Pomes Penyeach

by Anthony Domestico

The 1932 Obelisk Press edition of Pomes Penyeach came at a crucial juncture in James Joyce’s writing career and in the life and mental health of his daughter, Lucia.  At the time, Joyce was internationally renowned for Ulysses and laboring over his Work in Progress; meanwhile, Lucia was descending into the nightmare of schizophrenia, becoming increasingly delusional and erratic in behavior.  Joyce had already published Pomes Penyeach, a series of 13 poems written between 1904 and 1924, with Shakespeare and Co. in 1927.  In 1931, a publisher named Caresse Crosby, having seen and admired Lucia Joyce’s designs for a musical setting of Joyce’s poems, suggested that Joyce put out a limited edition volume of Pomes Penyeach containing illuminations of the initial letters for each poem.  Joyce, eager to believe that some productive work would soothe Lucia’s inner demons and lead her back onto the road to normalcy, jumped at the chance.

Joyce approached Jack Kahane, a founder of Obelisk Press who had previously produced a limited edition of Joyce’s Haveth Childers Everywhere, and the two agreed to terms. With Desmond Harmsworth, Obelisk Press agreed to print a version of Pomes Penyeach that would use Lucia’s drawings and stress the handcrafted, artisanal nature of the book. Twenty-five copies were printed in the summer of 1932. In the hopes of instilling in Lucia a sense of worth and independence, Joyce convinced Kahane to give Lucia 33% of the net profits.

Title page of Pomes Penyeach by James Joyce; initial letters designed and illuminated by Lucia Joyce. Source: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/dl_crosscollex/brbldl_getrec.asp?fld=img&id=1054392

The 1932 edition consists of 13 poems printed on 9 loose folio sheets folded and placed on top of each other.  The text of each poem is a facsimile of Joyce’s own cursive (oftentimes messy) handwriting printed in black ink.  The pages themselves are Japan nacre, and the rough edges and uneven coloration give them the appearance of handmade papyrus.  On top of each page, there is a piece of transparent tissue paper that contains the text of the poem printed in green.  The loose sheets were placed in a portfolio of pale green silk, the color of an apple (pomme is French for apple).  The folio sheets do not have titles for the poems (although the tissue paper sheets do); the reader’s eye is thus initially and most compellingly engaged by the illuminations, by their play with color and shape, rather than by the texts of the poems themselves.

The title page reads (in Joyce’s handwriting), “Pomes Penyeach / by James Joyce / Initial Letters Designed and Illuminated by / Lucia Joyce.”  In the bottom right-hand corner, there is an abstract design by Lucia.  The grey and bluish design bears a resemblance to a snake’s head (this motif will recur throughout the illuminations) or perhaps a book placed on a stand, a possible allusion to the book’s status as a Bible-like illuminated manuscript.  The title page stresses the collaborative aspect of the project, as well as its handmade nature: both father and daughter’s names appear, and we see the pen strokes of each in the title and design, respectively.

If Joyce’s earlier collection of poems, Chamber Music, seemed a disembodied, almost ethereal entity, then Pomes Penyeach is far more concerned with place, with rootedness, with actual towns and real villages.  Joyce mentions specific geographical locations – Cabra (a district in Dublin), San Sabba (a village in Trieste), Rahoon (a parish in medieval Ireland).  Interestingly, the place of composition for each poem is listed at the bottom of each page.  These place names give a sense both of Joyce’s cosmopolitan experience and his physical estrangement from the Ireland that so saturates his work: only one poem was written in Dublin, while Trieste is identified as the place of composition in eight poems, Zurich in three, and Paris in one.

This concern with place also is reflected in the book’s captivating melding of Western and Eastern influences, with the title page, illuminations, and content grounding the text in both Celtic and Oriental manuscript traditions.  The Celtic influences are interesting if somewhat subdued.  They consist of Joyce’s choice of green for the text of the tissue paper and the slipcase, as well as the similarity between the illuminations in Pomes and those found in the Book of Kells.  A series of Eastern motifs also appears throughout Lucia’s illuminations: lush palm trees in the initial letters of “A Flower Given to My Daughter,” “Bahnhofstrasse,” and “On the Beach at Fontana”; serpentine creatures on the title page and in the initial letters of “Flood” and “A Prayer”; and a cool, oasis-like pool at the bottom of the “F” in “A Flower Given to My Daughter.”  The edition’s first and earliest completed poem, “Tilly,” describes the Irish countryside and its bovine inhabitants.  It also, however, seems to anticipate Leopold Bloom’s fantasies of roaming cattle in Tiberias through its striking amalgamation of sensuality (“home is warm,” “smoke pluming”) and violence (“make brute music,” “I bleed by the black stream / For my torn bough!”).  From the exotic bazaar of “Araby” in Dubliners to Molly’s gaudy dress in the “Circe” section of Ulysses, Joyce was always intrigued by the Orient and, more specifically, by the West’s imaginings of and projections onto it.  From her illuminations, we can see that Lucia shared this curiosity with her father.  Content and form, text and illuminations, inform and reflect one another.

We can also see a number of formal connections between Joyce’s poems in this edition and his more well-regarded fiction.  His use of compound words, yoking together adjective and noun or adjective and adjective (“ghostfires” and “sindark” in “Nightpiece,” “rosefrail” and “blueveined” in “A Flower Given to My Daughter”), anticipates the similar linguistic ingenuity of Ulysses; his predilection for chiasmatic phrasing (“falls softly, softly falling” in “Rahoon,” “Wind whines and whines the shingle” in “On the Beach”) hearkens back to Stephen Dedalus’s obsession with such formal preciousness in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; and finally, the most striking diction of the poems – “lambent,” “repine,” “twining” – echoes the pleasure that Joyce derives from the aural, almost sensual quality of words in his prose.

But beyond verbal links to Joyce’s masterful novels, the 1932 edition of Pomes Penyeach is perhaps most interesting for its play with individual craft and mass production, the handmade and the mechanical.  In using Joyce’s own handwriting as the primary text for the poems, in leaving the folio sheets unbound, in selecting paper that appeared to retain signs of human production, Joyce and his publishers were tapping into ideas of the handcrafted.  They wanted the volume to appear a painstaking labor of love rather than a mass-produced edition to be read and discarded; they desired the book to look like the collaborative, time-consuming effort of father and daughter rather than the rapid output of a printing press.  The edition deliberately mimics a past literary culture in which monks carefully copied manuscripts and devoted attention to the book as an aesthetic object in its own right.  The unbound folios allow rearrangement by the reader, and the differing punctuation between this and other editions – there are more exclamation marks in the 1932 than in the 1929 edition – destabilizes any idea of a fixed, normalized text printed by machine.

Despite these wishes, however, the book cannot escape the traces of mass production.  The poems, after all, are not truly written by Joyce, but are facsimiles; one of the defining characteristics of the individual, the quirks and tendencies that make up handwriting, has been absorbed into the realm of the copied, the endlessly printable.  The book’s sales history and distribution problems indicate the severe disadvantages that such a project, even by an acclaimed master like Joyce, seemed bound to suffer in an age of mechanical reproduction.  British customs officials seized ten copies intended for British subscribers in 1932 due to their expensive silk covering.  By 1933, Joyce claimed that only two people had paid in full for their copies; by 1935, unsold copies languished with the publishers.  In fact, Joyce was so desperate to prove the success of the project that he secretly routed 1000 francs through Kahane to Lucia as supposed royalties.

If the avowed goal of the edition was the mental rehabilitation of Lucia or financial remuneration for Joyce and his publishers, then the book was an unmitigated failure: Lucia sank deeper and deeper into mental illness, eventually requiring hospitalization, while Joyce had to purchase and then donate copies to various European libraries when even the lure of his name failed to attract twenty-five subscribers.  Nevertheless, for a writer like Joyce who was always concerned with the physical appearance of his works, the 1932 Pomes Penyeach is an outstanding example of the integrity that can be achieved between poetry and its material presentation, between literary content and its appearance on the page.


Works Cited
Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

James Joyce Bibliography, “Pomes Penyeach A.IX.4 (1932),” Dr. Stacey Herbert,
http://joycebiblio.org/ pomes_1932_pubhistory.html, Accessed April 4, 2008.