In Brief

Ithaca asks, "What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?" The question is answered in the most rapturously lyrical sentence in all of Ulysses: "The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit." But this poetic exclamation is followed by five Q&A sections of scientific analysis crammed with astronomy, geology, biology, physics, mathematics, and logic, leading to another question: "His (Bloom's) logical conclusion, having weighed the matter and allowing for possible error?" Answer: "That it was not a heaventree." The dialogue between poetry and science reflects Joyce's engagement with another writer who folded scientific thinking into his art. Bloom and Stephen's vision of the stars reenacts one that Virgil and Dante enjoy at the end of the Inferno, when they emerge from Hell into the night air. For Dante the stars are a broad highway to God. For Joyce they are not.

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All three cantiche of the Divine Comedy conclude with the word stelle, "stars." In canto 34 of the Inferno Dante and Virgil end their dark tour of Hell, passing by Satan at the bottom of the ninth circle and climbing up a narrow channel "to find again the world of light" (134). They get "far enough to see, through a round opening, / a few of those fair things the heavens bear. / Then we came forth, to see again the stars" (137-39). Joyce echoes these lines twice. In addition to the full vision of the night sky evoked in "The heaventree of stars," he recalls the tiny round opening of lines 137-38 by suggesting that the Milky Way would be "discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lower end of a cylindrical vertical shaft 5000 ft deep sunk from the surface towards the centre of the earth." Readers of the Inferno will recall that "the centre of the earth," where Satan is embedded in the ice, is where Dante's ascent to the light begins.

In Dante's poem the heavenly bodies are omnipresent companions. The passage of day and night and the cycling of the seasons are known by the relative positions of the sun, planets, and stars. Both Virgil and Dante display exacting and comprehensive knowledge of medieval astronomy, and the poet supplements scientific understanding with pervasive poetic symbolism. (To cite one of many examples, the four stars that he sees in canto 1 of Purgatorio are not only a constellation, probably the Southern Cross, but also emblems of the four cardinal virtues possessed by Adam and Eve.) Even Dante's science is fanciful. Astronomy was inseparable from astrology in medieval thinking, because causative divine "influences" were thought to descend from the mind of God, through particular constellations of stars and then through the spheres of individual planets, to shape events on earth and mold the dispositions of human beings.

In addition to their functions in time-keeping, moral allegory, and etiology, Dante's heavenly bodies constitute a vast mechanical apparatus, rotating around the earth in invisible crystalline spheres according to the Ptolemaic cosmological teachings of his time. In Paradiso he ascends to his vision of God by rising through these crystalline spheres in a fixed hierarchical order: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. After entering the sphere which holds all of the "fixed stars" (the ones that do not move in relation to one another), and the Primum Mobile that imparts motion to all the others, Dante is in the Empyrean where God dwells. Although he does not use Joyce's metaphor of a tree, the stars are for him quite literally a structure through which he climbs to the highest heaven.

Joyce made Bloom, like Dante, an amateur stargazer and endowed him with the impressive fund of astronomical knowledge displayed in Ithaca. The word "heaventree" suggests that, despite his atheism, Bloom is sufficiently awed by the "spectacle" of the night sky to imagine the kind of majestic divine order proclaimed in Dante's poem. But his thoughts do not lead to contemplation of a divine creator. Unlike Dante, who launches his fictive avatar from the summit of the mountain of Purgatory to jet upward, Bloom is "Conscious that the human organism, normally capable of sustaining an atmospheric pressure of 19 tons, when elevated to a considerable altitude in the terrestrial atmosphere suffered with arithmetical progression of intensity, according as the line of demarcation between troposphere and stratosphere was approximated, from nasal hemorrhage, impeded respiration and vertigo."

In a striking echo of Dante's ascent through the nested orbits of the solar system, Bloom reasons that it is conceivable that "a more adaptable and differently anatomically constructed race of beings might subsist otherwise under Martian, Mercurial, Venereal, Jovian, Saturnian, Neptunian or Uranian sufficient and equivalent conditions." (He leaves out the sun and moon but adds Neptune, discovered in 1846, and Uranus, known since 1781, keeping the number of planets the same as Dante's.) Bloom reflects, however, that living on celestial worlds would not by itself bring humanity any closer to divinity. The narrative asks whether "the inhabitability of the planets and their satellites" by such an evolved "race" would render the problem of "social and moral redemption of said race by a redeemer, easier of solution?" The answer is no: "an apogean humanity of beings created in varying forms with finite differences resulting similar to the whole and to one another would probably there as here remain inalterably and inalienably attached to vanities, to vanities of vanities and to all that is vanity."

Pondering such questions posed by the celestial display, Bloom concludes "That it was not a heaventree, not a heavengrot, not a heavenbeast, not a heavenman. That it was a Utopia, there being no known method from the known to the unknown: an infinity renderable equally finite by the suppositious apposition of one or more bodies equally of the same and of different magnitudes: a mobility of illusory forms immobilised in space, remobilised in air: a past which possibly had ceased to exist as a present before its probable spectators had entered actual present existence." Not only do the planets and stars offer no way "from the known to the unknown," but they may not even exist. We apprehend them as light emitted eons earlier from objects that quite possibly have ceased to be. Dante's medieval science dealt in permanent knowable substances. Modern science trades in evanescences, ambiguous manifestations, distant measurements, unimaginable immensities.

Having decided that scientific analysis trumps poetic fancy, Bloom nevertheless retains the awed appreciation of beauty that he felt when he first stepped into the garden. The narrative asks, "Was he more convinced of the esthetic value of the spectacle?" The answer: "Indubitably in consequence of the reiterated examples of poets in the delirium of the frenzy of attachment or in the abasement of rejection invoking ardent sympathetic constellations or the frigidity of the satellite of their planet." Human beings will still feel what they feel and project it onto the heavens, no matter how ruthlessly reason deflates their extravagant imaginations.

In an article on James Joyce Online Notes, John Simpson observes that Joyce probably did not coin the word "heaventree" and could have run across several fanciful accounts of such an entity. The OED records that as early as 1835 the word was being used for a plant, Ailanthus altissima, which Malay speakers had described as "tree reaching to the sky." A related but rarer meaning, documented in an 1865 work, stemmed from Malaysian and Polynesian myths that envisioned “a mythical tree growing from the underworld, through the earth, and up to heaven." Scandinavian mythology too tells of such a tree. Yggdrasil, the sacred ash of the Norse eddas which may have given rise to the story of Jack and the beanstalk, reaches from the underworld into the heavens.

Joyce might even have found the stars overlaid on such a celestial tree. In an 1858 poem, The Heroes of the Last Lustre,  American journalist and poet John Flavel Mines painted a metaphorical image of the night sky: "Resplendent stars, in purple meadow trembling; / Leaves of the great Heaven tree." These sources cited in Simpson's note may well account for Joyce's strikingly unusual word and even for the radiant imagery of the sentence in which it appears. But the following sections of Ithaca show the mythological image being scrutinized, and ultimately discarded, by astronomical meditations that update and subvert the cosmology of Dante.

JH 2022
Gustave Doré's illustration of Inferno 2.1, "Now was the day departing."
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Doré's illustration of Inferno 34.139, "We came forth to see again the stars." Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Richard Hamilton's 1998 digital print The Heaventree of Stars.
Source: Hamilton, Imaging James Joyce's Ulysses.
David Griessel's Spirit Tree, posted to Facebook on 21 June 2021.
Source: www.facebook.com.
"The world tree Yggdrasil (an ash) and some of its inhabitants," an etching by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine printed in Asgard and the Gods (London, 1886).
Source: Wikimedia Commons.