus’s mental and artistic development in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and also, according to several readings, influenced Ulysses (1922).6 According to Lionel Trilling, it is not only that “Joyce as a young man could speak of Wordsworth in superlative praise,” but that in Joyce’s later career “much of the power of his own work derives from the Wordsworthian purpose of discovering a transcendence by which life, in confrontation with nullity, is affirmed.”7 Joyce’s letters show us “how entirely [he] was a man of the century in which he was born, [ . . . ] how deeply rooted he was in its ethos and its mythos” (Trilling 56). Hermione de Almeida similarly argues that Romanticism was not just a youthful aberration in the adolescent Joyce, which he overcame and then parodied as a passing aberration in the young Dedalus; rather, “as an aesthetic and political sensibility [Romanticism] nurtured and informed the imagination of the young Joyce” (Almeida 351). She adds that Joyce never ceased seeing the artist “as the priest of the imagination, and the omnipotent creator behind the work. These are, of course, thoroughly Romantic precepts” (352).

William Blake, too, was an important influence. In a 1912 lecture in Trieste, mapping the realist and imaginative currents in English literature, Joyce “praised Blake for his insistence ‘on the importance of the pure, clean line that evokes and creates the figure on the background of the uncreated void.’”8 In A Portrait, Joyce appropriates the same phrase—“the uncreated void”—“as a central tenet of Stephen’s aesthetic theory” (Hecimovich 889). Anita Gandolfo argues that Blake’s symbolism “offers Joyce an appropriate symbolic thread to help gloss the development of his artist, Stephen Dedalus,” and thus in both A Portrait and Ulysses Joyce “presents the apparently semi-autobiographical Stephen as the archetypal artist through explicit and implicit Blakean associations.”9

In this critical vein, I shall examine a heretofore neglected yet significant form of continuity between English Romantic poetry and James Joyce’s fiction, using the important mediating link of Thomas Hardy’s work. As with his relation to the Romantic poets, Joyce’s view of Hardy was complex and often inconsistent. The following discussion explores the older writer’s possible influence on Joyce and the illuminating parallels in their revision of certain Romantic motifs.

In critical discussions of the influence of Romanticism on early twentieth-century poets, Thomas Hardy often figures as the unique case of a Modernist poet whose strong connection to Romanticism is undeniable. Bernard Jones cites evidence from Hardy’s “Studies, Specimens &C.” Notebook, indicating that from about 1865 he had been a close reader...



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