- Elegiac Ulysses
What shall we call Ulysses? In a 1974 essay on “The Genre of Ulysses,” A. Walton Litz offered a short catalog of terms that scholars have applied to Joyce’s great experiment in fiction. “At one time or another,” Litz wrote, “Ulysses has been presented as a stark naturalistic drama, a symbolist poem, a comic epic in prose, even a conventional novel of character and situation.”1 Joyce himself, as he prepared his readers for an encounter, in the early 1920s, with a work with few obvious precedents, did somewhat better. He told his friend Carlo Linati that the book was an “epic of two races (Israel-Ireland),” a “cycle of the human body,” and “a kind of encyclopaedia.” It was also, he said, a “little story of a day.”2 In his study “Ulysses” and Us: The Art of Everyday Living, Declan Kiberd links Joyce’s novel to the tradition of what he calls “wisdom literature.”3 Like the Bible, the works of Homer, and the Aeneid, Ulysses serves, in Kiberd’s reading, more than the usual purposes of epic storytelling. It also functions as a repository of advice, chapter by chapter, on such quotidian matters as waking, learning, thinking, and walking. Kiberd reminds us that Leopold Bloom, according to the “Ithaca” episode, has apparently made a similar use of canonical works of literature. Describing his own tastes in reading and evoking the venerable poetic distinction between the sweet and the useful, Bloom “reflected on the pleasures derived from literature of instruction rather than of amusement as he himself had applied to the works of William Shakespeare more than once for the solution of difficult problems in imaginary or real life” (U 17.384–87). In its formal complexity, Ulysses represents an extreme but perhaps not an exception in modern prose fiction. In an essay of 1927 called “The Narrow Bridge of Art,” Virginia Woolf claimed that the contemporary novel had become a kind of “cannibal,” absorbing the aims and methods of other forms and traditions. “We shall be forced,” she wrote, “to invent new names for the [End Page 130] different books which masquerade under this one heading.”4 Clearly, a work as complex as Ulysses may aspire to one formal condition without abandoning its claim on another. At one point, in passing, Kiberd also describes Ulysses as a kind of elegy, a form we traditionally associate with poetry (293–94). This essay follows the thematic, formal, and perhaps even the political implications of this suggestion.5
Among the Greeks, the elegy was often a poem of lamentation or a funeral poem, though it was defined as much by a standard meter—alternating lines of hexameter and pentameter—as by the presence of a serious, meditative theme. Roman poets used the term for erotic poems and amatory complaints, and by the seventeenth century the tradition might include “pastoral elegies, funeral or commemorative poems, and some didactic verse, as well as witty, often paradoxical love poems.”6 For example, John Donne’s collection of elegies, composed at the end of the sixteenth century, numbers, depending on the editor, some twenty poems on amatory themes such as “The Perfume,” “Jealousy,” “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” and “Love’s Progress.” Only after the sixteenth century did the elegy settle into something like a typical subject, that of a lament inspired by the death of a loved one and including a formal representation of grief, acceptance, and consolation. In The English Elegy, drawing on Freud’s famous essay of 1917, “Mourning and Melancholia,” Peter Sacks describes the purpose of elegy with reference to Freud’s notion of the “work” of mourning, identifying the typical elegy with a “dynamic sense of the working through of an impulse or experience.”7 Poetic form—including meter, rhyme, and other conventions of the genre—is a powerful agent in the ceremony of grief and recovery. As Christine Froula puts it, “The poetic elegy submits mourning’s formidable psychic turbulence to the rigorous formal mechanics of elegiac temporality.”8
In its typical form, the elegy is distinctive not only for its movement toward emotional wholeness but also for its value as...