Cadences in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

By Paul Mirabile

As the reader knows, syntactic and semantic rhythm in James Joyces’s writings was of capital importance. So important in fact that although he was staunchly anti-religious ( due no doubt to his severe religious schooling), the power and the movement of the sermons or homelies he heard when attending the Jesuit Seminary offered him ample linguistic material to contemplate and make full use of, as we shall see, in his A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man[1]. To demonstrate this rhythmic force, I shall succinctly explore Joyce’s adjectival use in chapter three of his 1916 novella, adjectives that function either as noun modifiers, predicate attributes or verbal modifiers[2].

The writing cadence of chapter three can be configured to a descrendo-crescendo movement whose scores of adjectives express the falling and rising of Stephen Dedalus’ inner oscillating,  ambiguous emotions, his existential battle between Good and Evil. Joyce orchestrates, adjectivally, this movement with bombastic brio …

Every adjective, whatever its function be, underscores a movement, strikes up an image which represent the tortures and torments of Stephen Dedalus’ heart and mind, Joyce’s young hero. Each and every adjective rings a note of flat sadness or sharp happiness particular to Stephen’s waning or waxing states of mind. At the outset of chapter three, Joyce takes measure of Stephen’s inner and outer discordance with the following concaténation of adjectives : “December dusk, tumbling, dull day … dullsquare … gloomy, secret night … squalidquarter … devious course … darkcorner, clothlesstable … gawdy playbill … weary mind.” This melancholic opening movement sounds out Stephen’s visions as he roams through the“dulllight” and “colddarkness” of the streets of Dublin, or whilst listening to the sermons of the rector or preacher of his school. All the adjectives underscore Stephen’s terrible emotional ‘decrescendo’ which had been gradually spiralling downwards from the fabulous heights of joy that he had experienced at the end of chapter two.

And yet, the dark and grim adjectives go beyond the mere description of Stephen’s emotional state : they compose the vying forces of Good and Evil that rage within his heart ! In chapter three, Joyce communicates, with frightening precision, the impact of Good and Evil on his protagonist’s mind and body by the descriptions of Hell and sin as depicted by the rector or preacher. These descriptions galvanise the adolescent to such an extent that his only relief, his only vented recourse will be to take refuge in prayer to atone or repent for his sins by confessing them, and this, as I stated above, in spite of his anti-religious sentiments.

Chapter three takes place during a retreat. Stephen has become a prefect[3] at the sodality[4] of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and his contradictory way of life (sleeping with whores) has caused him to reflect upon his ambiguous existence. At first he displayed an apathetic indifference towards these feelings of remorse. Everything around him took on a sullen monotony which slowly seeped into his soul, so that  “a cold, lucid indifference reigned in his soul”. ‘Lucid’ here, albeit etymologically evokes ‘light’, in fact denotes the opposite : a heaviness of spirit, a numbing of the soul. Adjectives such as ‘cold’ and ‘dull’ connote Stephen’s pangs of self-guilt : “The chaos in which his ardour extinguished itself was a cold indifferent knowledge of himself.” The ardour that he experienced in chapter two has now been extinguished, and in its place a coldness of indifference seizes him, whose benumbed iciness he then projects outwards towards his classmates in sullen mockery : “… he glanced coldly at the worshippers” at “their dull piety”.

This projection grows stronger as he ignores his classmates, wrapping himself up within himself. He becomes terribly aware of his tribulations, his tremulous soul, which appear to have gained the upper hand on him. His former preening hauteur has fallen into a “barren pride”. “… the dusk, deepening in the schoolroom, covered over his thoughts.” He felt himself to be “… the swamp of spiritual and bodily sloth in which his whole being had sunk.” Hence, “Stephen’s heart began slowly to fold and fade with fear like a withering flower”. Overwhelmed by the throngs of fear, Stephen’s thoughts and heart sank into a quagmire of self-abomination, highlighted not only by the verbal modifier ‘withering’, but also by the alliterating ‘f’s of ‘fold’, ‘fade’ and ‘fear’ which ‘resonate’ his crying, discordant soul …

It is only when the preacher had begun his sermon that Stephen’s fall — that is, his incapacity to pull himself out of the ‘swamp’-, reaches its vibrant pitch of self-maceration as he listened to the thundering words of the preacher, recalling to the students by enjoinment and injunction the great theological questions of Catholicism. Questions that hammered at our hero’s head, and which brooked no contradiction nor went unchallenged scientifically, the fiery and fearless proof of which drove deep into the souls of those who listened. And although some might not have been sinners, many if not all would inexorably become one ! As to Stephen, he knew his sins to be countless ! “In the silence their dark fire kindled the dusk into a tawny glow. Stephen’s heart had withered up like a flower of the desert that feels the simoon coming from afar.” Joyce’s metaphor of a ‘tawny’ or brownish, darkening glow, and a heart withering as a flower would without water or sunshine, marks his hero as having fallen into the arid, sand-filled vastitude of Evil, unable to refresh his soul with the cleansing waters of Good …

A running parallel develops thus between the preacher’s trenchant words and Stephen’s culpable conscience, transforming the preacher’s words into knives and daggers that cut and slice at his defiled body and spirit. Here the long sermon, filled with brimstone, Judgement, Hell, Fire and Death, made the young boy ponder over his present state of mind both in the chapel and outside it, roaming the streets of Dublin in quest of loose pleasure. The sermon made him reflect upon those unholy nights and days, whoring within the folds of “thick fog …” trapped within “… the fog of his mind” … in the “darkening street”, in “the dull night, and that was life”. Everything about him was laden with a loathing dullness. The adjective ‘dull’, veritable leitmotif, is repeated more than ten times in this chapter, rivalled only by ‘dark’, for ‘dull’ evokes both Stephen’s mental state and his sordid surroundings. It discloses the gravity or weightiness of his mind in the same way that it describes the depraved streets of Dublin, which are indeed both ‘dull’ and ‘dark’. ‘Dark’, too, are his thoughts as he struggles against the forces of Evil which leave : “Stephen’s face pale and drawn[…] his voice broken.”  From those days of debauchery up till that ponderous sermon, his life had been inert, indolent, cloudy, due to the heavy fog that surrounded his heart and mind. Meanwhile, Stephen battled on in “listless despair[…] his dying limbs, his speech thickening and wandering and failing”. Joyce strings out four verbal modifiers which dramatically sound out the present state of his crestfallen hero. And if this terrible decrescendo were not enough, Stephen sees himself already in the grave, left “…to rot, to feed the mass its creeping worms and to be devoured by scuttling plump bellied rats”.

Stephen felt the weight of his sins as he imagined Doomsday to be near in sight : “The universe had become as sackcloth of hair …” “The moon was bloodred …” “The trumpet the brazen of death”.  Religious signs popped up in his mind convincing him of his disloyalty towards God. And as the sermon reached its ringing crescendo, as each adjective struck sensitive chords in Stephen’s tortured mind and body, scenes of unmitigated rack followed one after the other : death, judgement, sin and blare of the trumpet. Joyce records that : “The preacher’s knife had probed deeply into his disclosed conscious and he felt now that his soul was festering in sin.”

Slowly but surely Stephen was being swayed by the preacher’s words in the chapel “flooded by the dull, scarlet light”. “The sordid details of his orgies stank under his very nostrils.” Everything was afire, filled with blood, ‘scarlet’ red. Joyce’s adjectival cadence rhythms Stephen’s suffering: his hero smells the brimstone and fire, tastes the unmitigated heat of the preacher’s admonitions. The images of blood, red for death, are evoked when Stephen imagines the Biblical Flood scene : the drowning people … death ! He soon sees himself as Lucifer, the greatest of all sinners, his hero ; one with whom he could identify himself in view of his present agony. The admonitions drive ever downwards into the very fiery pit of damnation as the preacher raves on and on about Hell, darkness, worms gnawing at eyes, the Devil that saints such as Catherine of Sienna have seen with their own eyes ! His words swell with precise facts and figures to render Stephen’s ordeal both mentally and physically more unbearable : The walls of Hell are four-thousand miles thick, its fires do not burn the flesh but maintain it in eternal torment. “Saint Francis Xavier converted 10.000 souls in just one month !” sermons gravely the sermoniser. These bombastic figures and unchallenged facts are intermingled with eye-witness accounts of Hell written by well-known saints[5]. All these details transform Stephen into Hell itself as he hears a chorus of shrieks ring out in his fissured skull : “His brain was simmering and bubbling within the cracking tenement of the skull. Flames burst forth from his skull like a corolla, shrieking like voices : Hell ! Hell ! Hell ! Hell !”

One may say that every adjective that poured forth from the preacher’s mouth (or Joyce’s pen!) would brand Stephen for life, the imprint or mark of which making him afraid to enter his own room lest Death sweep him away … These terrible moments of guilt, up till his confession, represent Stephen’s imprisoned thoughts seeking sanctuary in a form of self-recognition ; that is, a self-understanding that persuades him that up till then only the Church, or better phrased, the Church’s ‘semantic authority’ had persuaded him to capitualate. For indeed, in the first two chapters the vaunting vainglorious Stephen had refused to apologise to his mother (his family) over a trifling ; had adamantly declined to yield about Lord Byon during a literary dispute before his mates. But now because of the preacher’s booming sermon, he will confess his waywardly ways, and by doing so, acknowledge his faults to God, and more importantly, to himself. He will avow to a father-confessor his contradictory existence. Indeed, the preacher’s reverberating handling of words brought the proud pedant to bay …

Stephen mocked himself during that period. He damned himself. Adjectives such as lusty, unbearable, intolerable, thick, dark and agonizing filled his mind until he vomited them into the wash-basin of his bedroom, so repeatedly had they been beating inside his head.

It is only after the confession of his sins (and they were plentiful!) that we read the beginnings of Stephen’s atonement and repentance, the sharp movement upwards rising from the bowels of Hell, scaling and scaling ever higher, breaking out into some celestial aria where the bombastic crescendo reaches its most airy and consonant strains, acutely measured by the peals of adjectives that now clanged from Joyce’s pen : “His sins trickled from his lips, one by one, trickled in shameful drops from his soul, festering and oozing like a sore, squalid stream of vice. The last sins oozed forth, sluggish, filthy.” The ‘last’ sins of a befallen soul, rhythmed by six of the most abject adjectives, in fact trigger Stephen’s revival, rejuvenation … resuscitation ; glorify his now “purified body”. Indeed, the father confessor’s voice “fell like sweet rain upon his quaking parching heart”.  Stephen’s confession soars him back to the heights of a joyous consonance he had enjoyed in chapter two. Now “the muddy streets were gay. He strode homeward, conscious of an invisible grace pervading and making light his limbs. His soul was made fair and holy once more, holy and happy.” (page 133). Yes, the ‘invisible’ grace is the grace of God whose shining benevolence upon Stephen has been prompted by the preacher’s excellent sermon and the father confessor’s astute forgiveness.

Stephen has indeed overcome Evil by the force of his elders’ well-chosen and -articulated words. We now read adjectives like ‘light’ which qualifies his limbs, those same limbs that at the outset of the chapter were ‘lifeless’. ‘fair’, ‘holy’ and ‘happy’ describe his now cleansed soul, vibrant substitutes for his former ‘dark’ and ‘dull’ soul. ‘Dark’ no longer modifies its nouns, but ‘clear’ and ‘white’ ring out on the pages : “white flowers’, ‘white pudding”. We read ‘morning light’ and no longer the ‘dark night’. ‘White’ flowers is repeated twice : “… white flowers were clear and silent as his own soul”, which, prior to the sermon and his confession, had been withering. He even felt that his classmates were ‘happy’ as they knelt in prayer at the chapel ! Our hero, thus, sums up his resonant revival : it is “beautiful to live”.

The battle between Good and Evil rose to a vibrant finale with Stephen’s triumphant victory. A victory in alliance with the preacher’s timely words which led him to the confession box, and to the father confessor’s humble but firm absolution. And although Stephen does admit that the father confessor’s words were ‘dull’ and ‘tepid’ as compared to the preacher’s horns and trumpets, there is no doubt that the power and vigour of language itself, be it flat or sharp, incited him to abdicate or surrender to his mixed and complicated juvenile emotions in order to receive absolution. For only the force of well-worded phrasings could have brought him to the confession box, could have breached his anti-religious rampart ; could have made him comprehend physically and psychologically the abyss which separates Good from Evil. In short, at the end of chapter three, Stephen’s crestfallen spirits reached the highest of pitches …

Now, whether or not Stephen Dedalus’ spirits will sustain that high pitch along the paths of his long life remains to be seen …      


[1]            A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Penguin Modern Classics, London, England, 1931.

[2]          Verbal modifiers are participles that function as adjectives. Another term for predicate attributes is attribute complement.

[3]            A senior pupil in a religious school who maintains discipline.

[4]            A place of retreat where a group of people spend a period of seclusion in prayer and meditation.

[5]          For example Saint Theresa of Avila in her El Libro de la Vida (The Book of Life)..

Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.



Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s