Wax and rosewood

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 Nestor and Proteus. Joyce's habit of dwelling on phrases in this way, searching for the best way to express their potential and repeatedly revisiting their implications, is one of the most distinctive features of his literary art.

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The first time that Joyce frames the words in Telemachus, he foregrounds the adverb "silently," substitutes the more vivid word "graveclothes" for "habit," and adds a detail about his mother's breath actively enforcing guilt in him: "Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes." In the second passage he continues to play with word order, now moving "In a dream" to the front of the sentence. He removes the adjective "brown" and tones down the reproachfulness of the breath: "In a dream, silently, she had come to him, her wasted body within its loose graveclothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, bent over him with mute secret words, a faint odour of wetted ashes." 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.

This searching for an ideal shape within a mass of words characterizes Stephen’s calling as a poet and also typifies Joyce’s practice as a prose stylist. It is famously manifested in two sentences of Lestrygonians to which he devoted an entire day's labor, looking not for the right words but for the right order of the words. The recurrence of the "wax and rosewood" passage––after its two appearances in Telemachus it returns in Nestor as "an odour of rosewood and wetted ashes," and in Proteus as "a ghostwoman with ashes on her breath"––is also typical of Ulysses. Once a phrase gains a foothold in the text it may return at any time, pulling readers' thoughts back to the complex of associations it first evoked. In the Circe chapter this happens many, many hundreds of times, so that reading that chapter becomes an exercise in recalling the entire book.

John Hunt 2024

A rosewood casket. Source: thepineboxagency.com.