In Brief

When Molly thinks that taking Stephen's semen in her mouth wouldn't be so bad, "even if some of it went down," she searches for equivalents: "what its only like gruel or the dew." The first comparison seems apt enough, given watery oatmeal's color and texture, but why would Molly think of dew? It turns out that Joyce has made the association between semen and dew twice before, in Nausicaa and Oxen of the Sun, and arguably in A Portrait of the Artist as well. In all of these passages the linkage seems to be more intellectual than sensory: dew is refreshing and life-giving, and it has an affinity with intangible spiritual essences.

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The poem that Stephen composes in part 5 of A Portrait comes to him after one of those rapturous dreams that sometimes happen just before waking: "Towards dawn he awoke. O what sweet music! His soul was all dewy wet. Over his limbs in sleep pale cool waves of light had passed. He lay still, as if his soul lay amid cool waters, conscious of faint sweet music. His mind was waking slowly to a tremulous morning knowledge, a morning inspiration. A spirit filled him, pure as the purest water, sweet as dew, moving as music. But how faintly it was inbreathed, how passionlessly, as if the seraphim themselves were breathing upon him! His soul was waking slowly, fearing to awake wholly."

In Dublin's Joyce (1956), Hugh Kenner reads this scene, counter-intuitively but plausibly, as the aftermath of a wet dream (123). The prose speaks only of spiritual realities: inspiration, radiance, "enchantment," "a dream or vision," "the ecstasy of seraphic life." But one detail does evoke sexuality, albeit wrapped in gauzy religious tissue: "O! In the virgin womb of the imagination the word was made flesh. Gabriel the seraph had come to the virgin's chamber." Stephen is the virgin here (a budding poet, about to conceive), but the analogy suggests a sexual dimension to his state of mind, and his thoughts turn immediately afterward to eros. Poetry is born in him when the "white flame" of inspiration deepens to "a rose and ardent light" suggestive of the "strange wilful heart" of a woman who has lured the angels down from heaven. One of the tercets of the villanelle reads, "Your eyes have set man's heart ablaze / And you have had your will of him. / Are you not weary of ardent ways?"

Christian mythology holds that the archangel Gabriel came down from heaven to tell the Virgin Mary that she would be impregnated by the Holy Spirit, symbolized in countless paintings by a dove, and would bear the Son of God. In the first chapter of Ulysses Mulligan makes a mockery of this divine siring—"My mother's a jew, my father's a bird"—and in Proteus Stephen recalls how the French satirist Léo Taxil too imagined Mary being knocked up by a randy pigeon. But the dream passage in A Portrait of the Artist applies the paradigm quite chastely to the fusion of sexuality and spirituality experienced by the writer of a love poem, and Stephen's image of being "all dewy wet" carries over into the later novel. Like the archangel of the Bible and the seraphim of the poem, dew falls from the heavens, bringing new life to earth. Ulysses maintains this metaphorical suggestion while making the moisture explicitly sexual.

In Nausicaa Joyce maps the mounting sexual excitement of Bloom and Gerty onto the fireworks display that both are watching from Sandymount Strand. The moment of climax comes as sparkling stars shoot from a Roman candle and fall from the evening sky: "She would fain have cried to him chokingly, held out her snowy slender arms to him to come, to feel his lips laid on her white brow, the cry of a young girl's love, a little strangled cry, wrung from her, that cry that has rung through the ages. And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind blank and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely! O, so soft, sweet, soft!" The evanscent celestial radiance of A Portrait is here a physical phenomenon, gushing from a phallic cylinder.

The following chapter, Oxen of the Sun, builds upon this conflation of the spiritual and the sexual. With Mrs. Purefoy's baby born, and the bars due to close soon, the young men pour out of the hospital into night air livened by recent rain: "The air without is impregnated with raindew moisture, life essence celestial, glistering on Dublin stone there under starshiny coelum. God's air, the Allfather's air, scintillant circumambient cessile air. Breathe it deep into thee. By heaven, Theodore Purefoy, thou hast done a doughty deed and no botch! Thou art, I vow, the remarkablest progenitor barring none in this chaffering allincluding most farraginous chronicle. Astounding! In her lay a Godframed Godgiven preformed possibility which thou hast fructified with thy modicum of man's work. Cleave to her! Serve! Toil on, labour like a very bandog and let scholarment and all Malthusiasts go hang. Thou art all their daddies, Theodore. Art drooping under thy load, bemoiled with butcher's bills at home and ingots (not thine!) in the countinghouse? Head up! For every newbegotten thou shalt gather thy homer of ripe wheat. See, thy fleece is drenched."

The biblical bushels of nourishing grain that will compensate Mr. Purefoy for his costly begetting (the omer, or "sheaf," was an ancient Hebrew unit of dry measure) are coupled, in these closing sentences, with the heaven-sent moisture that makes plants grow. Dew specifically suggests divine approval. In the book of Judges, Gideon says to his God, "If thou wilt save Israel by mine hand, as thou hast said, Behold I will put a fleece of wool in the floor; and if the dew be on the fleece only, and it be dry upon all the earth beside, then shall I know that thou wilt save Israel by my hand, as thou hast said. And it was so: for he rose up early on the morrow, and thrust the fleece together, and wringed the dew out of the fleece, a bowl full of water" (6:36-38). In these verses dew signifies God's good will toward his nation Israel. In Oxen, by extension, the glistening night air proclaims the divine purpose that has been fulfilled in the maternity hospital: bringing new life into the world. The entire chapter has urged this linkage between procreation and divine approval, and now the linkage is concretized in the association of three fluids: the "raindew moisture" that clings to Dubin's streets, the dew that drenched Gideon's fleece, and the seed which Theodore Purefoy sprinkled on his wife's womb.

In Joyce and Reality: The Empirical Strikes Back (2004), John Gordon briefly remarks on the connection between dew and semen in these four passages and notes one interesting quasi-scientific belief that may have reinforced it in Joyce's mind (26). Ithaca refers to "the continual production of semen by distillation," using the same word that it has earlier applied to dew: "saturation of air, distillation of dew." This sounds reminiscent of early modern humors theories inherited from Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen. In Thicker Than Water: The Origins of Blood as Symbol and Ritual (2014), Melissa Meyer writes of the ancient theories that "All bodily fluids were distilled from blood. Both sexes produced semen. Male sperm was refined from blood, journeyed to the brain, and then flowed downward through the spinal column, the kidneys, and testicles before being ejaculated. Female semen was more like menstrual blood. Heat was transformative. Men had enough heat to refine blood into semen and then on to the supreme form, sperm" (59).

Whatever pseudoscience may be responsible for the notion that semen is produced "by distillation," the effect is to suggest that it is somehow purified, refined. If it is "pure as the purest water, sweet as dew" (Stephen's words in A Portrait), then Molly has nothing to fear from fellatio.

JH 2021
The Annunciation, 1432 tempera on wood panel by Fra Beato Angelico, held in the Prado Museum, Madrid. Source:
Green Gold Fireworks, a photograph by Garry Gay. Source: