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“To No End Gathered”: Poetry and Urination in Joyce’s Ulysses

From: Joyce Studies Annual
pp. 297-306

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In his biography of Joyce, Richard Ellmann recounts an evening in 1904 when Joyce read from his manuscript of poems, titled Chamber Music: “Gogarty . . . brought Joyce to visit Jenny, an easy-going widow, and while they all drank porter Joyce read out his poems, which he carried with him in a large packet . . . The widow was pleased enough by this entertainment, but had to interrupt to withdraw behind a screen to a chamber pot. As the two men listened, Gogarty cried out, ‘There’s a critic for you!’ “ (JJ 154). This pun on chamber music culminates in Ulysses, where the symbolic relationship between poetic composition and urination is a recurrent motif. This essay contributes to the discussion of Joyce’s prosody,1 as well as to the theme of digestion and excretion as metaphor for the artistic process, the most comprehensive study of which is Lindsey Tucker’s Stephen and Bloom at Life’s Feast: Alimentary Symbolism and the Creative Process in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” If, in Joyce’s own words, Ulysses is an “epic of the human body,”2 we should read it as the epic of two separate human bodies, Stephen’s and Bloom’s, while noticing how Joyce develops the urination motif to compose these characters’ own unique poems. A closer analysis of urination in the lives of both Bloom and Stephen will further illuminate how this father and son pair present contrasting, yet complementary, categories of artistic expression.


In his article “‘Goddinpotty’: James Joyce and the Language of Excrement,” Vincent J. Cheng illustrates that throughout A Portrait, Stephen associates defecation with sin, an association that carries over into another kind of output, namely poetic. After citing details from Father Arnall’s hell-fire sermon and the language of the confessional, Cheng writes: “Elimination, for Stephen, is associated with sin, corruption, and self-revelation: the body would speak and write the text of Stephen’s sexual guilt. And since language becomes a sort of verbal ex-pression and elimination, Stephen—as a poet—finds himself unable to speak, unable to write, to produce—artistically blocked.”3 Stephen’s creativity seems to flow somewhat more easily in Ulysses, where, early on, we see Stephen pausing to piss on the beach:

In long lassoes from the Cock lake the water flowed full, covering greengoldenly lagoons of sand, rising, flowing. My ashplant will float away. I shall wait. No, they will pass on, passing chafing against the low rocks, swirling, passing. Better get this job over quick. Listen: a fourworded wavespeech: seesoo, hrss, rsseeiss, ooos. Vehement breath of waters amid seasnakes, rearing horses, rocks. In cups of rocks it slops: flop, slop, slap: bounded in barrels. And, spent, its speech ceases. It flows purling, widely flowing, floating foampool, flower unfurling.


Ruth von Phul suggests that Stephen’s “Proteus” micturition “is Joyce’s sardonic representation of Chamber Music, a confessional purgation concealed by dainty devices and a melodious cover language.”4 That Joyce was poking fun at himself with this passage is certainly plausible, but the term “confessional purgation” has other important ramifications for Stephen. The “Uncle Charles principle” might suggest that we view this passage as the language of the urine itself. However, considering that we are far from the nightmare fantasies of “Circe,” where objects like soap and buttons literally speak, and far from the nameless narrators of subsequent chapters like “Cyclops,” the words describing the sounds of the urine must be Stephen’s own thoughts. They are best defined as an onomatopoeic poem of Stephen’s own creation, arguably and ironically more beautiful than the vampire poem fragment Stephen drafts just moments before relieving himself (again, poetry and urine come as a pair), and more successful than the villanelle he composed in Portrait.

The primary device of this onomatopoeic verse is alliteration, with an overwhelming recurrence of “s” sounds (39 in total). It is helpful to read this passage as a kind of prose poem, acoustically unified by alliteration and onomatopoeia rather than meter, and quite different from the formal poetry of Yeats, which Stephen sang to his mother on her deathbed, or those of Byron whom young Stephen defended in the face...

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