30 Jan 2019
Early on in the Nestor chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen calls upon the muses while listening to the boys answers to his history questions. Stephen thinks, “Fabled by the daughters of memory. And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it.” (Joyce 1922.) According to “The Joyce Project” page about this highlighted section of text, the phrase “daughters of memory” referrers to the nine muses, and the sentence, “Fabled by the daughters of memory,” essentially means “produced by the daughters of inspiration (JH 2012.) In this instance where Steven is retrieving the stories of history from the uninspired youths, he is invoking the muses and begging them to inspire the students to retell the past in a more imaginative and interested way.
Joyce’s portrayal of Steven tutoring history works as a fractured retelling of Odysseus’ time with the Phaeacians listening to the heroic tales from the bard. The students’ failure to engage with the stories of the past leaves Steven feeling as if the society has lost its way by ignoring the lessons of the past. Steven thinks, “A phrase, then, of impatience, thud of Blake’s wings of excess. I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame” (Joyce 1922.) The impatience that the students have with their history lesson seems to Steven Daedalus like the thud of wings. And taken with his name as a reference to Icarus the thud of wings is a fall from greatness, a fall that seems likely to destroy civilization as represented by shattering glass and toppling masonry. When compared to Odysseus’ reaction to the song of the Phaeacian bard, Steven’s encounter with the retelling of history rings hollow.
In Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen pleads in silence to be lost in the emotion of a heroic retelling of the past and is thwarted by the by student who would much rather be out engaging themselves in the sport of hockey. However, Homer has his bard bring history to life with such feeling that Odysseus is brought to tears. With the bard singing of Odysseus’ exploits, the narrator says, “That was the song the famous harper sang/but great Odysseus melted into tears,/running down from his eyes to wet his cheeks” (Homer 208.84-86.) The song, as told by the bard, has the power to make powerful Odysseus break down into tears and Odysseus’ tears bring on the sympathy of the king. Therefore history has the power to make real change in Odysseus’ world. Yet in Joyce’s retelling, history is more of an inconvenience that gets in the way of the real fun and Steven’s inner monologue is a reaction to history’s lost power.
Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, Viking Penguin, 1997.
- “Daughters of Memory.” The Joyce Project : Ulysses : Pigeonhouse, 2012. m.joyceproject.com/notes/020003daughtersofmemory.html.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. The Joyce Project : Ulysses : Pigeonhouse, 1922. m.joyceproject.com/chapters/telem.html.