Sunday, 23 February 2014

Tristan and Isolde

Act One of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde is set on a ship, sailing from Ireland to Cornwall. The hero knight Tristan is bringing Isolde, an Irish princess, to Cornwall to marry his uncle, King Mark. By mistake, they drink a love potion, and fall into a passionate embrace.
Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld and his wife Malvina as the lovers

Tristan: Isolde!
Isolde: Tristan!
Tristan: Sweetest maid!
Isolde: Dearest man!
Both: How our hearts
beat in exaltation!
How all our senses
are enraptured!
Swelling blossoms
of yearning passion, 

Blissful glow
of languishing love!
Now joyful longing
in our breast!

Wagner's Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfel
Joyce went through a short Wagnerian phase in his youth, saying in his 1900 lecture, 'Drama and Life', 'Even the least part of Wagner – his music – is beyond Bellini.'  By 1914, he had reversed this opinion.

Joyce had no patience with the current adulation of Wagner, objecting that 'Wagner puzza di sesso' (stinks of sex). Bellini he said was far better.
 Ellmann, James Joyce, 382

I looked up Wagner in the index to Portraits of the Artist in Exile (ed Potts) and found 'J dislikes', with four entries.  Here's August Suter, who had visited a record shop with Nora Joyce in 1922:

Joyce asked about our doings. I pointed out that Mrs Joyce had become a Wagner enthusiast and had been sticking to Wagner records exclusively. Joyce's remark about Wagner was derogatory. Madame Joyce retorted with some excitement: 'Oh there are many obscenities in your book too!'

'Some Reminiscences of James Joyce'.

We had exchanged our opinions about music, though our tastes were not alike. I had the narrow tastes of my age and liked... chiefly Wagner, whom Joyce could scarcely tolerate.

Jacques Mercanton, 'The Hours of James Joyce'

He could not stand modern music and except for Die Meistersinger and some arias from The Flying Dutchman he had a dislike for Wagner; the Tetralogy (The Ring cycle) irritated him. 'Operetta Music,' he used to say.

Louis Gillet, 'Farewell to Joyce'.

I shall not mention again the tastes of my friend, his determined preference for vocalised singing, his dislike of Wagner and instrumental music.

Louis Gillet, 'The Living Joyce'.  


In March 1923, Joyce was beginning Finnegans Wake, writing comic sketches based on medieval Irish myth and history. After the first one, about Roderick O'Conor, the last High King of Ireland, he turned to Tristan and Iseult, a theme which had always interested him.  

There are indeed hardly more than a dozen original themes in world literature. Then there is an enormous number of combinations of these themes. Tristan und Isolde is an example of an original theme. Richard Wagner kept on modifying it, often unconsciously, in Lohengrin, in Tannhauser; and he thought he was treating something entirely new when he wrote Parsifal.

Joyce to Georges Borach in 1917, 'Conversations with James Joyce,' in Portraits of the Artist in Exile.

The story attracted him because of its Dublin connections. Iseult was linked with Chapelizod, which would be a main setting of Finnegans Wake. Tristan was a foreign invader, associated in Joyce's mind with Sir Amoricus Tristram, the Anglo-Norman knight who, in 1177, landed in Howth and defeated the Irish, becoming the first Earl of Howth. Tristan and Amoricus Tristram are combined on the Wake's opening page:

Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the shirt sea had passencore rearrived from North Armorica to wielderfight his penisolate war. 3.04 

Joyce liked 'Armorica', the old name for Brittany, because it sounded like America and was part of Amoricus Tristram's name. 

Joyce's 1923 Tristan sketch is a pastiche of Wagner's love scene on the ship. The style is still close to Ulysses, in particular resembling the parodies of 'Cyclops' and the fizzing style of 'Nausicaa'1 Isolde, a combination of a wholesome Irish girleen and a 1920s flapper, is a lot like Gerty MacDowell. Tristan is a football champion filmstar hunk:

As slow their ship, the sea being slight, upon the face of waters moved by courtesy of God that handsome brineburnt sixfooter Gaelic, rugger and soccer champion and the dinkum belle of Lucalizod quite charming in her oceanblue brocade and an overdress of net darned with gold well in advance of the newest fashion exhibits bunnyhugged scrumptiously when it was dark whilst they dissimulated themself on the eighteen inch loveseat behind the chieftaness stewardess’s cabin whilst also with sinister dexterity he alternately rightandlefthandled fore and aft, on and offside her palpable rugby and association bulbs.  

As slow their ship, the sea being slight. Joyce took this becalmed setting from the French philologist, Joseph Bédier, whose reconstruction of the Tristan story was the main source for the myth in the Wake. This is the setting for the love potion scene in Joseph Bédier:

Tristan and Isolde by John Duncan
One day when the wind had fallen and the sails hung slack Tristan dropped anchor by an Island and the hundred knights of Cornwall and the sailors, weary of the sea, landed all. Iseult alone remained aboard and a little serving maid, when Tristan came near the Queen to calm her sorrow. The sun was hot above them and they were athirst and, as they called, the little maid looked about for drink for them and found that pitcher which the mother of Iseult had given into Brangien’s keeping. And when she came on it, the child cried, “I have found you wine!” Now she had found not wine — but Passion and Joy most sharp, and Anguish without end, and Death.
the dinkum belle of Lucalizod - this is the first appearance of Joyce's combination of the Dublin suburbs of Chapelizod and Lucan (See also 'the hungerlean spalpeens of Lucalizod' 32.16 and 'folkrich Lucalizod' 101.11).

John William Waterhouse's Tristram and Isolde
While Tristan is fondling 'her palpable rugby and association bulbs', Isolde, who wants more romance,  asks him for 'the six best national poetry quotations reflecting on the situation'. He responds with a quotation from Byron ('Rollon thoudeep andamp anddark blueo ceanroll!') followed by the Wagnerian cry 'Isolde!', three times, and an incomprehensible speech about love as 'pearlwhite passionpanting intuitions of reunited selfhood in the higherdimensional selfless Allself'.

In Joyce's version it's the romantic setting which acts as the love potion:

it was a stroke or two above it's a fine night and yon moon shines bright and all to that, the plain fact of the matter being that being a natural born lover of nature in all her moods and senses, by the light of the moon, of the silvery moon she longed to spoon before her honeyoldmoon at the same time drinking in long draughts of purest air serene and revelling in the great outdoors.

Unable to resist Tristan's seductive routine, and the romantic setting, Isolde kisses Tristan, and he seizes the opportunity to stick his tongue into her mouth:

the vivid girl, deaf with love, (you know her, that angel being, one of passion's fadeless wonderwomen! You dote on her! You love her to death!) with a queer little cry reunited milkymouthily his her then their disunited lips when, tonguetasting the golden opportunity of a lifetime, quick as greased pigskin the Armorican champion with one virile tonguethrust drove the advance messenger of love flash past the double line of eburnean forwards rightjingbangshot into the goal of her gullet.

The 'advance messenger of love' is his tongue and a football, and the 'eburnean forwards' are her ivory teeth and Irish (Hibernean) football players. It's an act of sexual penetration and a football goal!

While the kiss is going on, Joyce asks us to sympathise with Isolde - why shouldn't she prefer the handsome virile Tristan over tiresome old King Mark?:

Now, I am just putting it direct to you as one manowoman to another, what the blankety blank diggings do you for example candidly suppose that she, a strapping young modern old ancient Irish princess a good eighteen hands high and scaling nine stone twelve paddock weight in her madapolam smock with nothing under her hat but red hair and solid ivory not forgetting a firstrate pair of bedroom eyes of most unholy hazel cared at that precise psychoanalytical moment about tiresome old King Mark that tiresome old milkless ram with his duty peck and his bronchial tubes, the tiresome old ourangoutan beaver in his tiresome old twentytwoandsixpenny shepherd's plaid trousers? Not as much as a pinch of henshit and that's the meanest thing now was ever known since Adam was in the boy's navy.
She has 'nothing under her hat but red hair and solid ivory not forgetting a firstrate pair of bedroom eyes' - i.e. she has no brains.  Anna Livia Plurabelle would also have red hair.

After the 'regulation ten seconds' have elapsed, Tristan relaxes his grip and withdraws his tongue. The delighted Isolde speaks:

— I’m right glad I ran on to you, Tris, you fascinator you! Miss Erin said, when she had won free, laughing at the same time delightfully in dimpling bliss, being awfully bucked by her gratifying experience of the love embrace from a highly continental bigtimer the like of him possessed of a handsome face well worth watching with an interesting tallow complexion from which great things very expected as a film star for she fully realised that he was evidently a notoriety in the poetry department as well...

This is followed by a cinematic cut, up to the birds of the sea, who are circling the ship and watching the lovers kiss. This is the end of the sketch.

Over them the winged ones screamed shrill glee: seahawk, seagull, curlew and plover, kestrel and capercailzie. All the birds of the sea they trolled out rightbold when they smacked the big kuss of Trustan with Usolde.

There's an echo of Who Killed Cock Robin? here ('All the birds of the air fell a sighing and a sobbing, when they heard the bell toll for poor Cock Robin').

The birds sing a mocking song about King Mark: 

So sang seaswans:

   Three quarks for Muster Mark
Sure he hasn’t got much of a bark
And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark
But O Wreneagle Almighty wouldn’t un be a sky of a lark
To see that old buzzard whooping about for uns shirt in the dark
And un hunting round for uns speckled trousers around by Palmerston Park.
Hohohoho moulty Mark
You’re the rummest old rooster ever flopped out of a Noah’s ark
And you think you’re cock of the wark.
Fowls, up! Tristy’s the spry young spark
That’ll tread her and wed her and bed her and red her
Without even winking the tail of a feather
And that’s how that chap’s going to make his money and mark!

It's a famous poem, which appears on page 383 of the book, giving physicists the name 'quark.'  Ellmann says that it was inspired by the squawking of the seagulls on Bognor beach, where Joyce was on holiday from July to August.

Joyce's fair copy, from the Garland Archive volume
Harriet Shaw Weaver typed the episode for Joyce, who then changed 'Wreneagle Almighty' to 'Wreneagle Highflighty' on the typescript. Unfortunately, Joyce used a duplicate of the typescript for later work, and this addition was lost. I love 'Highflighty' because it explains why the wren got to be the 'king of all birds' - by hitching a ride on the eagle's black and then flying higher.

This version was published in the James Joyce Broadsheet in June 1989

After finishing the 1923 medieval sketches, Joyce set them aside, only incorporating them in the Wake when he was finishing the book in 1938. While the other sketches survived intact, Tristan was taken to bits and inserted into another sketch, Mamalujo, to become Book Two, Chapter Four. Jed Deppman has a vivid description of Joyce's method:

Resembling a modern subatomic physicist more than a copyeditor, he actively pulverized and recombined his textual elements, notably shattering 'Tristan' and scattering its pieces into 'Mamalujo'.
  Jed Deppman, 'A Chapter in Composition: Chapter II.4', How Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake, p 309

As an example of this, Tristan's operatic cry to Isolde 'from his toploftical voicebox' became part of a community singing scene in an old people's home!

their community singing (up) the top loft of the voicebox, of Mamalujo like the senior follies at murther magrees, squatting round,two by two, the four confederates, with Caxons the Coswarn, up the wet air register in Old Man’s House, Millenium Road 297.10 

Another line, describing Isolde swallowing Tristan's tongue - 'she lovegulped her American's pulpous propellor' was turned into 'whoever the gulpable, and whatever the pulpous' (396.23) 

Joyce also translated much of the clear English of the Tristan sketch into dense Wake language. So Isolde not caring 'a pinch of henshit' for Mark is transformed into 'it were too exceeding really if one would to offer at sulk an oldivirdual a pinge of hinge hit.' (396.19-20). 'Since Adam was in the boy's navy' became 'since Edem was in the boags noavy' (396.22).

It's a shame that Joyce never published the original Tristan sketch which, by the way, was the only thing Joyce wrote after 1922 that Ezra Pound approved of!2

Here's the whole piece, from the duplicate typescript made by Harriet Shaw Weaver in August 1923, as reproduced in the Garland James Joyce Archive volume. Yes, not only did Harriet Shaw Weaver support Joyce financially while he was writing the Wake (a book she didn't even like), she also acted as his occasional typist!  And she later gave his manuscripts to the British Library, where we can read them today.

Three cheers for Harriet Shaw Weaver!


1 'I have not written a word of Nausikaa beyond notation of flapper's atrocities and general plan of the specially new fizzing style (Patent No728SP.ZP.BP.LP>)'Joyce to Frank Budgen, undated letter, Letters I 132

2 'I will have another go at it, but up to present I make nothing of it whatever. Nothing so far as I make out, nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp can possibly by worth all the circumambient peripherization. Doubtless there are patient souls who will wade through anything for the sake of a joke...but...having no inkling whether the purpose of the author is to amuse or somma....Up to the present I have found diversion in the Tristan and Iseult paragraphs that you read years ago...mais apart ça...And in any case I don' see what which has to do with where...' Pound to Joyce, 15 November 1926, Letters, Vol III p.145


  1. You've got "Wreneagle Highflighty" at a level where I think it should be "Wreneagle Almighty" but maybe you have the better source? (It seems to be a very rare case where Joyce exchanged a pun for its sourceword, but I'd prefer to learn some typist did it.)

    1. I hadn't even noticed 'highflighty'! I simply cut and pasted it from Jorn Barger's transcription.

      I just checked the Archive versions, and 'highflighty' isn't in the handwritten fair copy where the poem first appears - it's 'almighty' in every version. I like 'highflighty' though, because it explains why the wren is the 'king of all birds' - by hitching a ride on the eagle's black and then flying higher.

      So the seaswans are swearing by the king of all birds - the almighty wren.

      'highflighty must appear in the newly discovered drafts, which Joyce abandoned. I will correct the text above to 'almighty'.

  2. Also, you give April as the date for the faircopy above, but August for the typescript of that faircopy-- I'd bet the faircopy is July or August too, because his eyesight is back and he's revised it another time or two.

    1. The Digital Archive dates it to August, so I think you're right - have corrected it.

  3. Two more anomalies in the typescript: "sparkling plug" where I expected "sparkingplug", and "one yard onehundredandthirtytwo lines" where I thought 'one yard' had already been dropped...?

  4. You might be right - the dates I give are those provided by the editors of the Archive. They have three fair copies, which they date March and April. Of the typescript, they say 'probably made by Harriet Shaw Weaver in August 1923.'

    1. Some of the insertions on Hayman's FDV (for T&I) are from notebook B3 page 120 or later, which Barger dates to post-June16:
      so all the faircopies should be June or later. The various drafts in Nora's hand should be April...?

  5. I've just discovered a typescript of the poem, in which Joyce has corrected 'Almighty' to 'Highflighty"! It was published by the James Joyce Broadshsheet in June 1989. Have added to the posting above.

  6. i don't know how to interpret this exactly: but it seems to date t&i to july. also, i ran across a note somewhere that hsw favored hayman's complex fdv-approach over a simpler faircopy approach someone else had proposed, which seems to me a 50-year catastrophe.

  7. 'Highflighty' is also in the newly discovered manuscript bought by the National Library of Ireland in 2006. This looks like an even earlier version - because it begins 'Three caws for Mister Mark' - he hasn't come up with 'quark' or 'Muster' yet.

    It seems to be written in Nora's handwriting. The line says 'O Eagle Highflighty', with 'Eagle' crossed out and 'Wreneagle' substituted.

    The mystery deepens!