In Brief

In Calypso Bloom contemplates "The Bath of the Nymph over the bed. Given away with the Easter number of Photo Bits: splendid masterpiece in art colours. Tea before you put milk in. Not unlike her with her hair down: slimmer. Three and six I gave for the frame. She said it would look nice over the bed. Naked nymphs: Greece." Like other images of nakedness inspired by Greek antiquity, notably the statues in the National Museum, this titillating demigoddess seems an incarnation of ideal beauty to Bloom, while simultaneously arousing his sexual desire. The tension between ethereality and carnality is dramatized in Circe when the Nymph steps out of her frame and confronts Bloom with his impure life. 

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In an article titled "Is There More to Photo Bits than Meets the Eye?," JJQ 30.4/31.1 (1993): 877-93, Tess Marsh describes the search she conducted for a colored plate that might match Bloom's account. She discovered that Christmas and summer issues of the magazine, but not Easter numbers, regularly included "Great Gift Pictures...presented free gratis by the proprietors of Photo Bits at regular intervals without extra charge" (878). No supplement bore the title "The Bath of the Nymph," but many similarly titled paintings were featured: "Bathing," "After the Bath," "Nymphs of the Sea," "Her Sun Bath," "Wonderland Nymph," and more. Despite these many representations of naked goddesses bathing, Marsh supposes that another color plate, titled "Dawn," may be the one that Joyce had in mind because of its pose––of which more in a moment.

Of other images reproduced in the photographic magazine, Marsh notes that "There is also a marked interest in the classical. The models are frequently compared to Greek statues and their attire noted for its Grecian style. We read, for instance [in a 1906 issue], of 'society's latest craze. The most beautiful girls of London's aristocracy now pose in Grecian garb to the delight of their friends and admirers.' Pertinent, too, is the description of the photograph entitled 'An Athenian Souvenir': 'Grecian Court ladies enjoying an afternoon dip in an ancient bath supposed to have been used by Penelope. This photo was taken by one of the suite during the recent royal visit to Greece'" (882).

Marsh observes also that Joyce must have derived the idea of hanging a print from Photo Bits over the Blooms' bed from suggestions in the magazine itself. The Christmas 1905 issue says of its supplement, "The twelve-colour plate is pronounced by Press and Public alike to be A Superb Work of Art. Neatly framed, it is a handsome addition to any collection of pictures. Hung in a bedroom it has a warm, cosy effect. Hung anywhere, it cannot fail to delight the eye." Bloom's language is very similar, suggesting that this bumbling bourgeois connoisseur has swallowed the magazine's claim to be bringing a "splendid masterpiece" of fine art to the masses. The ironic contrast between supposedly high art and a manifestly low publication is made explicit when the demigoddess reappears eleven chapters later.

In Circe she steps out of her frame into a natural setting that now includes Bloom: "Out of her oakframe a nymph with hair unbound, lightly clad in teabrown artcolours, descends from her grotto and passing under interlacing yews stands over Bloom." Addressing him from above––"Mortal!"––she describes how he found her in "cheap pink paper that smelled of rock oil," surrounded by tawdry photographs and tawdrier advertisements. Bloom: "You mean Photo Bits?" The Nymph: "I do. You bore me away, framed me in oak and tinsel, set me above your marriage couch. Unseen, one summer eve, you kissed me in four places. And with loving pencil you shaded my eyes, my bosom and my shame." Bloom, kissing her long hair: "Your classic curves, beautiful immortal, I was glad to look on you, to praise you, a thing of beauty, almost to pray." The Nymph recalls him speaking to her at night, from his bed, with words that "are not in my dictionary." Bloom: "You understood them?" The Nymph: "What have I not seen in that chamber? What must my eyes look down on?"

Bloom's sexual confessions, including an act of masturbation in a forest (the Nymph's milieu) prompt her to assert that she transcends sexual desire, embodying "Only the ethereal," which in turn rouses Bloom to uncharacteristic crudity: "If there were only ethereal where would you all be, postulants and novices? Shy but willing like an ass pissing." The lady protests some more: "Sacrilege! To attempt my virtue! (A large moist stain appears on her robe.) Sully my innocence! You are not fit to touch the garment of a pure woman. (She clutches in her robe.)" Finally the spell breaks as the Nymph, like the Siren in Dante's Purgatorio, "With a cry flees from him unveiled, her plaster cast cracking, a cloud of stench escaping from the cracks."

Marsh's speculation that the Nymph was modeled on "Dawn" is based on several elements of the painting's composition: full frontal nudity, a veil lightly concealing the midsection ("my shame"), mid-air suspension. It seems quite possible that the details of this image may have contributed to the way the Nymph is presented in Circe, but surely Joyce was thinking of other works as well. Why title the Blooms' painting The Bath of the Nymph if it does not depict bathing? Even if none of the bathing beauties in Photo Bits featured full frontal nudity, one may easily imagine Joyce altering this detail just as he altered the title and the date of issue. The artist who painted the second work reproduced here, Jules Scalbert, did execute more boldly erotic bath scenes. The caption beneath the magazine's "Bathing" notes that it was displayed at the French Salon of 1907. Another Scalbert painting displayed at the French Salon of 1913 leaves a good deal less to the imagination, showing a naked woman from the front, as well as a partially naked woman clad in a "robe" rather than the gossamer veil of "Dawn."

§ The moment at which the Nymph "clutches in her robe," no doubt to protect her virtue from Bloom's grubby gaze, receives a strange insertion in Gabler's edition: "clutches again in her robe." It is hard to imagine a good reason for thus tinkering with the language of all earlier editions. "Clutches in" makes sense as a description of someone using her fingers to draw a robe in more tightly about her body, but "clutches again in" sounds completely non-idiomatic. And what would "again" refer to? The Nymph has previously adopted various coy postures expressing her shock at Bloom's carnality. She sticks "Her fingers in her ears," "Covers her face with her hands," "Bends her head," peeps "Coyly, through parting fingers," gapes "With wide fingers," "arches her body in lascivious crispation, placing her forefinger in her mouth," "blushes and makes a knee," "reclines her head, sighing." Not once does she adjust her robe, so she can hardly clutch it against her body "again." This is one of many instances in which Gabler presumes to alter long-established editorial practice with, it seems, no compelling aesthetic rationale for doing so.

One smaller alteration in his text may make more sense. All previous editions read, "the Easter number of Photo Bits: Splendid masterpiece." Unless Bloom is here quoting from something he has read in Photo Bits ("A Superb Work of Art"), there is no reason to capitalize "splendid."

John Hunt 2023
Image reproduced in a supplement to the 14 April 1906 issue of Photo Bits, held in the British Library. Source: Tess Marsh, JJQ 30/31 (1993).
Jules Scalbert, Bathing, a painting reproduced in the 27 July 1907 issue of Photo Bits, also held in the British Library. Source: Marsh, JJQ 30/31.
Source: Back cover, JJQ 30/31.
Jules Scalbert, The Bath, painting displayed at the French Salon of 1913.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.