“Wolsey died in Leicester Abbey
Where the abbots buried him.
Canker is a disease of plants,
Cancer one of animals.”
This little ditty is from ‘Doctor Cornwell’s Spelling Book’; a book which, as its title suggests, is there for young children to learn their spelling. However, already at a tender age, Stephen Dedalus – the Artist and protagonist of the novel – acts in the spirit of his (sur)namesake and, like the Ovid’s narration of the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, he ‘flies above’ the literal and the common. For Dedalus, “they were like poetry but they were only sentences to learn the spelling from”.
This is Stephen’s constant predicament in the real world that Ireland presented to him. This is the world of Charles Stuart Parnell, Bishop Lanigan and Terence Bellew MacManus. For this reason, Stephen famously supplicates: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead”. Stephen’s affiliation with a higher power seems to form part and parcel with his artistic sensibility, and it can be understood in Stephen’s
Parnell | "the uncrowned king of Ireland"
contemplation of the priestly vocation. Like the priest, the artist ‘transubstantiates’ the mundane into the divine; and therefore, one can understand the lure of this life for Stephen. What is perhaps slightly perplexing is the role that the hell-fire sermon of the Jesuit plays in the narrative structure. Dragging on for several pages, this fervent sermon successfully reaches its aim of leading all the boys to confession. However, it can be taxing on the reader and it can also be too unattractive a diversion from the main plot. Having said this, by the end of it, I felt so immersed in the supernatural world it conjures up that that the resulting effect was almost one of being purged by the language itself.