Daughters of memory

Daughters of memory

In Brief

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

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"Fabled by the daughters of memory" recalls plate 2 of A Vision of the Last Judgment. There Blake writes that "Fable or Allegory is Form'd by the daughters of Memory"––the nine Muses descended from Mnemosyne––while "Imagination is surrounded by the daughters of Inspiration, who in the aggregate are call'd Jerusalem." Empirical understanding—knowledge based on memory—is a mere "Fable" in Blake's estimation, while imagination yields what he calls "Vision" of "The Last Judgment." For Blake, this Christian myth is not a mere fiction but something that "Eternally Exists, Really & Unchangeably." In his 1902 lecture on James Clarence Mangan, a man whose "poetry remembers wrong and suffering and the aspiration of one who has suffered and who is moved to great cries and gestures when that sorrowful hour rushes upon the heart," Joyce described poetry as "a revolt, in a sense, against actuality" and held that "it makes no account of history, which is fabled by the daughters of memory."

In Nestor Stephen imagines that Blake's visionary imagination offers an alternative to the naked assertions of power that dismally define history. 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 him. 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––and perhaps 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 notes that Blake wrote in a letter to William Hayley in 1800 that "The ruins of Time build mansions in Eternity." He 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 image of buildings shattering and toppling does not come from Blake's writings. 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 (did Troy have glass windows?), and given Blake's association of poetic apocalypse with political revolution one need not look so far back in time.

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 Coerkenwell and, crouching, saw a flame of vengeance hurl them upward in the fog. Shattered glass and toppling masonry." In addition to this old Fenian expression of the Irish desire for independence, it seems possible that Joyce may have intended for the phrase to predict the Easter Rising of 1916, which left much of central Dublin an apocalyptic wreck but also gave Irish men and women a new visionary commitment to achieving independence.

John Hunt 2012
1807 portrait of William Blake by Thomas Phillips, displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
One of Blake's six surviving depictions of the Last Judgment, an 1808 pen and watercolor painting held by the National Trust in Petworth House, Sussex. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph by Ottawa4ever of 2008 Alma College fire in St. Thomas, Ontario. Source: Wikipedia.