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"The Twining Stresses, Two by Two": The Prosody of Joyce's Prose

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 16, Number 2, April 2009
pp. 391-399 | 10.1353/mod.0.0072

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The subtitle of this essay is "The Prosody of Joyce's Prose." What does it mean to talk about prosody in prose? Prosody, after all, is by definition a quality attached to poetry: the Oxford American Dictionary defines it simply as "the study of verse forms and poetic meters." Verse forms, poetic meters, and other aspects of versification are ways in which we understand the peculiar language of poetry, of verse.

Of course Joyce did write poems, and one can certainly discuss the prosody—the metrics, sound effects, and other prosodic qualities—of Joyce's verse. But any appreciative reader of Joyce's great fictional texts—Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake—grows quickly aware of how striking and remarkable the sound effects and rhythms of Joyce's prose can be. Samuel Beckett's well-known comment about Finnegans Wake applies indeed to all of Joyce's prose: "[It] is not written at all. It is not to be read—or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. [Joyce's] writing is not about something; it is that something itself" (Beckett 1972, 14). Of course, much useful critical work has already been done on the presence and influence of music (opera, songs, and so on) in Joyce's works. Derek Attridge has written probingly on Joyce's use of onomatopoeia and aural imitation in Peculiar Language (Attridge 1988). Such investigations tend to focus particularly on the "Sirens" episode of Ulysses, a chapter full of both musical imitation and striking sound effects—and a number of scholars have investigated the nuances and uses of sound and music in "Sirens."

But I want to focus specifically on the prosody of and metrics in Joyce's prose, to apply prosodic and metrical analysis not to a poetic text but to Joyce's prose fiction. This is, to my mind, a fascinating and promising topic on which, to my knowledge, little (if any) published work has been done—and so there are many open avenues of inquiry. This essay is just one beginning, a small foray into one aspect or approach to the study of the prosody of Joyce's prose.

In the opening pages of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus thinks to himself, as he gazes at the sea beneath the Martello Tower:

Woodshadows floated silently by through the morning peace from the stairhead seaward where he gazed. Inshore and farther out the mirror of water whitened, spurned by lightshod hurrying feet. White breast of the dim sea. The twining stresses, two by two. A hand plucking the harpstrings, merging their twining chords. Wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide.

Later in the morning, in the "Proteus" episode, Stephen, looking at the beach, will observe "Signatures of all things I am here to read" (U 3.2), suggesting that the world itself is a text—a beach full of signs to be read and decoded. Here, in the "Telemachus" episode, the surf Stephen is gazing at is a particular sort of text, a poem: not only is he quoting from a poem, Yeats' "Who Goes with Fergus?" (which contains the line "And the white breast of the dim sea"), but the image is one of whitecaps coming in metrically, with "lightshod hurrying feet" (i.e., metrical feet), rhythmically twined by metrical stresses, two by two—indeed, the whitecaps are themselves words of a poetic (and alliterated) line, "wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide." Stephen, as we know from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is a prosodist (recall his villanelle); in "Proteus" he reminds us of that fact when he identifies the lines "Won't you come to Sandymount, / Madeline the mare?" as an "Acatelectic tetrameter of iambs marching. No, agallop: deline the mare" (U 3.21–24).

But this moment in "Telemachus" is, for Stephen, also a moment of pain: he has Yeats' poem in mind because Buck Mulligan has just reminded him of it ("And no more turn aside and brood / Upon love's bitter mystery / For Fergus rules the brazen cars" [U...

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