For this year’s Bloomsday and the rest of this summer, the Rosenbach’s partner desk display in the historic library is filled with objects that show classic literary influences on James Joyce’s Ulysses. Starting with his introduction (at age 10) to Homer’s Odyssey through Charles Lamb’s school edition, we see that the characters and language of early poets had a profound effect on Joyce.
A tiny book, P. Virgilii Maronis Opera (The Works of Virgil, 1636), and one small line of poetry in it, helps us better understand how Joyce used his knowledge of this ancient poet’s wordplay to create his own vision of a larger-than-life character with an epic role to play in his novel.
Scholars note that the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses is rich in references to the great Latin poet Virgil’s epic work the Aeneid throughout. It is in this episode that Joyce stakes a claim to Irish nationalism based in the country’s antiquity—and he points to Virgil’s poem as a literary model for that claim. Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 8, which relates the mythological battle of Cacus and Hercules, enables Joyce to blend the Virgilian monster and hero into his nationalist character, the Citizen. This is part of a larger, political analysis of the episode. Here, though, let’s look at the words Joyce uses to describe the Citizen, which also point to Virgil, but, as is Joyce’s nature, are an act of literary one-upmanship worthy of note.
In an episode called “Cyclops” we should expect the Citizen to be compared to the monster of ancient epic. But given Joyce’s focus on Virgil’s telling in this episode, let’s look at Aeneid, Book 3, lines 655 – 661, particularly line 658, where the Cyclops is first described—by his given name, Polyphemus:
Due to the norms of Latin poetry, certain words that fall next to certain other words cause what are known as elisions (both the omission of sound and the merging of words, as shown above), joining them together into a two-, three- or—in this case—four-word-long word: monstrhorrendinformingens! Virgil has used the tricks of his trade to make his Cyclops a verbal monster. The text produces a huge sound when read aloud (which was usual) and a visual giant when the reader imagines this single, merged word on the page.
But Joyce will outdo him. In typical fashion, this master of verbal pyrotechnics goes for everything English will allow and even more. In the manuscript, the earliest version of the text (September 1919), he joined every two adjectives together, separating these pairs by commas:
In its first publication in The Little Review in November 1919, we see those commas remain in place:
In page proofs dated 1921, however, he excised the commas, as if to create something closer to the Virgilian model of elisions of all of these compound words to create an uninterrupted, verbal monster:
The absence of commas remains in the 1922 first edition:
This pile-up of adjectives not only makes the Citizen, the symbol of Irish nationalism, enormous as described, but gives Joyce the honor of having out-Polyphemus-ed the great poet Virgil himself!