Wax and rosewood

In Brief

In 1908, while living in Trieste, Joyce wrote this sentence in a notebook: "She came to me silently in a dream after her death and her wasted body within its loose brown habit gave out a faint odour of wax and rosewood and her breath a faint odour of wetted ashes." Telemachus reworks the sentence not once but twice, making very slight changes each time, and Stephen is still thinking of it in Proteus.

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Joyce juggles the words of the first clause, changing it to "Silently, in a dream she had come to him," and then to "In a dream, silently, she had come to him." Both later versions alter "habit" to "graveclothes."  In the second revision, the graveclothes are no longer "brown." Both revisions decide that the "odour" of the wasted body (unlike that of his mother’s breath) is not "faint." Instead of giving "out" an odour, they give it "off." Instead of introducing "her breath" with "and," they do so with a comma. The one significant change comes when the first passage inserts a subordinate clause between "her breath" and its "faint odour of wetted ashes." It is a breath "that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful." The second passage decides that, no, the breath "bent over him with mute secret words."

This searching for an ideal shape within a mass of words strongly characterizes Stephen’s calling as a poet, and it was also typical of Joyce’s practice as a prose stylist—both in the revisions that preceded his published texts, and also, as the double revision in Telemachus suggests, within those texts, which tend to revisit and rephrase things already said.

JH 2011
A rosewood casket. Source: thepineboxagency.com.