Journalistic or Poetic?: rereading the headings in “Aeolus”

The “Aeolus” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses is set in a newspaper office. In light of this setting, the capitalized headings that divide the text into brief sections—the episode’s major stylistic departure from preceding episodes—are generally understood to be elements of a newspaper. Though there is disagreement about which elements of a newspaper they are—the most popular options are “headlines” and “captions”—the assumption that the headings are best understood as journalistic is seldom seriously questioned. This assumption does make some sense. The headings do look like newspaper headlines or captions, albeit strange ones, with a frequently satirical or ironic tone; and in conjunction with the context, the jump from “looks like headlines or captions” to “are headlines or captions” is not necessarily an illogical one. But other than the setting, what justification is there for readings of the headings as headlines or captions? When we return to the text, do these readings hold?

I will argue that they do not. Before doing so, I will chart what I believe to be two extratextual justifications for such readings: first, a critical anxiety about Joyce’s apparent disconnects between style and content; and second, the primacy in Joyce studies of Stuart Gilbert, whose seminal 1930 study James Joyce’s Ulysses, which enjoys Joyce’s blessing, was the first to deem the headings journalistic. While each of these justifications is somewhat persuasive, I believe that readings that cast headings as headlines or captions find insufficient textual support when deployed throughout the episode. When a critic chooses to label the headings one thing or another, he makes an implicit statement about how the headings relate to the text. Calling headings “headlines” implies that the text is analogous to the text of journalistic articles; similarly, calling them “captions” implies that the text is analogous to the articles, illustrations, or photographs that accompany captions. Each of these journalistic metaphors for the headings explains some of them, but neither explains them all. Even looking at the headings as a mixture of headlines and captions proves too narrow.

This does not mean, however, that we should give up the desire to call the headings—or the sections they divide—something discrete. Critics certainly have not given up this desire. Some, like M.J.C. Hodgart, hold fast to their journalistic understanding of the headlines despite textual conflicts. At least one, Susan Bazargan, agrees that the journalistic metaphors are insufficient and argues persuasively against them; but she substitutes a new metaphor that when scrutinized, proves substantially similar to the journalistic ones. Still others, including Gilbert, maintain that the headings are best understood as journalistic despite the difficulties they present, because such an understanding allows us to read “Aeolus” as a damning indictment of the press.

I will address each of these critical approaches and, in answer to them, ultimately offer a simpler, more open metaphor that allows us to avoid the textual snags of the journalistic metaphors without jettisoning a journalistic understanding of the episode entirely. The headings, I believe, can be best understood as the titles of poems. Though titles of poems do imply things about the text that follow them, they do not—unlike journalistic headlines and captions— necessarily imply certain things, nor do they imply things in a uniform way. From headlines we expect a preview, a summary, or another sort of representation of the article to follow; likewise, a caption is expected to somehow represent in words the picture it accompanies. None of these expectations hold with titles of poems. The title of a given poem may preview, summarize, or represent; but the expectation that is do so is not built into its being a title. All we can say about titles of poems is that they complicate the text in any number of ways—and this is, also, just about all we can say about the headings in “Aeolus.” Indeed, as I hope to demonstrate, rereading “Aeolus” with an understanding of the headings as titles of poems, and of the text itself as a collection of poems, proves rewarding.

Nonetheless, Joyce critics—at least partially because of an anxiety about connecting Joyce’s style with his content, and almost surely because of Gilbert’s imposing presence—have tended to see the headings in terms of journalistic metaphors. But ceasing to think of the headings as necessarily journalistic and beginning to think of them as titles of literary works would not remove the action of the episode from its journalistic setting. The titular metaphor I offer here would continue to support rich journalistic readings of the episode while freeing “Aeolus” criticism from its journalistic moorings—giving critics a new, deserved, and fruitful latitude in interpreting the episode.

In light of the possibilities offered by seeing the headings as more broadly titular, why might critics follow Gilbert in thinking of the headings as essentially journalistic? One reason is that doing so is a simple way to make sense of Joyce’s unconventional style—a major interpretive problem throughout the novel. For each episode, this problem can be framed as one of linking style and content, of attempting to justify Joyce’s stylistic choices with respect to what we take to be the purpose of the episode. For the first six episodes, this task is relatively simple. The style is unorthodox, but we are given something to hold on to: the character of either Stephen Dedalus or Leopold Bloom. In “Proteus,” for example, the overwrought diction and shifting perspective of the narrative voice, though confusing, can be read as helping to constitute Stephen’s character:

Turning, he scanned the south shore, his feet sinking again slowly in new sockets. The cold domed room of the tower waits. Through the barbicans the shafts of light are moving ever, slowly ever as my feet are sinking, creeping duskward over the dial flow. Blue dusk, nightfall, deep blue night. (44)

In this passage, as in many in “Proteus,” language becomes almost comically poetic (here, the alliteration of “scanned,” “south,” “shore,” etc.). Other characteristics of the language combine to lend Stephen a “poetic” sensibility. The shift from the third person to the first person (“he” and “his” to “my”), for instance, can be read as Stephen’s failed attempt to see himself from outside himself, to make himself the subject of a poem; and the poetic depiction of Stephen’s tenuous relation to the world—his exclusion from the “cold domed room of the tower,” and his unstable stance on the sand—casts him as a man struggling to make poetry of his suffering. The self-consciously poetic style of “Proteus,” then, can be read as an element of Stephen’s character—a self-consciously poetic pseudo-poet. Because the characters of Stephen and Bloom are the most easily apprehended elements of the early episodes, the process of reading can become a struggle to form ever more coherent pictures of them. As Jennifer Levine puts it, “To a great extent the progressive filling in of Bloom’s and Stephen’s perspectives is what makes the early sections of Ulysses intelligible…. [Y]ou listen for their voices and they lead you through the thicket of language” (143). “Instead of [being] unnerv[ed] and frustrat[ed,] you recognize that you are tracking a mind in action and respond accordingly” (Levine 142). Under this rubric, the purpose of the first six episodes is the development of Stephen and Bloom’s characters, and the styles of those episodes can be understood as compositional elements of those characters.

But in “Aeolus,” the first episode that does not focus primarily on only Stephen or Bloom, linking style with content is a different game: Levine’s method of clinging to character does little good here. The characters do not, of course, disappear; but, as Levine puts it, “as the talk in the newspaper office swirls around them, and as the capitalized headlines repeatedly intrude, neither [Stephen nor Bloom] is allowed to hold status as the figure in the landscape” (143). Without a central character relative to which to interpret the style, critics are forced to find a new way to square style with content. Once such way readily presents itself: both the style and the content seem to be tied to journalism. “Aeolus” can be seen, to borrow from Gilbert, as a portrait of “the practice of journalism,” a practice that—at least in “Aeolus,” “involves the ancient art of rhetoric” (187). The episode is set in the office and printing works of three journalistic organs under common management—the Weekly Freeman and National Press, the Freeman’s Journal and National Press, and the Evening Telegraph. The episode depicts the inner workings of these organs, and, by extension, the practice of journalism—which is, in Joyce’s rendering, a collection of devices of rhetoric. Most of our attention is focused on a conversation about rhetoric carried on by Myles Crawford, the editor of the Telegraph, and his cronies, including Stephen. As Gilbert sees it, this conversation, in which the men exhaust devices of rhetoric by employing or citing them, “turns mainly on journalistic ‘shop’” (179). We can, then, go with Gilbert, and understand the content of “Aeolus” as a journalistic exhaustion of the devices of rhetoric.

If we frame the content of the episode as Gilbert does, linking it to style takes little interpretive work. The text of “Aeolus” is frequently interrupted by headings, which split the text into brief sections. The headings, as the most gripping stylistic departure from preceding episodes, can be understood as a stylistic manifestation of the journalistic rhetoric dealt with in the content of the episode. The episode is set in a newspaper office; therefore, it seems right to accept the headings as journalistic. This is, at any rate, the tradition in criticism. Gilbert deems the headings “caption[s] composed in the journalistic manner”; Levine prefers to call them “headlines” (Gilbert 179; Levine 143). Archie K. Loss, another critic, also prefers “headlines,” but sometimes refers to them as “captions”; while Hodgart considers the possibility that they are headlines, but ultimately concludes that “they are rather captions” (Loss 175-182; Loss 178; Hodgart 129). Though critics disagree about what specifically to call the headings, most share the premise that the headings are best understood as elements of a newspaper.

Because the episode is set in a newspaper office, this premise does, at least theoretically, make sense. Accepting it allows us to understand the headings as reflective of the episode’s journalistic content—bringing the style of “Aeolus” into concert with its content, at least partially alleviating and the tinge of apprehension in Levine’s voice when she says that “Aeolus” “seems to turn its back on both [Stephen and Bloom]” (143). We may not be able to read style as a constitutive element of the character, as we can in the early episodes. But we can interpret “Aeolus” with the same critical goal of uniting style and content in mind—and in doing so, we can hold on to the way in which we came to know Stephen and Bloom, even if we cannot hold on to Stephen and Bloom themselves.

Holding on to a vision that unites style and content is one reason for using journalistic metaphors to understand the headings. A second, simpler reason is that Gilbert, the first to do so, is extremely prominent in Joyce criticism. Gilbert sees “Aeolus” as sketch of “[t]he journalist’s métier,” and he labels the headings “captions” without equivocation (187; 179). His study touts itself on its back cover as an “exegesis” of Ulysses “written under Joyce’s supervision,” and he certainly regards his readings—especially of “Aeolus”—as authoritative, a fact he makes clear in the introduction to his study:

Obviously the value of such a work as this depends on its authenticity, and “authenticity” in the present case implies that the ideas, interpretations and explanations put forth in these pages are not capricious or speculative, but were endorsed by Joyce himself….

[This study] contains nothing…to which [Joyce] did not give his full approbation; indeed there are several passages which I directly own to him. Thus the long list of examples of rhetorical forms which concludes my commentary on the “Aeolus” episode was compiled at his suggestion, and we spent several industrious afternoons collaborating on it. (vi; viii)

Future critics seem to have accepted Gilbert’s authority, due in large part, no doubt, to Joyce’s endorsement. While not everyone agrees with Gilbert that the headings are properly called captions, most critics defer to Gilbert when discussing them, and few challenge his assertion that they are “journalistic” (Bazargan 345; Blamires 53; Gifford 635; Loss 178; Senn 54). At least one critic, Bazargan, is highly skeptical of “the commentary—first offered by Stuart Gilbert—that has dictated our way of looking at the headings, namely, that they reflect the clichéd language of the press and should be interpreted in that context” (345). But even she stops short: “I do not,” she says, “wish to quarrel with [Gilbert’s] interpretation, [which is] supported by the setting, characters, and windy language of ‘Aeolus’” (345).

I believe that critics of Ulysses, partially in an effort to make the style and content of “Aeolus” hang together—explicitly in Levine’s case, implicitly in other cases—and certainly because of the “authentic” example offered by Gilbert, have swung too far toward the journalistic in interpreting “Aeolus.” For though Gilbert’s interpretation of the headings is supported by the episode’s setting, as Bazargan states, Gilbert’s journalistic framework does not hold when we try to square the headings, as headlines or captions, with the text—with the articles, illustrations or photographs to which they supposedly correspond. At a very basic level, to take the sections as articles, illustrations or photographs is to take liberties with the definitions of “article,” illustration and “photograph” as they are understood with respect to newspapers. To give but one example: dialogue, which appears in nearly all the short sections, makes infrequent appearances in journalistic articles and cannot, strictly speaking, appear in illustrations or photographs at all. Even if we set aside these very basic objections, major complications remain. Below, I will survey a series of headings in “Aeolus” and demonstrate that while some can be seen as headlines and as captions, and while others can be seen as one but not the other, others cannot be seen as either.

The first heading, “IN THE HEART OF THE HIBERNIAN METROPOLIS,” might be taken as either headline for an article about “trams slow[ing]” and being “shunted” “before Nelson’s Pillar,” or as a caption for a picture of the same (116). The journalistic metaphors work here in a sense, in that the heading corresponds fairly cleanly to the main text. Nelson’s Pillar is at “the heart of the Hibernian metropolis”—as Don Gifford says, “the area around the pillar… functioned as the central terminus and departure point for most of Dublin’s trams”—and the movement of the trams in and out of Dublin’s center, spurred on by the hoarse shouts of the timekeeper, could even be seen as the pumping of mechanical blood in and out of a metropolitan heart (Joyce 116; Gifford 128). At least one heading, then, can be seen as both headline and caption for the text that follows it.

Others, like “SHINDY IN A WELLKNOWN RESTAURANT,” are not as versatile (132). In this section, Stephen gives Crawford a letter written by Garrett Deasy; Crawford recalls aloud that he knows Deasy’s wife; she once “threw…soup in the waiter’s face in the Star and Garter,” causing a shindy in a well-known restaurant (132). The heading corresponds to the event Crawford recalls; it could thus perhaps be taken as a headline for an article about Crawford and the others contemplating that event. But the heading could not be a caption for the events that occur below it: the action consists of Crawford recalling Deasy’s wife’s tantrum, not the tantrum itself. “SHINDY IN A WELLKNOWN RESTAURANT” may be a headline, but it does not describe the events of the section accurately or vividly enough to be a caption.

Still other headings, such as “THE WEARER OF THE CROWN,” can be neither headline nor caption (116). If we attempt to see it as a headline, it is not clear why the article following it, which details the loading of “mailcars” and offers information about the many destinations of the “letters, postcards, lettercards” and “parcels,” would be titled as it is (116). The mail cars are “His Majesty’s”—they belong to “the wearer of the crown”—but even still, it is unclear why His Majesty, who appears in this article only through his initials, would be the subject of its headline (116). Conceptualizing the section as a photograph captioned by the heading is even more problematic. While His Majesty’s “royal initials, E. R.,” appear in the photograph offered by the section, His Majesty himself is nowhere to be found (116). If forcing “THE WEARER OF THE CROWN” into the mold of a headline or caption is troublesome, then attempting the same with“? ? ?” is nearly absurd (132). These three question marks may be meant to generally highlight the high number of questions asked in the section, or they may refer to the three sorts of questions asked—one riddle, two questions about who did what, and two questions that accuse Stephen of “turn[ing]”—but they can hardly be taken as a summary or preview of the text fit for a headline, and, as they do not pictorially depict the action, they are difficult to understand as a caption (132).
Attempts to cast the final heading in the episode—“DIMINISHED DIGITS PROVE TOO TITILLATING FOR FRISKY FRUMPS. ANNE WIMBLES, FLO WANGLES—YET CAN YOU BLAME THEM?”—as a headline or a caption lead us down an even sillier path (150). The brief section following this heading consists of two lines of dialogue that focus on the sexual frustration of Anne and Flo, the subjects of Stephen’s “Parable of the Plums”:

—Onehanded adulterer, he said grimly. That tickles me I must say.
—Tickled the old ones too, Myles Crawford said, if God Almighty’s truth was known. (Blamires 58-59; Joyce 149-150)

Bazargan is right to say that “the discrepancy between title and text becomes especially evident as we proceed into Stephen’s parable”—that the “titles begin to flaunt themselves, become anxiously flamboyant, as if to conceal their inadequacy” (349). For though both the heading and the text of the final section stand in an illuminating relationship to earlier headings and sections—in that they tell us more about Anne and Flo, and thus help to flesh out Stephen’s parable—and even in an illuminating relationship to one another, they do not stand in a headline/article or caption/photograph relationship. The heading neither summarizes, previews, nor depicts what occurs within the text. In this final section, the action within the text is neither headlined nor captioned by the heading. Attempts to understand the headings as either headlines or captions—or even as some combination of both—seem doomed to failure. Some can be understood as headlines and some as captions, and some can even be understood as both; but others cannot be understood as either. These journalistic metaphors are simply too narrow.

Three ways to respond to the narrowness of these metaphors readily present themselves. The first is to refute it with textual analysis, a method chosen by Hodgart. The second is to accept that the journalistic metaphors are too narrow and to formulate a new kind of metaphor, a method chosen by Bazargan. The third and strongest method—that of Fritz Senn, Gilbert and Loss—is to accept that the headings cannot be cleanly cast as headlines or captions, but to assert that the shifting relationships between heading and text means simply that Joyce is commenting on the modern press’s propensity to misrepresent reality. I will now consider each of these responses in turn.

Hodgart’s argument for seeing the headlines as journalistic subverts itself. He begins by rejecting the notion the headings are headlines, “they are,” he says, “rather captions under imaginary illustrations, probably photographs, added by an anonymous sub-editor” (129). To illustrate this, he asserts that the first heading, “IN THE HEART OF THE HIBERNIAN METROPOLIS,” “is obviously the caption for a picture of Nelson’s Pillar” (129). When Hodgart comes upon the sixth heading—“WITH UNFEIGNED REGRET IT IS WE ANNOUNCE THE DISSOLUTION OF A MOST RESPECTED DUBLIN BURGESS”—he deviates from his thesis, asserting that this heading is “an extract of Hynes’s account of Dignam’s funeral…set up in type, real or imagined” (129). By the end of his survey of the headings, Hodgart has seemingly tempered his conviction that the they are strictly captions; the final heading, he asserts, “is neither headline nor caption but a mysterious voice from the sky” (129). As the arc of Hodgart’s argument demonstrates, the text does not support a consistent deployment of either of the journalistic metaphors. Hodgart, who begins so strangely confident in his choice of one journalistic metaphor over the other, ends in abandoning them both.

Bazargan abandons both of the journalistic metaphors, too; she agrees that they are “inadequate when it comes to the relation between caption and text” (345). She argues eloquently for replacing them with a new metaphor: a “cinematographic view,” “a recasting of the headlines” as the subtitles of silent films (345). She cites the etymology of the Greek word “Aeolus,” which is reminiscent of the flickering of silent films, and asserts that “[w]ith this new definition in mind, we may then see the captions ‘gleaming’ in interrupting intervals, introducing us to people and locations about to appear” (346). She invokes Richard Ellmann to establish “Joyce’s keen interest in cinema”; she recalls that in “many a classic opening of films,” as in “Aeolus, “the first shot [is] that of the busiest square of the metropolis”; and she notes that subtitles of silent films “identified characters, defined their moods and hidden thoughts, named locations, described actions to follow, made side-comments of various sorts on the scenes, and finally indicated dialogue”—all of which are functions performed by the headings in “Aeolus” (346-347). Bazargan’s argument for her cinematic metaphor is partially convincing; she does an excellent job of pointing out similarities between the headings and silent-film subtitles. However, headlines and captions, too, can do all the things that Bazargan says subtitles do: they can identify the “characters” or subjects of articles or photographs and provide insights into their moods and thoughts; they can name locations and describe actions; and, because headlines and captions can often be “pull quotes,” they can both provide comment and indicate dialogue. Given these similarities, Bazargan does little to convince us that the headlines are better understood as are cinematic rather than journalistic. To support such a thesis, we are left mainly with the glittery etymology of “Aeolus”—a word whose other, Homeric implications for the episode are clear enough—and “Joyce’s keen interest in cinema” (346). Bazargan admirably bucks the trend in asserting that the headings are not journalistic, but the metaphor she offers for understanding them is not, in application, substantively different from those she rejects.

Despite the shortcoming of her cinematic metaphor, Bazargan accurately calls attention to more basic shortcomings of the journalistic metaphors. For example, as she says, though “[t]he press may use clichéd language,” it “generally tries to avoid such uncaptivating headlines as ‘EXIT BLOOM’ [and] ‘SAD’” (345). Other critics who prefer to hang on to the journalistic metaphors explain these “uncaptivating” headings by drastically rethinking the relationship between the heading and text. Senn, for instance, is able to conceptualize the final heading of “Aeolus”—with what he thinks of as its unfulfilled “promise,” “ANNE WIMBLES, FLO WANGLES”—as a headline, despite recognizing the disjuncture between the heading and the text that follows it (54). For Senn, the fact that a headline does not accurately preview or encapsulate its article does not mean that it is not a headline; it simply means that the newspaper is crooked. Senn thinks of the final heading as existing in a newspaper that “thrives on distortive anticipation”—one that “feature[s]” “an event” “only in the headlines, not in the subsequent text” (54).

Senn’s way of conceptualizing the headlines is not uncommon, and it gets at a potential objection to the argument I am advancing: perhaps we can explain the inconsistencies between headings and their sections by reading the headings as ironic or as otherwise subversive. Gilbert fields a version of this argument when he says that “the style of the captions is gradually modified”: “the first are comparatively dignified,” while “later captions reproduce, in all its vulgarity, the slickness of the modern press” (179). Loss, similarly, sees nearly all the headings as subversive: for him, they collectively “invite the reader to interpret the narrative in an ironic fashion”; “[f]rom the first,” he says, “we hear a note of irony which…increases in intensity as the episode goes along” (175; 178). Loss interprets disconnects between headings and sections as “[Joyce’s] irony mov[ing]” “against journalism” (179). For Senn, Gilbert and Loss, part of Joyce’s point is that to understand the headings as headlines or captions, we must first understand that the modern press is vulgar and slick.

However, in many cases, the relationship between heading and text is far to complex to be called cleanly ironic, subversive, or anything else; often, the headings produce effects that are difficult to encompass such simple terms. Take for instance the heading “GENTLEMEN OF THE PRESS.” In the text that follows it, Bloom speaks with Red Murray of the Freeman, receiving from Murray a clipping of an advertisement that the Freeman has apparently run in the past for Bloom’s client, Alexander Keyes; Bloom is to take the clipping round to the Telegraph office (118-119). Bloom states his intent to leave for the Telegraph office, and Murray hastens to assure Bloom that he is prepared to insert a paragraph puffing up Keyes’s firm in the Freeman: “Of course, if he wants a par…we can do him one” (117). Bloom nods, and mentally seizes on one word of Murray’s: “we” (117). He repeats “We” to himself, seemingly with pleasure at his inclusion in a group with Murray (117). Many factors undermine Bloom’s pleasure here. First, by “we,” Murray likely means the Freeman, the publication he represents— not “Leopold and Red” or some other chummy phrase meant to include himself and Bloom. Furthermore, we can read “we” as ironized and subverted by the heading. Although Bloom seizes on “we” to form a positive self-image, the heading serves to underscore the fact while Murray is a gentleman of the press, the ever-excluded Bloom is not, at least not in the eyes of the Dublin community (Blamires 50). But the fact remains that the “GENTLEMEN OF THE PRESS” section leaves Bloom on an apparent high note—or, at least, on a note that is not low— if only in his head. Thus, while the heading of this section does ironize the text, it also does other, more complicated and even contradictory things. It gives us a specific “we” to in which to include Murray and Bloom, encouraging us to recognize that Bloom is pleased while simultaneously illuminating the tragedy of his pleasure. It distorts the reality of Bloom’s exclusion even as it calls attention to that reality. It breaks Bloom down, but it also helps to build him up.

I believe a metaphor that is far simpler and more open than the journalistic metaphors allows us to describe how this heading works—and how all of the headings in “Aeolus” work— it works like the title of a poem. Like “GENTLEMEN OF THE PRESS,” rarely do well-crafted titles of poems strictly ironize, undermine, or buttress any one strain or voice in the text of the poem—rarely do they strictly do anything. Rather, good titles complicate the text, entering into dialogue with it and provoking a variety of potentially contradictory readings. This is, of course, precisely what “GENTLEMEN OF THE PRESS” does to the text that follows it.

Recasting the heading of this section as the title of a poem also sustains readings that illuminate a critique of the press—readings so prized by critics like Senn, Gilbert and Loss— while avoiding the textual contradictions implicit in applying the journalistic metaphors to the headings as a group. We do not need to understand the headings as headlines or captions for this critique to come through; the fact that Bloom is distorted by something that looks like a headline or caption, in conjunction with the setting of the episode in a newspaper office, is enough to suggest this critique. And, while not discouraging journalistic readings of the episode, recasting the headings as titles of poems opens each section up to readings that, while usually supportable and even conspicuous if we conceptualize the headings as journalistic, can be overshadowed by that conceptualization. “GENTLEMEN OF THE PRESS” is a prime example of this phenomenon. For as in the reading I offer above, emphasizing the social aspect of the heading, “GENTLEMEN,” over its journalistic aspect, “OF THE PRESS,” throws Bloom’s complex social situation—and his complex view of this situation—into high relief. Recasting the headings in “Aeolus” as the titles of poems does not diminish the journalistic critical tradition inaugurated by Gilbert; it maintains, transforms and enriches that tradition by making it less limiting and less extreme. It avoids both the textual pitfalls of the journalistic metaphors and the overzealousness of recastings like Bazargan’s cinematic metaphor—while throwing light on alternate, complementary, overshadowed critical paths.

The complicating properties that I have cited as characteristic of titles of poems are shared by titles of good short stories and novels, too—indeed, of any worthwhile literary work—so we could, if we liked, read the sections of “Aeolus” as extraordinarily brief incarnations of either of these prose forms. But reading them as poems is especially fruitful; for in doing so, we are implicitly making the episode into a book of poems. Revisiting “Aeolus” with this interpretive framework allows us to feel out much that stricter frameworks leave untouched. Taken individually, Joyce’s opening sections lend themselves to rich readings; yet taken together, they set the stage much like the opening shot of one of Bazargan’s silent film’s (346). “IN THE HEART OF THE HIBERNIAN METROPOLIS” introduces us to the bustling heart of Dublin in all its hoarseness and mechanization, from which the many departing trams—and the people aboard them—seem to be fleeing (116). “THE WEARER OF THE CROWN” shows us Dubliners’ personal communications with one another and with foreigners, moving back and forth, packed into metal boxes in a way that recalls the trams and the Dubliners within them (116). Yet these communications are paper, and they are ultimately under the thumb and at the mercy of His English Majesty—foreshadowing, perhaps, what Gilbert calls the papers’ political sensitivity to “the way the wind is blowing” (Joyce 116; Gilbert 187). “GENTLEMEN OF THE PRESS,” while shining on its own in the ways enumerated above, is also a synthesis of its predecessors: Bloom’s place in the Hibernian metropolis and the political vicissitudes of the papers are held in a delicate tension (116-117). Each of these opening sections yields much on its own; but, taken as a series, they also establish a fertile foundation for the episode.

Later sections display the same capacity to be meaningful both alone and in concert. The perplexing “? ? ?,” for instance, highlights the many sorts of questions within itself—riddles, questions of identity and action, accusations—while recalling both the music of Dublin’s mechanization—“What opera resembles a railway line?”—and Stephen’s questionable status as a poet (132; 116). The final section—“DIMINISHED DIGITS PROVE TOO TITILLATING FOR FRISKY FRUMPS. ANNE WIMBLES, FLO WANGLES—YET CAN YOU BLAME THEM?”—may seem to defy explanation, as Gilbert suggests (Joyce 150; Gilbert 198). As Senn points out, Gilbert’s labeling of “WIMBLES” as a “hapax legomenon,” “a lexical unit that occurs only once and has to be defined from that one context alone,” implies that “[o]nly wimbling Anne could know then what it is that she is doing” (54). But creative readers have little trouble linking “DIGITS” with “TITILLATING,” “FRISKY,” and “tickles” to cast “wimbling” as Anne’s countermeasure to what Blamires sees as “the sexual frustration of spinsterhood” (Joyce 150; Blamires 59). While individually coherent, the final poem also serves as a the capstone of what Blamires calls “this episode’s study in disappointment”: the frumps’ disappointment in their spinsterhood; Stephen’s disappointment in his precariousness a poet; Bloom’s disappointment in his alienation; and the collective disappointment Irish in their colonized, mechanical metropolis (Blamires 59; Joyce 150; 132; 116-117). The opening of the episode depicts the desperation of all Dublin. By the episode’s conclusion, this desperation has been captured and funneled into the wimbling and wangling of two woeful women. Joyce’s feat here may be described in many ways. One of them, undoubtedly, is as poetry.

Poems, more so than other literary forms, are often both highly obscure and deeply meaningful. Indeed, because obscurity encourages the reader to fill in gaps himself, it is sometimes the most obscure poems that prove the most meaningful. In this sense, “Aeolus” is outstanding poetry. The qualities that make it so—its difficulty and its depth—also make the novel of which is a part one of the most demanding and rewarding texts in English literature. It is a tribute to Joyce’s talent that in Ulysses, he has created a novel whose obscurity proves a strength rather than a shortcoming. Rereading the sections in “Aeolus” as poems more fully reveals this strength, freeing us from limiting interpretive frameworks and allowing us to mine the episode for all its potential richness.


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