Journal of Modern Literature 28.3 (2005) 162-169
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A daintical pair of accomplasses
In the subversive Lessons chapter of Finnegans Wake, Joyce "answers" Yeats's gyres with a sketch of two overlapping circles to represent the female genitalia, and yokes together his own career as a writer with that of his one-time model: "a daintical pair of accomplasses! You, allus for the kunst and me for omething with a handel to it." (Finnegans Wake 295:27–8) The portmanteau words betray a childlike playing with words and cross-gendering: "daintical" carries both dainty and identical and "accomplasses" the words accomplice, compass, and lasses. The stress on identity, gender and transgression is continued in Joyce's schoolboy playing on the German word "kunsthandel" or art dealer. Yeats was always for the "kunst" (for Art, for women), Joyce is for music, but, more down-to-earth, he is also for anything with a handle to it (commerce, the male body or friendship, "omething"). Between them, the dreamy Yeats and the wide-awake Joyce created and divided a large part of the spoils of modern writing in English, so that without these two Irish accomplasses the look and character of that period would be significantly altered. With two new chronologies of their lives in front of us, it is always worth rehearsing something of their extraordinary imaginative power and their continuing capacity to shock and move us. For even as we seek to account for or to trace their lives whether [End Page 162] singly or together, we cannot ever forget the disjunction between the life and the art, the tantalising tissue that at once separates and joins the person who sits down to breakfast and the individual who creates.
Previous authors in this "Author Chronologies" series include Milton, Browning, Ruskin, Poe, Lawrence, Waugh and Orwell. The format is in one sense straightforward: a chronology of the events that constituted the life of the writer, beginning in Yeats's case in 1865 and ending in 1939 and in Joyce's with 1882 and 1941. John Kelly, the chief editor of what will become the twelve-volume edition of the Collected Letters of W.B.Yeats, is the natural choice to tackle such a complex subject, while Roger Norburn proved a good choice with regard to Joyce. Kelly's volume forms a handy complement to the recently published second volume of Roy Foster's W.B.Yeats: A Life (2003), while Norburn's, which is more dependent on the work of others, has much to commend it.
With regard to A W.B.Yeats Chronology, the first comment to make concerns the disposition of the material. The Chronology itself occupies some 300 pages, with 172 pages devoted to Yeats's life up to the outbreak of the Great War, and 118 to the remainder, or 193 pages up his marriage in 1917 and 107 thereafter. 61 pages are devoted to the 1920s, 42 to the 1930s. So there is an imbalance here, more so since the final two decades were not only Yeats's most creative decades as a poet but also the least well-known in terms of his still-unpublished correspondence. A second issue relates to Kelly's treatment of the gulf between man and writer. According to Kelly, a visit to an art gallery in 1937 "inspires [my italics] his poem 'The Municipal Gallery Revisited'"—he makes a similar comment about Yeats's inspection of St Otteran's School in 1926 and the ensuing poem "Among School Children." Such remarks seem out of place with most writers but especially so with Yeats, who was given to writing occasional verse but who rarely confused occasion with inspiration. Norburn, too, with his constant references to individuals who were the models for particular characters in Joyce's fiction, also falls into...