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David Collard on James Joyce's poetry

"There once was a writer called Joyce"

When The Poetry of James Joyce Reconsidered (edited by Mark C. Connor) was published by the University of Florida Press in 2012, the series editor Sebastian D. G. Knowles wrote in his foreword, almost apologetically, that this was "quite improbably, the first book of essays on Joyce's poetry" and that all of the content drew on the "exiguous extant scholarship".

The two collections of poetry published in Joyce's lifetime – Chamber Music (1907) and Pomes Penyeach (1927) – were brought together as Collected Poems in 1936. There were also two satirical broadsides "The Holy Office" (1904) and "Gas from a Burner" (1912), as well as various bits and pieces. None of it has aged very well. With a distinct whiff of the fin de siècle, Joyce's poetry seems out of step with the modernism of his contemporaries Eliot and Pound and Gertrude Stein and, come to that, with his own achievements in prose. Joyce's poetry has always been, and will always be, entirely overshadowed by his novels. There isn't a line in any of his poems to match "the heaventree of stars hung with humid night blue fruit" in Ulysses.

Joyce enjoyed making up limericks, and Ellmann's biography lists around twenty examples, most of them appearing in letters to friends. J.C.C. Mays included five limericks in his 1992 edition of Joyce's poems, all but one of them dating from 1917 and therefore unrepresentative of what amounted to a lifelong practice.* They are not widely known, have rarely appeared in print and it's quite astonishing that no publisher has to date brought out a comprehensive, lavishly illustrated edition de luxe, complete with full critical apparatus and an introduction by Colm Tóibín.

Limericks tend to be vulgar, trivial, formally predictable and not, in literary terms, particularly respectable. As the scholar Tim Conley points out, "the body of criticism dealing with limericks is on the whole both small and shallow. Their repetition is more common than any commentary: limericks speak for themselves, and criticism does not like to be made to feel superfluous."** Some may argue that Joyce's limericks detract from his reputation as a serious writer, but such is his canonical status that they will never dent his reputation, and in any case his worst limericks are not as excruciatingly bad as Eliot's racist "King Bolo" verses or as flat as Auden's dull, donnish Clerihews.

Joyce's limericks do not, in general, bear close analysis, being quite conventional in form and entirely lacking in pornographic, scatological or anti-clerical content. But, as a recurring feature throughout his writing career, like doodles in the margins of a manuscript, they are intriguing and potentially revealing.*** The most interesting of them is, I think, the one he wrote to mark the publication in 1938 of Beckett's novel Murphy:

There's a maevusmarked maggot called Murphy

Who would fain be thought thunder-and-turfy.

When he's out to be chic he

Sticks on his gum dicky

And worms off for a breeze by the surfy.****

There are two limericks in Ulysses. One is recalled, eventually, by Bloom in "Lestrygonians" as he waits for his lunchtime sandwich to be served in Davy Byrne's. It concerns the reverend Mr. MacTrigger (whose name rhymes with the n-word) and eventually comes back to him in full, or nearly:

His five hundred wives

Had the time of their lives.

It grew bigger and bigger and bigger.

Enough of that. But since we're on the subject of limericks here's a memory I'd like to share with you.

One sunny Thursday evening in June 2009 I found myself at the LRB bookshop in Bloomsbury celebrating the launch of Zachary Leader's book The Movement Reconsidered. This was a sprightly collection of essays about the pre-eminent group of post-war poets assembled in the 1956 New Lines anthology by Robert Conquest (who doubled as editor and contributor) along with Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, Philip Larkin and illustrious others.

As sole survivor of What-Was-Never-Really-a-Movement, Conquest (1917-2015) was to be guest of honour at the launch. I had long admired his deadpan New Lines introduction in which he said that all the poets were linked by "a negative determination to avoid bad principles", a shapely phrase that meant quite a lot and nothing at all. I was excited at the prospect of seeing in person a literary and cultural hero who had, quite incredibly, first appeared in print over seventy years before, in 1937. I was also curious. What, I wondered, did a Thirties writer look like? What did a Thirties writer sound like?

To complicate matters he was at the time widely regarded as one of the finest living historians, on the strength of The Great Terror (1968), his account of Stalin's show trials, purges and all-round wickedness. Conquest's view, that Stalin's grim tyranny was not a ghastly and anomalous perversion of Lenin's political theories but their inevitable outcome, rattled a generation of Marxist intellectuals and provoked furious debate, although it is now a widely-accepted orthodoxy. He was also (and remains) a master of pungent and instantly memorable limericks, his two fields of expertise combining thus:

There was a great Marxist named Lenin

Who did two or three million men in.

That's a lot to have done in,

But where he did one in

That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

So I found a seat and hung around for half an hour as the room quickly filled, mostly with celebrated (though not celebrity) poets. The famous writer Martin Amis arrived late, looking like a famous writer and this was, I realised, the only place to be. Conquest sat in a wheelchair, looking spry and quietly amused, or possibly aghast. It was hard to tell. He was dapper in a dark blue open-collar shirt and olive-green sports jacket, cool in the timeless way that very old people can sometimes appear to be. Things kicked off. After the usual launch flummery and speeches and readings by a cohort of admirers I mentally labelled los Conquestadores, Leader wound things up by reciting Conquest's miraculous condensation of Jacques' speech in As You Like It:

Seven ages, first puking and mewling

Then very pissed off with one's schooling;

Then fucks and then fights;

Then judging chaps' rights;

Then sitting in slippers; then drooling.

The author sat imperturbably throughout this impromptu tribute and the warm applause that followed. I remember thinking that in Shakespearean terms he had already been once around the block, so to speak, was now experiencing the third age for the second time, and therefore likely to be very pissed off. He had written The Great Terror. He knew Solzhenitsyn, for pity's sake. Would he, would anyone, choose to be remembered for an admittedly magnificent limerick? As the audience clustered around Leader and his readers, I made a nervous bee-line for Conquest who, temporarily overlooked by the rest of the room, was now sitting quietly alone and apparently happy to be ignored.

Closing in on him with all the queasy assurance that comes from a second glass of publisher's plonk, I blabbered some complimentary preamble and, prompted by his earlier recital of a very fine poem about a lamented basset hound named Bluebell, we chatted about dogs. Conquest likes dogs and writes very well about them. I don't, so I don't, but we hit it off just fine. He had by far the quietest voice of anyone I've ever met, little more than a murmur compared with which his barely-audible reading had been delivered at a roar. Standing, I had to crane solicitously in his direction so as not to to miss a word.

Our conversation turned to the once-notorious opening lines of an unfinished limerick by Aldous Huxley that featured in his novel Antic Hay:

There was a young man of East Anglia

Whose loins were a tangle of ganglia

Huxley reportedly promised that all royalties from the novel would go to anybody who could polish off the next three lines, given that (in his view) no third rhyme was possible after "ganglia". It so happened that a few weeks earlier I had risen to the challenge and come up with:

When touched by a tart

He awoke with a start

And said: "Do that again and I'll stranglia".

Conquest smiled faintly. This, I immediately convinced myself, was not only a clear indication of his approval but the overture to a profound and lasting friendship. He would leave the venue that evening buoyed by our encounter, his wavering faith in the cultural values of my generation agreeably and definitively boosted. "There was one fellow over there," he would murmur, back at home in Palo Alto, "who seemed the right sort. I should be sorry not to hear from him again." A mutually-enriching correspondence would ensue. He would read my poetry, I would read his and I might in time get to call him "Old Bob", as Kingsley used to do.

Our first encounter had reached an end, and we shook hands. Not having a business card I scribbled my address on a bookstore flier so we could continue our burgeoning relationship, but Bob was now surrounded, hemmed in by his admirers. They were all craning solicitously in his direction so as not to miss a word. It was getting late. I stuffed the flier in my pocket and left.


* Poems and Exiles by James Joyce, edited by J. C. C. Mays (Penguin books, 1992)

*** Oliver St. John Gogarty, in his memoir As I Was Going Down Sackville Street (London: Sphere Books, 1968), recalls a limerick Joyce composed as a student:

There was a kind Lady called Gregory,

Said, “Come to me poets in beggary.”

But found her imprudence

When thousands of students

Cried, “All we are in that catégory!”

**** Every version of the limerick I could find online had "maevusmarked" as (presumably) a misprint for "naevusmarked" – Murphy is revealed after his death to have a large naevus, or flat mole, as a birthmark on his backside. "Gum dicky" is a reference to Murphy’s celluloid yellow "dicky bow" or bow-tie.

David Collard is a London-based writer and critic appearing regularly in the TLS, Literary Review and elsewhere. His most recent book Multiple Joyce: 100 short essays about James Joyce's cultural legacy was published by Sagging Meniscus Press on Bloomsday last year. He is currently working on a second collection of essays to be published in Spring 2024. He hosts cultish online gatherings and has a website here.

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