Daughters of memory

In Brief

Discouraged by the story of Pyrrhus and by history in general, Stephen thinks of the apocalyptic alternatives to empirical knowledge proposed by the visionary English poet William Blake (1757-1827). Phrases throughout the seventh paragraph of Nestor come from particular passages in Blake's writings. While skeptical of their excess, Stephen feels his imagination stirred by their vision of an absolute reality transcending earthly injustice.

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"Fabled by the daughters of memory" recalls the second plate of A Vision of the Last Judgment. There Blake distinguishes "Fable or Allegory," produced by the daughters of Memory (i.e. the nine Muses descended from Mnemosyne), from "Imagination," produced by the daughters of Inspiration. Empirical understanding—knowledge based on memory—is a mere "Fable" in Blake's estimation, while imagination yields what he calls "Vision." The vision at issue is "The Last Judgment"; for Blake, this Christian myth is not a mere fable or allegory, but rather something that "Eternally Exists, Really & Unchangeably."

Stephen is attracted to Blake's conception of visionary truth because it would define all history as essentially false, but the Aristotelian empiricist in him immediately counters, "And yet it was in some way if not as memory fabled it." The world is more than the mind's conception of it; actual things happened to produce the reality that now enslaves us. As Stephen thinks a few paragraphs later, "They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted."

"A phrase, then, of impatience, thud of Blake's wings of excess": one of the devils' Proverbs in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell holds that "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," and another one that "No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings." Blake has characteristically overshot the mark, Stephen thinks, and his wings of excess strike the ear with (or fall to earth with?) a thud.

But Stephen is enchanted by the language of apocalyptic transcendence, and will remain so throughout the novel. Blake also writes in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that "The ancient tradition that the world will be consumed in fire at the end of six thousand years is true, as I have heard from Hell." And when that fiery consummation occurs, "the whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite and holy, whereas it now appears finite & corrupt." Thornton cites other passages about the fiery end of the world from A Vision of the Last Judgment. Stirred by this vision, Stephen thinks of "the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame." The shattered glass and toppling masonry do not come from Blake, but are consistent with his apocalyptic vision. Thornton notes that Blake wrote in a letter to William Hayley in 1800 that "The ruins of Time build mansions in Eternity."

Gifford obscurely connects these words to "a vision of the fall of Troy, a lost cause not unlike the efforts of the Tarentines under Pyrrhus to resist the domination of Rome." The association seems possible but hardly conclusive, and one perhaps need not look so far back in time, given Blake's perennial association of poetic apocalypse with political revolution. In Proteus, Stephen repeats the words of Nestor verbatim when he thinks of Kevin Egan's revolutionary activities: "he prowled with colonel Richard Burke, tanist of his sept, under the walls of Clerkenwell  and, crouching, saw a flame of vengeance hurl them upward in the fog. Shattered glass and toppling masonry." Stephen certainly does associate Blake's apocalyptic vision with "lost causes," but all such causes converge in his mind on the question of Irish independence.

JH 2012
1807 portrait of William Blake by Thomas Phillips, displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph by Ottawa4ever of 2008 Alma College fire in St. Thomas, Ontario. Source: Wikipedia.