The poem Lycidas in James Joyce's Ulysses

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001

13 Pages, Grade: 1,5

Free online reading



1. Introduction

2. The Opening Chapters of “Ulysses”

3. The Role of “Lycidas” in the Opening Chapters
3.1. Formal Aspects
3.2. Aspects in Content

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

The references to other pieces of literature play an important role In James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. The title itself, alluding to Homer’s Odyssey, is the first of such references to be found when reading the book. Other famous examples are Stephen Dedalus’ treatment of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Chapter 12, which is a parody of different styles of literature. As the reader should expect of a work deeply concerned with religious matters, John Milton also is one of the poets whose works are frequently being referred to throughout “Ulysses”. While the poems “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained” (to a lesser degree also “Samson Agonistes”) are those among Milton’s poems which are used the most by Joyce, the poem “Lycidas” plays a central role in the 2nd chapter. The fact that it is placed so early in the book makes the poem’s meaning to the book very special, even more so, as one has to keep in mind that the structure of “Ulysses” is elementary for the understanding of its contents.

2. The Opening Chapters of “Ulysses”

Considering the fact that “Ulysses” as a whole is a reference to the “Odyssey”, it is connected to the root of all literature. Although, it can not be said that it follows any classical guidelines. On the contrary, Joyce’s work was revolutionary in its time and even today it is considered as unique in style, structure and language.

From this point of view it should seem unlikely for it to feature an exposition as in classical drama. Nonetheless, one may argue that at least the first two chapters serve as an exposition in the original sense, meaning it provides for the reader all the main issues dealt with in the text and also two of the main characters (Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan). This would satisfy the definition of a classical exposition. The only reservation might be seen in the fact that the protagonist Leopold Bloom is not introduced until the 4th chapter.

In the first chapter of “Ulysses”, Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan are presented to the reader and with them an Englishman called Haines. This already introduces the issue of nationalism as well as religion because it arouses the historical dispute in the relationship between England and Ireland and also the Anglican church and the Irish Catholics. A first distinct treatment of the problem of national identity is on page 16:

“- He’s English, Buck Mulligan said, and he thinks we ought to speak Irish in Ireland.
- Sure we ought to, the old woman said, and I’m ashamed I don’t speak the language myself. I’m told it’s a grand language by them that knows.
- Grand is no name for it, said Buck Mulligan. Wonderfully entirely.”[1]

The issue of religion is more significantly presented by the underlying drama of Stephen’s mother’s death. On page 4, Mulligan says: “You could have knelt down, damn it, Kinch, when your dying mother asked you.” [2]. He is referring to Stephen’s refusal to kneel down at his mother’s deathbed and subdue to the catholic ritual. Stephen was not able to simulate what he did not really feel, something that appears incomprehensible to Mulligan. Beryl Schlossmann writes: “For Mulligan, Catholic ritual is without meaning; Stephen’s refusal seems to him absurd, skewed, perverse.[3] While Mulligan does not see any meaning in Catholicism, Stephen, even though he is against it, takes it very seriously.

Another central topic introduced in this chapter is Shakespearean literature: Mulligan tells Haines about Stephen’s treatment of “Hamlet” while they are walking to the beach. Moreover, the relative poverty of the Irish people is mentioned (Mulligan paying the milk-woman), the problem of paternity (Stephen’s staying at Mulligan’s house instead of his father’s) and the theme of the sea engulfing Ireland and its destructive power (the drowned man and the walk to the beach). All of these themes and topics keep recurring throughout the book.

In the second chapter, the introduction goes on. This time, William Blake and John Milton are dealt with in terms of literature. Mr. Deasy, in difference to Mulligan’s more parodic nationalism, represents the true Irish hard-line-nationalist (We are all Irish, all king’s sons.” [4] ) He hates the Jews and is of the opinion that “a woman brought sin into the world” [5], thus introducing the theme of Jews and that of women to the reader. Furthermore, criticism on the Irish school system (a boy copying things in order to learn something), the foot and mouth disease and Stephen’s errand to have Deasy’s article printed in newspapers, history and war (Stephen: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”[6] ) and also Stephen’s self-determination to be “preaching the beauty of art” and his sense that this is in danger of becoming undermined by the horror of his mother’s death are additional recurring topics mentioned for the first time.

The third chapter provides a unique stylistic device in the first place: the inner monologue is introduced to the reader. Here, the structure of “Ulysses” becomes quite comprehensible. It is not likely to assume that Joyce at this point already had in mind that he would realise an inner monologue as radically as he did in the final chapter of “Ulysses”. His first attempt in chapter three is far from that most radical representation of an inner monologue. It is more likely that Joyce himself developed his stylistic devices while writing the book. As to contents, it is difficult to say whether Stephen’s intellectual broodings can be understood as having exposition-character as well.

Following this line of thought, one must come to the conclusion that, since in chapter four (which is also the first chapter of the second book) the main character Bloom with his wife and the issue of sexuality are introduced, the exposition is carried out as far as into the fourth chapter. Moreover, one might discover new issues, important characters and revolutionary stylistic devices in each of the following chapters. Still, there are good reasons for perceiving at least the first two chapters as an exposition in “Ulysses”; this may be intended or unintended. If it was the author’s intention to have those chapters appear as an exposition to his work, one could ascribe the fact that Bloom is not introduced until the fourth chapter to the circumstance that Joyce wanted to follow the structure of the “Odyssey”, in which Odysseus is also not introduced right at the beginning despite his being the main character of the epic.

3. The Role of Lycidas in the Opening Chapters

John Milton’s poem “Lycidas”, which is a pastoral lamentation of the deceased Edward King, fellow student to Milton, is cited in the classroom-scene in the second chapter on page 30 and 31. Joyce put the words into a pupil’s mouth, who had to read out the poem. There are also words of the poem interwoven with Stephen’s thoughts when listening:

“Of him that walked the waves. Here also over these craven hearts his shadow lies and on the scoffer’s heart and lips and on mine.”[7]

“He, who walked the waves” leads Stephen to think of Jesus Christ, which is also what is meant in the poem. Stephen moves on from these lines to a consideration of a quotation from the new Testament originally used by Jesus to answer a Pharisee trick question supposed to make him guilty of contesting the Roman emperor’s power: shall the Jews pay taxes to the Roman emperor or not? Jesus eludes the danger by saying that since the emperor’s picture is on the Roman coins, they belong to him but the Jews’ believe belongs to God.

Besides showing his technique of trying to present human lines of thought as close to reality as possible, Joyce also draws a connection between “Lycidas”, The Catholic church and Stephen’s mother’s death. From pondering over the biblical quotation, Stephen moves on to challenge the pupils with a riddle, the solution to which he announces as “the fox burying his grandmother under a hollybush” [8] . He breaks into nervous laughter, because the actual solution has “mother” instead of “grandmother”. This is due to his sense of guilt connected with that matter.[9]

The Catholic church comes into play by considering that it has its origin in Ancient Rome and that their leaders were said to be greedy and corrupt. The free giving away money to the worldly leaders was not their view of things. Thus, they were rather like the Pharisees in the New Testament. Another connection is to the topic of the Jews for they are disliked by the Catholics.

This offers access to the meaning of “Lycidas” to Joyce’s work. The role it plays in the first chapters can be divided into formal aspects and aspects in content.

3.1. Formal Aspects

The surroundings of the “Lycidas” quotes is interspersed with allusions to some of the central issues of “Ulysses”. Keeping in mind the expositional character of the opening chapters, one can transfer this idea to Milton’s poem as well. “Lycidas” is considered to be Milton’s earliest important work, therefore, it might serve as an exposition of Milton’s thoughts and ideas dealt with later on in “Ulysses”. The poem actually provides an access to Milton’s central ideas: the role of poetry in life, the religious argument in the England of his days, an evaluation of purity and chastity against sin and his thoughts about death and what follows it. “Lycidas” does not give the reader Milton’s final thoughts on those matters but it is a first tackling of them.

On the one hand, this can be seen as a parallel to Joyce’s first approaching of the main topics of “Ulysses” in the first chapters of the work. On the other hand, there seems to be a parallel to the young Stephen, who is at the start of his intellectual career after having finished his school education. Milton was 29 when he wrote the poem and was also at the beginning of his career as a poet as well as a minister. This division of Milton’s occupations delivers the next parallel: “Lycidas“ marked a turning point in the poet’s life. For many years, it was going to be his only important work. L. Martin Evans interprets the central question of the poem like this: ” Instead of writing poems, shouldn’t John Milton be ministering to the religious needs of his fellow countrymen?[10] John Milton seems to be in doubt of the power of poetry when considering Edward King‘s death, who had had similar goals to those of John Milton. Stephen Dedalus feels alienated from his former decision of “preaching the beauty of art “, as well. In his case it is also someone’s death that causes the alienation. His refusal to act according to Catholic ritual at his mother’s deathbed made him not only feel guilty but also ponder about religious concerns which he previously believed to have left behind when leaving the Jesuit college he was attending in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man“. He is obviously in a very similar condition as Milton was when he was confronted with the drama and inexplicability of death.

A third formal aspect which might have been a reason to locate the quotation of “Lycidas” at the beginning of “Ulysses“ could be that it was criticised as being to formal in order to express sincere emotion[11]. This is a hint towards Stephens rejection of Catholic ritual which also might be argued to be too artificial to express real sorrow. This is not a safe assumption, though, since that would mean that Stephen or at least Joyce does not agree with the poem’s argument, which again would question whether Joyce agrees with its argument at all.

3.2. Aspects in Content

The subjects dealt with in “Lycidas” are of special concern to the figure of Stephen Dedalus and many connections can be drawn to the contents of “Ulysses”. The role Milton played in the religious development in England probably made a consideration of his works indispensable for James Joyce because religion is the key to the quarrel between the British and the Irish people, which is described on numerous occasions in “Ulysses”. Besides, it is just logical, that the views of Milton are of strong interest to an author like Joyce, to whom religious and political matters were as important as they were to John Milton, as well.

A first hint towards the contents of “Lycidas” is the mentioning of a drowned man mentioned in the first chapter of “Ulysses”. The connection to the drowned student who is lamented in Milton’s poem can only be assumed but it seems to hit on the subject of the lethal power of the sea engulfing Ireland. The sea made Ireland safe in former times because it made it difficult to attack the country but in the course of history, it was exactly England’s powerful fleet that made it superior to Ireland. Thus, the sea is described as a destructive force.

There is a pun, though, which also suggests another view: on page 29, Stephen considers Kingstown Pier as a “disappointed bridge”. The notes to that say, that, in Joyce’s view, the pier “failed dismally to link Ireland more closely to European values”.[12] This shows, that Joyce was not happy with Ireland’s situation but that he definitely does not share the nationalist patriotism.

A more obvious connection between the two literary works is the dealing with religious affairs. One famous quote from “Lycidas” is:

“Blind Mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold

A sheep-hook, or have learned aught else the least

That to the faithful herdman’s art belongs!”[13]

This is a distinct criticism on both the Anglican and the Catholic church. The “Blind Mouths” describe defunct church ministers: a bishop means a person who sees, a pastor means a person who feeds.[14] To Milton, they were not doing what they were supposed to. This should not be misunderstood to be a criticism only on the Catholic church (suggested in the words “grim wolve with privy paw”, which of course criticises the Catholics). As Georgia Christopher puts it:

“while England defined itself as a Protestant nation over the largely Roman Catholic continent, Milton defined himself over against Protestant Opponents at home;...The hierarchical system of governance, he argues, should be replaced by assemblies of divines and laymen – the form of church government that he finds the New Testament advocating.”[15]

Milton had his own views of how to enact ministry and found the church ministers incapable of doing good service. They “scarce know how to hold a sheep-hook” and thus are inadequate to the picture that Jesus Christ offered in the New Testament, when he described himself as a herdman and the people as his sheep. Milton documented his criticism on church policies in a work titled “On Church Government”. His views locate him spiritually surprisingly close to the figure of Stephen Dedalus. He also is critical towards the institution “church”, but despite his decision of “non serviam” in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”[16] takes religion very seriously, a circumstance due to his mother’s death[17]. That incident reversed his decision not to serve into a melancholy brooding about religious matters. This seriousness makes Stephen so different from Buck Mulligan, who is constantly mocking religion.

The subject of dying is another thing that connects “Lycidas” to “Ulysses”, only that Milton laments a young friend who died a sudden and unexpected death, while Stephen’s mother was already of a considerable age and died from illness, not from an accident. Still, it is obvious that Joyce also had a point in making her passing away appear sudden and unexpected as well. Stephen receives a telegram telling him: “Mother dying come home father[18]. Although, Stephen, in difference to Milton, had had the possibility to take his farewell, he did not grasp the opportunity, so that he actually is in a very similar situation as John Milton: both lament the death of a loved person whom they could not say good-bye to. Stephen was unwilling to subdue to Catholic ritual and Edward King was drowned after an accident.

What ties these two situations even closer together are the consequences that follow each of the tragic experiences. Milton decides that poetry is not as powerful, as he had previously thought it to be. This idea is developed in the course of “Lycidas”. Edward King was a poet just like the author himself and his dying away previous to his possible career made Milton realise mortality in a cruel way and, as Evans writes, must have disturbed his confidence in the Muses::

“This boundless confidence in the Muse’s capacity to protect her followers from the ills of the world must have been severely shaken by the death of Edward King.”[19]

Thus, Milton reconsiders his decision to become a great poet and decides to concentrate completely on ministering. According to the opinion of his time, a poet, in order to be productive, had to live in chastity and retirement. This is exactly what he had done in his college years and also what Stephen Dedalus had done in the Jesuit college he spent his school years in. He wanted to concentrate on arts but after the crucial experience of death comes back to the subject of religion. Both Milton and Stephen revised their aims in consideration of a tragic event. There is another similarity in their actual fates: Stephen went to Paris after having left the Jesuits and John Milton also had lived in that city for a while, only that Stephen returned from there when his mother was dying and the poet went to Paris after his friend had deceased.

In developing his new view of the power of poetry, John Milton hits on another interesting subject: the story of Orpheus. According to the legend, he also spent his days following the Muse of poetry but was eventually killed by women, because he refused to yield to their temptations. The strict decision to live in chastity cannot prevent him from dying a brutal death and again, in Milton’ eyes, the Muses deny a deserved reward.[20]

It is not likely that Joyce wanted to imply the importance of the Orpheus theme for his character Stephen Dedalus because in his days, that theme was not as prevalent anymore as it was in the 17th century. “Orpheus’s power to move the natural world with his song as a symbol of the power of poetry[21] is a Renaissance view and not consistent with James Joyce’s literary activities.

Nonetheless, the violence inflicted by women in the Orpheus-tale is interesting when considering which role is assigned to women in “Ulysses”. In chapter two, Mr. Deasy tells Stephen that “a woman brought sin into the world[22], implying the story from the Garden of Eden and lists a few further examples for sin-bringing females. One must not make the mistake that Joyce voices his own opinion here because Deasy is the prototype of an Irish nationalist, which of course is a group the author was very critical against. To see women as the root of all evil was probably a prominent statement in the Ireland of that time even more so since most Irish people were Catholics (Joyce repeated this thought in the Cyclops-Chapter, which can also be considered as the “Nationalism-Chapter”).

In the course of “Ulysses”, the reader encounters only few female characters of greater importance. One who certainly is of some significance is only present in memory since she had died previous to the events of the book. Stephen Dedalus’s mother has a strong impact on her son due to the already mentioned conflict. Stephen feels guilty but at the same time reproaches his mother for having tried to make him surrender to Catholic ritual all the more so as that was the last thing she ever asked him for. The connection is this: Orpheus’ death was brought about by women to whose requests he was not willing to yield. Now, Stephen, after not yielding to his mother, is not dying but feels tormented. One could say that he feels torn apart in the conflict of his conscience and that is exactly what the women are said to have done with Orpheus in the saga: he “was torn limp to limp[23]. The only reservation to this theory is that this is not actually expressed in Milton’s poem, it only says: “When by the rout that made the hideous roar, His gory visage down the stream was sent[24]. The question is whether Joyce was likely to think of this special passage and the events of the saga lying behind Milton’s verses.

Another important female character is Molly Bloom. She also appears as a negative figure at first sight: she is an adulteress and in her inner monologue is constantly thinking of sex. Taking a second look, one realises, that her husband Leopold is not altogether irresponsible for the situation of their married life and that their son’s death is what caused their dilemma. Taking into account how Leopold Bloom thinks about women and their sexual appeal, Molly appears as presenting no exception to the rule. Joyce was obviously trying to show that sexual thoughts are present in most human minds and that there was nothing bad about them.

Looking at it this way, Stephen’s reproach can not be understood as general condemnation of women but is due to a conflict aroused by Catholic education. For his mother, it is unbearable not to have reconciled her son with the Catholic church before she died. For Stephen, it is unbearable to surrender to her will because he does not want to fake something as important as religious belief.

4. Conclusion

It is hard to say if James Joyce was really thinking of the opening chapters of his work to be an exposition. What causes doubts is the later introduction of Leopold Bloom, whom he spends the most time with during “Ulysses”. Nevertheless, at least the first two chapters function as an exposition as to the significant subjects of the book. It is possible to say that Bloom has his own exposition of his character and personal concerns (such as sex and food). On the other hand it might be just logical to present all the important topics of a literary work at the beginning of it. Anyway, it appears unique to hit on so many different subjects within a few pages when reading a one-thousand-pages book with enough space to develop and discuss every topic for itself and try to find a general conclusion. However, general conclusions were definitely not what Joyce had in mind when writing “Ulysses”. Maybe he was one of the first authors to realise that there is more than one way of looking at the world.

The importance of “Lycidas” can hardly be disputed. The similarities in contents are striking but again, one should be careful to misunderstand it as a substitute for Joyce’s own statements. Milton, in his time, was a unique poet and very critical towards church. Still, he used the bible for his poems a lot as in “Paradise Lost” (Satan’s Fall), “Paradise Regained” (Temptation of Jesus by Satan) or “Lycidas” (Marriage in heaven as pronounced by Jesus Christ). Joyce was also unique and critical towards church but unlike Milton, he was not a great believer and was far from making biblical events the subjects of his works.

Concluding, it is striking to find so many similar topics (church-matters, poetry, women, death and the power of the sea) in two pieces of literature which are almost 300 years apart and are so different in form. “Lycidas” certainly is not Milton’s most important work and plays by far a lesser role in world literature than “Ulysses” and “Paradise Lost” but maybe this is also why it stands at the beginning of Joyce’s work, at a point at which the author is disconnecting the wires between “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Ulysses”. Just like “Lycidas” for Milton, “A Portrait..” was a first important work for Joyce who might consider “Ulysses” as his first mature work, to which the former novel had levelled the way.


Joyce, James. Ulysses: Annotated Student’s Edition. London, 1992.

Schlossmann, Beryl. Joyce’s Catholic Comedy of Language. Madison, 1985.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York, 1916.

Carey, John and Alastair Fowler. The Poems of John Milton. London, 1965.

A Cambridge Companion to Milton. Cambridge, 1999.

The Bible


[1] Joyce, James. Ulysses: Annotated Student's Edition. London, 1992.

[2] Joyce, James. Ulysses: Annotated Student's Edition. London, 1992.

[3] Schlossmann, Beryl: Joyce’s Catholic Comedy of Language. Madison, 1985.

[4] Joyce, James. Ulysses: Annotated Student‘s Edition. London, 1992.

[5] Joyce, James. Ulysses: Annotated Student‘s Edition. London, 1992.

[6] Joyce, James. Ulysses: Annotated Student‘s Edition. London, 1992.

[7] Joyce, James. Ulysses: Annotated Student‘s Edition. London, 1992.

[8] Joyce, James. Ulysses: Annotated Student’s Edition. London, 1992.

[9] Joyce, James: Ulysses: Annotated Student’s Edition. London, 1992.

[10] Evans, J. Martin. Lycidas. In: A Cambridge Companion to Milton. Cambridge, 1999.

[11] Evans, J. Martin. Lycidas. In: A Cambridge Companion to Milton. Cambridge, 1999.

[12] Joyce, James. Ulysses: Annotated Student’s Edition. London, 1992.

[13] Milton, John. Lycidas. In: The Poems of John Milton. London, 1965.

[14] Carey, John and Alastair Fowler. The Poems of John Milton. London, 1965.

[15] Christopher, Georgia. Milton and the Reforming Spirit. In: A Cambridge Companion to Milton. Camebridge, 1999.

[16] Schlossmann, Beryl. Joyce’s Catholic Comedy of Language. Madison, 1985.

[17] Schlossmann, Beryl. Joyce’s Catholic Comedy of Language. Madison, 1985.

[18] Schlossmann, Beryl. Joyce’s Catholic Comedy of Language. Madison, 1985.

[19] Evans, J. Martin. Lycidas. In: A Cambridge Guide to Milton. London, 1995.

[20] Evans, J. Martin. Lycidas. In: A Cambridge Companion to Milton. London, 1999.

[21] Evans, J. Martin. Lycidas. In: A Cambridge Companion to Milton. London, 1999.

[22] Joyce, James. Ulysses: Annotated Student’s Edition. London, 1992.

[23] Evans, J. Martin. Lycidas. In: A Cambridge Companion to Milton. London, 1999.

[24] Milton, John. Lycidas. In: Milton’s Complete Works. London, 1965.

13 of 13 pages


The poem Lycidas in James Joyce's Ulysses
University of Hannover  (Englisches Seminar)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
394 KB
This paper works out how the poem Lycidas is interwoven especially with the opening Chapters of James Joyce's most popular work. It also takes a view on the rest of the book and on its formal setup.
Lycidas, James, Joyce, Ulysses
Quote paper
Guido Scholl (Author), 2001, The poem Lycidas in James Joyce's Ulysses, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The poem Lycidas in James Joyce's  Ulysses

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free