Friday, February 11, 2011

A Haiku Moment in James Joyce's The Dead

Note:  In order to give a break to reader's who have patiently followed the first two installments (one and two) of my review of The Little Treasury of Haiku, I've decided to post this take on a very particular aspect of the lyricism of James Joyce's "The Dead."  Next week will be the 3rd and final installment, whether I'm done or not.


The climactic moments of James Joyce's seminal story "The Dead" are among the most renowned in the history of Western literature. The story is relatively simple though, as with all things Joyce, its unveiling is subtle, precise, and powerful.

Gabriel Conroy and his wife, Greta, attend Christmas festivities in Dublin at the home of his elderly aunts, the story being set around the beginning of the 20th century. In the telling, the story is rich with interior revelation, and what is ultimately discovered is that Greta is pining away for her long dead lover, Michael Furey.

Gabriel finds himself left in the impotent position of being jealous of a dead man. Greta has cried herself to sleep in a fit of sorrow and Gabriel sits by his wife, thinking, and gradually begins to fall asleep himself.  The snow hitting upon the window pane echoes the gravel thrown against Greta's window by dying Michael Furey.

That's all you need to know to read the closing moments of this fine story, which I will quote at length for their beauty alone (if you haven't read the story and wish to, or haven't read it in awhile, you can find it here or download and listen to it here):

She was fast asleep.

Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death.

Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt's supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover's eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel's eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

The last paragraph is really unparalleled in lyric prose, as fine a passage in English as ever written.

So, how did we arrive here, you may ask?  While reading a classic winter haiku the other day, I was suddenly reminded of this scene from "The Dead " and was struck by how very Eastern, in both spirit and execution, the moment is.

Snow falling, falling, gently falling, over all, the living and the dead.  In that thought is the essence of haiku itself, in both philosophy and revelation.  In the narrator's mind, he suddenly envisions how we all, the dead and the living, are unified in nature,  the soft covering of snow enveloping us acting as a reminder of what we often casually repress.  We are one with the earth and with life, its transitory nature and its eternal now.

You may see a cinematic replication of this final scene on youtube: it comes from John Huston's excellent adaptation, which finally found its way to DVD at the end of 2010.

Obviously, the universal quality of this moment crosses cultures and time; it is, simply put, the human condition.  But whenever evoked by an artist of the quality of a Joyce or Buson, an Austen or a Bashō, that very simplicity is revealed in a richness and texture which makes everything worthwhile.

Another great master, R. H. Blyth, was fond of finding haiku in Western art so, though it is seemingly odd, it is also interesting that Mr. Joyce makes two appearances at the Hut in the same week.


This week's Lilliput Review archive poems shared the same page from issue #137, May 2004.  Here they electronically replicate that feat.  Enjoy.

Cemetery gate
swinging back and forth
meeting shadows of maples
Rebecca Lily

two years since your death ...
in this September sky
a contrail
Pamela Miller Ness

First Month--
at the cat's grave too
plum blossoms
translated by David G. Lanoue


Send a single haiku for the Wednesday Haiku feature.  Here's how.

Go to the LitRock web site for a list of all 89 songs

Hear 'em all at once on the the LitRock Jukebox


Charles Gramlich said...

I read "the Dead " quite a long time ago. I don't remember a lot about it now but maybe I should reread.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Well worth another go, Charles.

Lyle Daggett said...

Might be worth mentioning that "The Dead" is included in Joyce's short story collection Dubliners. I've read the first few stories in the book, though haven't yet read "The Dead," which is the last story in the book. It's on my long list... I agree, the passage you've quoted here is just exquisite.

I did see the film years back, late 1980's when it came out. It was, as I recall, the last film John Huston directed. Angelica Huston was one of the actors in the movie -- I think it was the first film I saw her in.

I remember an amusing moment, incidentally connected with the film back when it was first in theaters. I ran into a friend one day, at an intersection a few blocks from my apartment, about a half block from the movie theater where "The Dead" was playing at the time here. We talked for a minute, and my friend said that a little later that day she was planning to go and see the Grateful Dead movie.

"The Grateful Dead movie? Where's that showing?"

"Right there." And she pointed at the nearby theater, with "The Dead" on the marquee.

I gently explained to her that the movie wasn't actually about the Grateful Dead, and told her a little about what it actually was about.

"Oh." She seemed a little sheepish, and disappointed. I said I though it was a pretty good movie, although I allowed as how it would have been a little weird to go in expecting a Grateful Dead concert film, and finding a story by James Joyce.

I'm not sure if she wound up going to the movie or not.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Someone, via email, complimented me on the post on the Dead and, for a moment, I thought about the Dead song I posted recently on the Sunday Service. So I can relate to your friend's mistake.

There really is so much to be said about the Huston movie, as there is about "Dubliners," which I believe is Joyce's greatest book. My reason for this is simple: though "Portrait" and "Ulysses" are more challenging and, in the case of the later, a great story, "Dubliners" is the most accessible of his great books.

And it resonates like hell.

The movie I've used in introductory poetry classes for lifelong learners, specifically the recitation scene of the Lady Gregory translation of "Donal Og." The scene never fails to grab the viewer.

Also, I've read that Angelica Huston was really a huge help to her father in directing the movie, as he himself was dying at the time.

Claudius said...

I've been seeing haiku in Finnegans Wake and in Ulysses. Although I love Dubliners I hadn't spotted this until now. For both Joyce and Beckett I see their best poetry in their prose work.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Thanks very much for the note. I've been 'seeing' haiku here and there in the works of so many writers.

Most interesting is your point that for both Beckett and Joyce their finest poetry is in their prose. I believe this to be very much true, though traditionalists might argue form (which Joyce was masterly at in Chamber Music and Pomes Pennyeach) I do come down firmly on your side of the argument.