James Joyce

James Joyce; painting by Robert Amos

We have selected some early poetry by James Joyce as well as some excerpts from other major works, especially Finnegans Wake and Ulysses.


Pomes Penyeach was written over a 20-year period, from 1904 to 1924, and originally published on 7 July 1927 by Shakespeare and Company, for the price of one shilling (twelve pennies) or twelve francs. The title is a play on “poems” and pommes (the French word for apples) which are here offered at “a penny each” in either currency. It was the custom for Irish tradespeople of the time to offer their customers a “tilly” (in Irish, tuilleadh) or extra serving – just as English bakers had developed the tradition of the “baker’s dozen“, offering thirteen loaves instead of twelve. The first poem of Pomes Penyeach is entitled “Tilly” and represents the bonus offering of this penny-a-poem collection. (The poem was originally entitled “Cabra”, after the Cabra district of Dublin where Joyce was living at the time of his mother’s death.

Pomes Penyeach Sequence

After World War I Joyce returned for a few months to Trieste, and then—at the invitation of Ezra Pound—in July 1920 he went to Paris. His novel Ulysses was published there on February 2, 1922, by Sylvia Beach, proprietor of the bookshop Shakespeare and Company. Ulysses is constructed as a modern parallel to Homer’s Odyssey. All of the action of the novel takes place in Dublin on a single day (June 16, 1904). The three central characters—Stephen Dedalus (the hero of Joyce’s earlier Portrait of the Artist), Leopold Bloom, and his wife, Molly Bloom—are intended to be modern counterparts of Telemachus, Ulysses, and Penelope. By the use of interior monologue, Joyce reveals the innermost thoughts and feelings of these characters as they live hour by hour, passing from a public bath to a funeral, library, maternity hospital, and brothel.

Joyce was born in Dublin into a middle-class family. A brilliant student, he attended the Jesuit Clongowes Wood College in Kildare, then, briefly, the Christian Brothers-run O’Connell Schoolbefore excelling at the Jesuit Belvedere College, despite the chaotic family life imposed by his father’s unpredictable finances. He went on to attend University College Dublin.

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Ulysses of James Joyce

Joyce in Zürich by Conrad Ruf [de](c. 1918)

In 1904, in his early 20s, Joyce emigrated to continental Europe with his partner (and later wife) Nora Barnacle. They lived in Trieste, Paris, and Zürich. Although most of his adult life was spent abroad, Joyce’s fictional universe centres on Dublin and is populated largely by characters who closely resemble family members, enemies, and friends from his time there. Ulysses in particular is set with precision in the streets and alleyways of the city. Shortly after the publication of the book, he elucidated this preoccupation somewhat, saying, “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.

Legacy of James Joyce

James Joyce’s subtle yet frank portrayal of human nature, coupled with his mastery of language and brilliant development of new literary forms, made him one of the major figures of literary Modernism and among the most commanding influences on novelists of the 20th century. Ulysses has come to be accepted as a masterpiece, two of its characters, Leopold Bloom and his wife, Molly, being portrayed with a fullness and warmth of humanity that is arguably unsurpassed in fiction. Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is also remarkable for the intimacy of the reader’s contact with the central figure and contains some astonishingly vivid passages. The 15 short stories collected in Dubliners mainly focused upon Dublin life’s sordidness, but “The Dead” is one of the world’s great short stories. Critical opinion remains divided over Joyce’s last work, Finnegans Wake, a universal dream about an Irish family, composed in a multilingual style on many levels and aiming at a multiplicity of meanings, but, although seemingly unintelligible at first reading, the book is full of poetry and wit, containing passages of great beauty. Joyce’s other works—some verse (Chamber Music, 1907; Pomes Penyeach, 1927; Collected Poems, 1936) and a playExiles (1918)—though competently written, added little to his international stature.