Poem of the Day: ‘A Flower Given to My Daughter’
James Joyce may be a craggy and dangerous mountain, but he is a mountain of literature nonetheless, and the literary sensibility that cannot bother reading him is neither literary nor sensitive.
If we’re going to celebrate literary birthdays in February, it’s hard to dodge the birthday of James Joyce (1882–1941) on February 2, if only because Joyce is, well, Joyce. Over the past few decades, a curious anti-Joyce sentiment seems to have taken hold among conservatives with pretensions to literary discernment.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, the thought was usually that Joyce wrote works that were brilliant and problematic. The more recent dismissal, however, seems to come from simply emphasizing the problematic, and thereby thinking itself free from having to engage the brilliance of the prose. It is as though, to borrow from Philip Rieff, we only have to know that Joyce wrote deathworks of culture, and so are relieved from having actually to read them.
Bah. James Joyce may be a craggy and dangerous mountain, but he is a mountain of literature nonetheless, and the literary sensibility that cannot bother reading him is neither literary nor sensitive. Among the poems in his collection “Pomes Penyeach” (1927) is the 1913 poem “A Flower Given to My Daughter.” In two quatrains rhymed abab, the poem moves through a progression of increasing frailty: a rose, a child’s hands, the wonder in a daughter’s eyes. Alternating three- and two-foot lines, the brief verse moves through its adjectives to its ambiguous conclusion.
A Flower Given to My Daughter
by James Joyce
Frail the white rose and frail are
Her hands that gave
Whose soul is sere and paler
Than time’s wan wave.
Rose-frail and fair — yet frailest
A wonder wild
In gentle eyes thou veilest,
My blue-veined child.
With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems will be typically drawn from the lesser-known portion of the history of English verse. In the coming months we will be reaching out to contemporary poets for examples of current, primarily formalist work, to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.