Paradise and the Peri

In Brief

When the tram passes between Bloom and the woman he is eyeing for a glimpse of underwear, and he realizes that he has "Lost it," he thinks of "Paradise and the peri," a verse tale by the Irish poet Thomas Moore. The peri is an angel- or fairy-like being of Persian mythology who is shut out of paradise.

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Moore (1779-1852), who was probably inspired by the presence of peri in William Beckford's oriental novel Vathek (1786), created "Paradise and the Peri" as one of four interpolated tales within a frame story titled Lalla Rookh, an Oriental Romance (1817). After his death it was published in a stand-alone volume from which the illustration beside this note is taken. Robert Schumann wrote a cantata called Paradise and the Peri (1843) based on a translation of Moore's work, and Thomas Crawford made a life-size marble sculpture called Peri at the Gates of Paradise (ca. 1856).

The peri originated in Persia and later spread to Armenia, Turkey, and India. They were lovely female spirits, devoted to beauty and generally well-disposed toward both human beings and God, who were nevertheless denied a place in paradise because of some unnamed mischief. In the version of their story told by the poet-king in Moore's Lalla Rookh, one peri struggles to gain entrance into heaven. The tale begins with the verses inscribed in the first of the images here:

One morn a Peri at the gate
Of Eden stood, disconsolate;
And as she listen'd to the Springs
Of Life within, like music flowing,
And caught the light upon her wings
Through the half-open portal glowing,
She wept to think her recreant race
Should e'er have lost that glorious place!

A "glorious angel" who is guarding the gate takes pity on the peri and tells her that she can be admitted if she offers "the gift that is most dear to Heaven." She speeds off to earth looking for this precious substance, and returns twice with gifts that do not fit the bill. On her third try she encounters a "man of crime" who sees a young boy playing and weeps "tears of soul-felt penitence." One of these blessed tears from his cheek gets the peri into paradise.

In Bloom's application, the story of the peri is essentially turned on its head. Instead of a beautiful female spirit gazing past the pearly gates into a heaven whose incorporeal splendors she longs to taste, he stands outside the gates of the Grosvenor hotel gazing at a beautiful female and longing to get inside her drawers.

Bloom's brief recollection of Moore's orientalizing work is one of a long catalogue of passages that show Joyce's interest in the Persian and Arab cultures of the Middle East. In some of these passages exoticism amplifies eroticism, and vice versa. In "Araby," the third story of Dubliners, the boy carries his intoxicating image of Mangan's sister "even in places the most hostile to romance," and when she asks him whether he will be going to the "splendid bazaar" that is coming to town he thinks he has found an objective correlative for his subjective passion: "At night in my bedroom and by day in the classroom her image came between me and the page I strove to read. The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me."

Bloom's investment in this strain of oriental eroticism surfaces repeatedly in Circe. Molly appears to him "in Turkish costume"—"scarlet trousers and jacket, slashed with gold," a yellow sash around her waist, a coin on her forehead, jewelled rings on her toes, "a slender fetterchain" on her ankles, and a "white yashmak, violet in the night," covering her face. As he stands flirting with Zoe outside of Bella Cohen's house, his hand "feeling for her nipple," she says, "Stop that and begin worse. Have you cash for a short time? Ten shillings?" Bloom's reply: "More, houri, more."

JH 2019
Page from Thomas Moore's Paradise and the Peri (London: Day & Son, 1860), with decorative illustrations by Owen Jones and Henry Warren. Source: www.enchantedbooklet.com.
A 16th century Ottoman drawing of a peri, attributable to Veli Can. Source: udan-adan.blogspot.com.