Poem of the Week

Mocking Signs: James Joyce Translates Pain Into Epiphany

The Irish poet suffered excruciating physical backache while inventing Leopold Bloom’s raunchy musings in “Ulysses,” celebrated this week.

A statue of James Joyce in Zurich's Fluntern cemetery, where he is buried.
Reuters

Bahnhofstrasse

James Joyce

The eyes that mock me sign the way
Whereto I pass at eve of day.

Grey way whose violet signals are
The trysting and the twining star.

Ah star of evil! star of pain!
Highhearted youth comes not again

Nor old heart's wisdom yet to know
The signs that mock me as I go.

First published on August 15, 1919, in the Anglo-French Review, London.

A lapsed Catholic, James Joyce irreverently repurposed religious materials. This poem is what he dubbed an “epiphany”– a sudden and personal revelation in a life-altering moment. Everything has changed here, for the worse: “Highhearted youth comes not again.”

He based “Bahnhofstrasse” on an experience in Zurich on August 18, 1918. Later that week he wrote to Ezra Pound: “On Saturday when walking in the Street I got suddenly a violent Hexenschuss (lower back pain) which incapacitated me from moving for about twenty minutes. I managed to crawl into a tram and get home. It got better in the evening but next day I had symptoms of glaucoma again – slightly better today.”

With poetic license to rearrange facts, in the poem Joyce transferred symptoms of glaucoma to the lumbago attack, and referenced New Testament events in the emphatically repeated words.

For James Joyce, a Via Dolorosa started here. Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich, ca. 1920.
Wikipedia

“Mock” at the beginning and end recalls the Gospels’ reports of the mocking of Jesus as he made his own painful way between condemnation and crucifixion. Thus “way,” also repeated, becomes Via Dolorosa.

“Star” is repeated thrice, recalling the event celebrated on the Christian Feast of the Epiphany: the Magis’ journey to Bethlehem, led by a star – in the familiar carol “We Three Kings,” a “star of wonder, star of night,” transformed into “star of evil! Star of pain!” 

Moreover, in German, cataract is grauer Star and glaucoma is grüner Star.

As used in the New Testament, the repeated word “sign” means portent.

Through years of debilitating health woes, Joyce pursued the monumental project of “Ulysses,” which as he himself said, is "based on the wanderings of Ulysses Only my time is recent time and all my hero's wanderings take no more than eighteen hours."

Physical weakness did not destroy Joyce’s lust for life and the stream of consciousness in “Ulysses” contains many (often very funny) graphic descriptions of pleasures of the flesh – so much so that it became a precedent for defining pornography in the United States: In 1933 a federal judge ruled against banning the book, since it did not contain “dirt for dirt’s sake.”

One of the two main characters in “Ulysses” is Leopold Bloom, son of a Hungarian Jewish immigrant to Ireland and an Irish Protestant mother. Fans celebrate Bloomsday on the anniversary of his peregrinations in Dublin – June 16, 1904  – with readings and revelry.

*Try this at home: Download the free audiobook and this app. Visit your nearest Irish pub.

*Bonus: Three-minute “Ulysses”.

Ulysses by James Joyce condensed into 3 minutes. YouTube