James Joyce was only 9 years old when he published his first poem.
Today marks the 81st anniversary of the death of James Joyce: novelist, poet, and kind and cutting critic. Joyce had a full-to-the-brim writing and publishing life—that started when he was only nine years old, when his father published and distributed a poem Joyce had written, even sending a copy to the Pope.
The poem in question: a verse about the recently deceased Irish politician Charles Stuart Parnell, who was removed from Parliament after his long-time adultery was made public. No copies of the poem are known to exist, and the full text is lost to time—but Joyce’s brother Stanislaus, in Recollections of James Joyce, described it as “a diatribe against the supposed traitor, Tim Healy, who had ratted at the bidding of the Catholic bishops and become a virulent enemy of Parnell, and so the piece was an echo of those political rancours that formed the theme of my father’s nightly half-drunken rantings to the accompaniment of vigorous table-thumping.” In fact, the poem—possibly retroactively titled by Joyce’s father—was called “Et Tu, Healy” . . . so you get the emotional gist.
Stanislaus recalled a snippet from the end, where the dead Parnell is compared to an eagle, looking down on the Irish politicians from:
His quaint-perched aerie on the crags of Time
Where the rude din of this . . . century
Can trouble him no more.
Sounds pretty highbrow for a 9-year-old—but according to Stanislaus, Joyce listened to a lot of drawing-room ballads, and picked up the tone there.
Joyce’s mirroring of his father’s Irish nationalist political views likely contributed to how excited his father was about the poem—which was very excited. John Joyce had it printed and distributed the broadsheets to all his friends—and, of course, to the Pope. Said Stanislaus, “The production was much admired by my father and his circle of friends, whose judgement, in questions of literature at least, was as immature as the budding author’s.”
Of course, writers don’t stay proud of their earliest work—but that early publication experience, and his father’s role in it, made an impact. Joyce memorializes that early poem in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in a scene that indicates the poem’s origin:
– Sons of bitches! cried Mr Dedalus. When [Parnell] was down they turned on him to betray him and rend him like rats in a sewer. Low-lived dogs! And they look it! By Christ, they look it!
– They behaved rightly, cried Dante. They obeyed their bishops and their priests. Honour to them!
When Stephen Dedalus goes away to school, he “saw himself sitting at his table in Bray the morning after the discussion at the Christmas dinner table, trying to write a poem about Parnell on the back of one of his father’s second moiety notices. But his brain had then refused to grapple with the theme and, desisting, he had covered the page with the names and addresses of certain of his classmates.” Joyce’s fictionalization of the poem indicates a kind of displacement from the idea—that the idea was in fact his father’s.
Stanislaus also recounted a sad image: that in the first draft of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce refers to the broadsheets—in which Stephen Dedalus had taken such pride—“lying on the floor torn and muddied by the boots of the furniture removers.”
Don’t worry, young Joyce! There will be more poems. Many more poems.