Vailed eyelids

Vailed eyelids

In Brief

"Drawing back his head and gazing far from beneath his vailed eyelids," Bloom ogles an attractive woman who is standing at the curb on the other side of Westland Row. The unfamiliar word means "lowered," but commentators have never satisfactorily explained the reason for Bloom's eyelids being half closed. Study of the word's usage in Shakespeare's time suggests that it shows him surrendering to the woman's beauty.

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The 1922 Ulysses reads "vailed," as does the Gabler edition of the 1980s, but texts from the intervening years have the more familiar word "veiled," which was introduced in the Odyssey Press editions of the 1930s—one of many instances in which attempts to correct the abundant errors in Joyce's text have introduced new ones. The novel employs the word "veiled" several other times, always with clear contextual reasons, but no such reasons are apparent in this passage of Lotus Eaters. It is somewhat feasible to imagine Bloom's eyes being veiled by their lids, but saying that the lids themselves are veiled yields utter nonsense.

These difficulties vanish if one restores the "vailed" of the first edition and the Rosenbach manuscript. According to the OED, the principal meaning of "vail" (a transitive verb that is now "archaic") is "To lower," and "vailed" (now "obsolete") means "Lowered, drooped; doffed or taken off in salutation." Both words, and especially the participle, seem to have been used steadily less often since the 17th century. But Joyce was fond of dropping recherché words into his text: "barbacans," "filibegs," "cunnythumb," "hanched," "bretelles," "anastomosis," "sjambok." At the end of this very sentence he will refer to "braided drums" in the completely unfamiliar context of a woman's leather gloves.

Once one looks up the meaning of "vailed" it is easily applied to the context: Bloom's eyes are half closed. But why would his eyelids be lowered at this moment? One obvious possibility is that he is shielding his eyes from the bright morning sun: he has recently thought that it is a "Very warm morning"—"So warm"—and as the woman rides off on her cab he sees "the laceflare of her hat in the sun." But Bloom is standing on the east side of the street, looking in a generally westerly direction toward the Grosvenor Hotel. Moreover, he is probably standing in a shadow cast by the train station. The morning sun cannot be in his eyes.

Another possibility is that Joyce may be making some sort of allusion to Shakespeare's Hamlet. In the most well-known use of "vailed" in English literature, the prince's mother says,

Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust.
Thou know'st 'tis common, all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
These lines provide a bit more to work with. A Shakespearean influence may be inferred from Bloom's wearing "black tie and clothes" (a "nighted color") while displaying vailed eyelids. But the echoes of Hamlet do not reach very far or establish much intertextual dialogue. Hamlet's lowered eyelids convey grief, just as those of Venus do in Venus and Adonis when she learns of the death of her beloved: "Here overcome, as one full of despair, / She vail'd her eyelids" (955-56). Bloom's eyes are not overcome by grief. In fact, Charlie M'Coy has just commented on his funereal clothes and Bloom has hastened to assure him that they are only for a casual acquaintance, not someone near and dear. Later in the chapter he will resent the demands on his time: "
Bore this funeral affair. O well, poor fellow, it's not his fault."

If the vailed eyelids do not result from grief, what else may they express? At least one other reading of the phrase seems possible. "Vail" comes from an Old French word (avaler = to lower) which must have entered English with the Normans. In Middle English times and well into the 17th century it was typically used for acts of chivalric homage: lowering a head-piece or banner to show respect. The full range of meanings of "vail" provided in the OED include "To lower in sign of submission or respect"; "To throw down, give up, or surrender"; "To doff or take off (a bonnet, hat, crown, or other head-dress), esp. out of respect or as a sign of submission"; "To manifest submission; to acknowledge oneself overcome or surpassed; to yield, give way"; and so forth.

Shakespeare's plays contain several uses of this kind. In Henry VI, part 1, Joan of Arc says, "Now the time is come / That France must vail her lofty-plumed crest / And let her head fall into England's lap" (1.5.3). In Edward III (a play which Shakespeare probably had a hand in writing), Copland, who has refused to yield up a prisoner to the King, tells him that he now "Is come to France, and with a lowly mind / Doth vail the bonnet of his victory" (5.1.77-78). Pericles recalls how his father "Had princes sit like stars about his throne, / And he the sun for them to reverence; / None that beheld him but, like lesser lights, / Did vail their crowns to his supremacy" (2.3.39-42).

This feudal sense of abasing oneself before superior power was the principal significance in Shakespeare's time, but the word was also occasionally adapted to the erotic context of surrendering oneself to love—naturally enough, given the courtly love convention of treating the beloved as a quasi-feudal lord. The OED cites Stanyhurst's Æneis (1581): "Also let oure Dido vayle her hert too bedfeloe Troian." In Endymion (1591) John Lyly writes that it is "the fashion of the world" to "vaile bonnet to beautie." Coryat's Crudities (1611) says, "Shee wil very neare benumme and captivate thy senses, and make reason vale bonnet to affection." And in an earlier scene of Edward III, after the King has remarked on the Countess of Salisbury's power "to draw / My subject eyes from piercing majesty / To gaze on her with doting admiration" (1.2.104-6), Lodwick criticizes this abasement of the royal person: "If she did blush, 'twas tender modest shame, / Being in the sacred presence of a king; / If he did blush, 'twas red immodest shame, / To [vail] his eyes amiss, being a king" (2.1.14-17).

If Joyce is using the word in this way then Bloom's eyelids are lowered because he is infatuated, or at least eager to seem so. Whether they are the enraptured eyes of a helpless adorer or the bedroom eyes of a would-be seducer, they perform an erotic signaling that is both active and passive: boldly paying tribute to beauty while half swooning away. This seems entirely consistent with Bloom's sexual nature. The novel characterizes him as a husband whose warm devotion shades over into uxoriousness, a shameless voyeur who is nevertheless disinclined to commit adultery, a masochist whose fantasies about being dominated by strong women are counterbalanced by spunky independence, a grown man who invites women's sympathy by playing the sad little boy. He has previously abased himself before the woman at the curb by thinking of her as a haughty specimen who would never give him the time of day, only to indulge a fantasy of sexual domination: "Possess her once take the starch out of her." His eyes here say, "I am overcome," but he is the one using them to stare at a woman who is not his wife.

JH 2021
George Clooney's bedroom eyes. Source:
The Victorian way of doffing head-gear. Source:
Kenneth Branagh and Julie Christie in Branagh's 1996 film Hamlet. Source:
Woodcut print on the title page of Juan de Mena's 1499 work Las CCC, showing Juan doffing his cap to King John II. Source:
A medieval courtly lover abasing himself before his beloved in the feudal trope of "love service" initiated by the troubadour poets. Source: