Saturday, 14 April 2018

Delmore Schwartz's Wake

Here's another annotated Wake. It belonged to the poet and short story writer, Delmore Schwartz (1913-66), and it was posted on twitter by the Beineke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Yale. It was displayed in their recent exhibition, The Art of Collaboration.

Schwartz is known for writing striking titles for his poems (e.g.'The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me', 'Dogs are Shakespearian, Children are Strangers', and 'The Beautiful American Word, Sure') so it's fitting that the pages they had on display in the exhibition have Joyce's list of weird titles for Anna Livia's letter.

Delmore Schwartz was an obsessive Wake lover from the age of seventeen. Here's his biographer James Atlas:

'Delmore at seventeen was a self-styled member of the avant garde; he read Hound and Horn, studied Pound's Cantos as they appeared, and collected first editions of everything T.S.Eliot wrote. transition was especially important to him now that excerpts of Finnegans Wake were appearing in its pages, and he pored over each new installment with Talmudic zeal. For the rest of his life, Joyce was to be his literary hero, Finnegans Wake a work he read and annotated with such intensity that the copies would fall apart; he went through several in his lifetime.'   

Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, 1977

James Atlas records that, in the 1940s, Schwartz had a pet cat called Riverrun:

'He reserved his deepest affections for his cat, Riverrun – the first word in Finnegans Wake – with whom he carried on an elaborate relationship, feeding her expensive Portuguese sardines, worrying like a parent when she failed to come home, and coaxing her to sleep in his bed.'

Von Humboldt Fleischer, in Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift, is based on Delmore Schwartz:

'He had been on a Finnegans Wake kick for years. I remembered our many discussions of Joyce's view of language, of the poet's passion for charging speech with music and meaning, of the dangers that hover about all the works of the mind, of beauty falling into an abyss of oblivion like the snow chasms of the Antarctic, of Blake and Vision versus Locke and the tabula rasa....I was remembering with sadness of heart the lovely conversations Humbodlt and I used to have. Humanity divine incomprehensible!'

We owe a big debt of gratitude to the Beinecke library because they've digitised Schwartz's whole copy  and you can download it here. This is the very copy that he used to read aloud from in the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village!  It's not surprising that it's badly battered.  They've even included slips of paper left in the book. Here's a receipt for a typewriter.

It's easy to spend hours looking at Schwartz's Wake, reading it over his shoulder.  We can see that he's read Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson's Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, because he uses their chapter titles. Here you can see 'HCE's Agnomen and Reputation', their title for chapter two.

He doesn't seem to have been influenced by the Skeleton Key's interpretations (I looked for the passages they interpret as a branch brushing against the dreamer's window, and he hasn't annotated them).

On the blank pages between Wake sections, Schwartz has made some intriguing general notes about the book. Here he says, 'All the characters are HCE and HCE, not Shem, is JJ.'

If you reread the Wake, as Schwartz did many times, you notice the book's repeated motifs. Here on page 515, he's spotted that 'A gael galled by scheme of scorn?' is an echo of the end of the Anna Livia chapter: 'A tale told of Shaun or Shem?' (215.35)

Here's the book's title page, on which Schwartz has written a couple of Joyce quotations - perhaps as a key, or way in, to the book.

At the top, Schwartz has written, 'I bleed by the black stream for my torn bough'. This is a line from Joyce's 1904 poem 'Tilly', written, according to Ellmann, in response to his mother's death. It describes a herdsman, waving a flowering branch, driving cattle home near Cabra, where the Joyces lived. In the last verse, there's a startling shift of perspective, to that of the tree which has lost its branch.

Boor, bond of the herd
Tonight stretch full by the fire!
I bleed by the black stream
For my torn bough! 

In Finnegans Wake, trees also come alive and speak.

Beneath, Schwartz has written Stephen Dedalus's comment in Ulysses, 'History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.' Finnegans Wake is both a universal history and a night book. But Schwartz believed that history was a nightmare. It's typical of him that both quotations are expressions of suffering.

This is how Alfred Kazin remembered him in the 1940s, In his 1978 memoir New York Jew:

'He seemed to see his life as a clash between gravity, heaviness, depression, and poetry, which was the absolute, the truth.... Delmore was already the poet on the cross of culture, every muscle contorted; Brooklyn's best, nailed down. But from his cross, he shrieked the most brilliant things, the most scathing things, excitedly analyzing a passage by 'my king, James Joyce,' and, like a mad shuttlecock, flying at anyone who saw less beauty in his favorite texts than he did....'

James Atlas quotes a letter Schwartz wrote in 1949:

'If I sound a trifle frantic in tone and wild and far-fetched in making associations, it's partly because I read too much in Finnegans Wake last year.'

Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet. 1977


I first heard Schwartz's name from Lou Reed, who dedicated European Son to him on the first Velvet Underground album. I think this dedication was Reed's way of asking to be taken seriously as writer.

Reed was taught literature by Schwartz at Syracuse in 1960-4. In 2012, he wrote a moving piece, Oh Delmore How I Miss You, for the introduction to Schwartz's In Dreams Begin Responsibilities:

'O Delmore how I miss you. You inspired me to write. You were the greatest man I ever met. You could capture the deepest emotions in the simplest language. Your titles were more than enough to raise the muse of fire on my neck....We gathered around you as you read Finnegans Wake. So hilarious but impenetrable without you. You said there were few things better in life than to devote oneself to Joyce. You’d annotated every word in the novels you kept from the library. Every word.'

Reed also talks about using a ouija board and finding the ghost of Schwartz in his song, 'My House'.

We were happy and amazed at what we saw
Blazing stood the proud and regal name Delmore.

In the prose piece, Reed says that Schwartz had promised to come back and haunt him if he betrayed his talent ('And you Lou—I swear—and you know if anyone could I could—you Lou must never write for money or I will haunt you.') So it's odd that he doesn't take the ouija board appearance as an accusation. 

By coincidence the new Mojo magazine has an article about Lou Reed's poetry, which is being published by Laurie Anderson. She says, 'To the end of his life Lou was quoting Delmore. I found an account of people who'd spent money on the up-keep of Delmore's grave, and Lou had been paying $300 a year. I was so touched by that.'




Another of Schwartz's pupils, at Harvard in the 1940s, was the poet Kenneth Koch. In a poem written in his memory, Koch recalls another of Schwartz's obsessions, the Pogo cartoon strip by the Irish American poet and artist, Walt Kelly:

A Momentary Longing To Hear Sad Advice from One Long Dead

Who was my teacher at Harvard. Did not wear overcoat
Saying to me as we walked across the Yard
Cold brittle autumn is you should be wearing overcoat. I said
You are not wearing overcoat. He said,
You should do as I say not do as I do.
Just how American it was and how late Forties it was
Delmore, but not I, was probably aware. He quoted Finnegans Wake to me
In his New York apartment sitting on chair
Table directly in front of him. There did he write? I am wondering.
Look at this photograph said of his mother and father.
Coney Island. Do they look happy? He couldn't figure it out.
Believed Pogo to be at the limits of our culture.
Pogo. Walt Kelly must have read Joyce Delmore said.
Why don't you ask him?
Why don't you ask Walt Kelly if he read Finnegans Wake or not.
Your parents don't look happy but it is just a photograph.
Maybe they felt awkward posing for photographs.
Maybe it is just a bad photograph. Delmore is not listening
I want to hear him tell me something sad but however true.
Delmore in his tomb is sitting. People say yes everyone is dying
But here read this happy book on the subject. Not Delmore. Not
that rueful man.

Posted by Rob Stolzer on



Schwartz was only 21 when he wrote his masterpiece, the short story 'In Dreams Begin Responsibilities'. In the story, Schwartz finds himself in a cinema, watching a flickering black and white film of his own parents' courtship on a Coney Island afternoon in 1909. From the beginning, he can sense that the couple are not suited to each other. 

From James Atlas's biography

In the story's climactic moment, his father proposes marriage.

'It was then that I stood up in the theatre and shouted, 'Don't do it. It's not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.''

....The usher has seized my arm and is dragging me away, and as he does so, he says,'What are you doing? Don't you know that you can't do whatever you want to do? Why should a young man like you, with your whole life before you, get hysterical like this? Why don't you think of what you're doing?  You can't carry on like this, it is not right, you will find out soon enough, everything you do matters too much,' and he said that dragging me outside the lobby of the theatre into the cold light, and I woke up into the bleak winter morning of my 21st birthday, the windowsill shining with its lip of snow, and the morning already begun.'

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

'Everything you do matters too much' is a good analysis of his own character. 


Delmore Schwartz must have spent more time thinking about Finnegans Wake than almost anybody else. Yet it's a shame he wrote very little about the book. I've found just one essay, 'The Vocation of the Poet in the Modern World', written in 1951, in which he talks about what the Wake meant to him:

'Joyce had completed his last and probably his best book, the stupendous Finnegans Wake, a book which would itself provide sufficient evidence and illustration of the vocation of the modern poet in modern life. All that has been observed in Eliot's work is all the more true of Finnegans Wake – the attention to colloquial speech, the awareness of the variety of ways that languages can be degraded, and how that degradation can be the base for a new originality and exactitude, the sense of an involvement with the international scene and all history. But more than that, the radio and even television play a part in this wonderful book, as indeed they played a part in the writing of it. Joyce had a short wave radio with which he was able to hear London, Moscow, Dublin – and New York!  In Finnegans Wake, I was perplexed for a time by echoes of American radio comedy and Yiddish humor until I learned about Joyce's radio and about his daily reading of the Paris edition of the New York Herald-Tribune.' The most important point of all, however, is that Finnegans Wake exhibits in the smallest detail and in the entire scope of the work the internationality of the modern poet, his involvement in all history, and his consciousness of the impingement of any foreign language from Hebrew to Esperanto upon the poet's use of the English language.....'

Jaques Mercanton describes Joyce listening to the radio.

'When his wife showed me into the living room, he was sitting on the floor in front of the radio, legs stretched out, looking for a station with the help of a magnifying glass....He was trying to get the regional London program, to pick up an aria by Purcell.'

'The Hours of James Joyce' in Portraits of the Artist in Exile p207 

Perhaps someone can spot echoes of American radio comedy in his Wake annotations?

Schwartz spots the Yiddish word 'schicker', meaning drunken, on p181 of the Wake

'The question has been raised as to why Joyce, both in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, identified himself with Jews, with Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew, and with the character of Shem in his last book (Shem is, among other of his many kinships, a son of Noah, and he is compared with Jesus Christ...) The that the Jew is at once alienated and indestructible, he is an exile from his own country and an exile even from himself, yet he survives the annihilating fury of history. In the unpredictable and fearful future that awaits civilization, the poet must be prepared to be alienated and indestructible. He must dedicate himself to poetry, although no one else seems likely to read what he writes; and he must be indestructible as a poet until he is destroyed as a human being. In the modern world, poetry is alienated; it will remain indestructible as long as the faith and love of each poet in his vocation survives.'

Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz, ed Donald H Dike and David H Zucker 


Schwartz's last years were deeply troubled, but he was never without a copy of the Wake. Here are two of Atlas's descriptions of him in his final decade:

'Delmore moved to the seedy Hotel Marlton on West Eighth Street, where he lived in virtual isolation. Haunting Greenwich Village bars, studying Finnegans Wake  – which he even annotated while sitting in the stands at the Polo Grounds – scribbling florid verses, he became the tortured figure in his poem, 'The Dread and Fear of the Mind of Others''
In Washington Square Park in 1961 by Rollie McKenna

'The last decade of Schwartz's life was dominated by a struggle against encroaching madness....he moved from one hotel and boardinghouse to another, drifted through a few casual affairs with young, admiring women, and took to spending long hours in the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street...There, surrounded by an assortment of writers, Village regulars, and 'an attentive supply of girls' two steins of beer before him, Delmore would hold forth on politics, baseball, the Partisan Review days, or pull out one of his tattered, annotated copies of Finnegans Wake and read a few pages aloud; he was rumored to have once talked for eight hours straight.'  

Schwartz died at the age of just 52, on 11 July 1966, following a heart attack in the Columbia Hotel on the corner of 6th Avenue near Times Square. His body lay unclaimed in the morgue for two days until a reporter noticed his name on a list of the dead. On hearing the news, John Berryman wrote 'Dream Song 149':

'This world is gradually becoming a place
where I do not care to be anymore. Can Delmore die?
I don’t suppose
in all them years a day ever went by
without a loving thought for him. Welladay.
In the brightness of his promise,

unstained, I saw him thro’ the mist of the actual
blazing with insight, warm with gossip
thro’ all our Harvard years
when both of us were just becoming known
I got him out of a police-station once, in Washington, the world is TREF
and grief too astray for tears.

I imagine you have heard the terrible news,
that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone,
in New York: he sang me a song
‘I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz
Harms and the child I sing, two parents’ torts’
when he was young and gift-strong.'

'Tref' or 'treif' is a Yiddish word meaning non-kosher, but its literal sense is 'torn' or 'wounded'.

Schwartz's books and papers were later rescued by his old friend Dwight Macdonald (thanks to a chance encounter in a bar between Macdonald's son and the owner of the removal company which had emptied the room). 

Macdonald made himself Schwartz's literary executor and, in 1974, donated the poet's papers to Yale, where we can now see his copy of Finnegans Wake.

Here's the final torn page - the last leaf carried by Anna Livia Plurabelle to the sea.

My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. I’ll bear it on me. To remind me of. Lff !

Schwartz added pages 619-628 from a different copy, though these are barely annotated. But on the back of the very last one, he's written two more quotations, one the Madame Sesostris passage from The Waste Land, and the other from the Book of Genesis 16:

And the angel of the Lord said unto her, Behold, thou art with child and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the Lord hath heard thy affliction.
12 And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.