Ecce Puer by James Joyce

Ecce Puer was published in 1932 and it is featured in Collected Poems. Joyce wrote this poem in order to mourn the recent death of his father, John Stanislaus Joyce, and to mark the birth of his grandson, Stephen James Joyce. Ecce Puer can be translated as: “Behold the Young Boy”.  The title is an exclamation in Latin and appears to address someone in the poem.  Nevertheless, the ambiguity surrounding the recipient of the phrase is useful for the establishment of the main theme in the poem. The main theme of the poem is the birth of new generations amidst guilt and bliss and how these relate to the past and their future.

The poem serves as a contiguity of Joyce’s poetry work. Ecce Puer has the song-like rhythm of Chamber Music, but the cruder voice of Pomes Penyeach. Chamber Music was published in 1907 and it is a romantic and sentimental collection of short poems. Later in his life, James Joyce said that this book was a “young man’s book”. Pomes Penyeach, on the other hand, was published in 1927 and it abandons the sentimentalism of Chamber Music to express his mature voice, known for his satirical tone and his outstanding wordplay. Thus, Ecce Puer is nurtured by those two distinct types of poetry that Joyce wrote throughout his life.

Ecce Puer has four stanzas with four lines each and it has an ABCB rhyme scheme. The title suggests a hymn, a type of song with religious purposes. Yet, Ecce Puer has no religious connotations, but it has a gentle rhythm which can be related to that of a song. The tone and the musicality of the poem are accentuated by the short stanzas and the simple rhyme scheme, and, moreover, they enable the emphasis on the importance of the words.

 

Ecce Puer Analysis

First stanza

Of the dark past

A child is born.

With joy and grief

My heart is torn.

The first stanza sets the scene. The lyrical voice opens the poem by depicting the birth of a child: “Of the dark past/ A child is born”. Notice how the past is described as “dark”, having negative connotations from the very beginning. And, moreover, although the child has recently been born, he/ she is already strongly linked to the past. Ambiguity is expressed from the start, since the lyrical voice feels “joy and grief” at the same time. The lyrical voice feels uncertain about this; the child represents a bright future, but it also incarnates the complication of the previous times. “My heart is torn” is a phrase that echoes folksongs and that is frequently used in the poems of Chamber Music.

 

Second Stanza

Calm in his cradle

The living lies.

May love and mercy

Unclose his eyes!

The second stanza describes the child. The lyrical voice makes a depiction, as he/she watched the child from afar: “Calm in his cradle/The living lies”. The child is unaware of everything that happens around him, as he/she is calm in his cradle. The lyrical voice wishes worthy things for him/her (“May love and mercy”). The phrase “Unclose his eyes!” suggests the reverse state from death; the child is opening his eyes in order to live, and the lyrical voice longs that this is done with love.

Related poetry:   Flood by James Joyce

 

Third Stanza

Young life is breathed

On the glass;

The world that was not

Comes to pass.

The third stanza portrays the feelings around the child. The lyrical voice uses an interesting image to talk about the new baby: “Young life breathed/On the glass”. This also contrasts with death, as it leaves no marks. But, the child’s breathing makes mist that touches the glass and shows life and vitality. Notice how the ambiguity between life and death becomes stronger in each stanza, using different images to convey the lyrical voice’s internal struggle. The last lines (“The world that was not/Comes to pass”) show that the birth of this baby is a marvelous event, a miracle.

 

Fourth Stanza

A child is sleeping:

An old man gone.

O, father forsaken,

Forgive your son!

The final stanza depicts the ambiguity in the lyrical voice’s thoughts. In these last lines, the lyrical voice presents an imagery of antithesis between life and death: “A child is sleeping: And old man gone”. This sums up the previous mentions to life and death in two brief but strong lines. There are two possible ways to read the final lines. Either the lyrical voice refers to his/her biological father, who is the “old man gone”, to ask for forgiveness, or he/she is talking to god in the form of a prayer. In any case, these lines outline the struggle that the lyrical voice feels throughout the poem.

 

About James Joyce

James Joyce was born in 1882 and died in 1941. He was an Irish novelist and a short story writer but his works also include three books of poetry, a play, some journalism articles and published letters. James Joyce had little success as a poetry writer and is better known as a novelist. By 1932 he had stopped writing poetry altogether. Nevertheless, James Joyce is considered one of the most prominent literary figures of the twentieth century. His most famous book is Ulysses, which is based on Homer’s Odyssey and parallels its structure but with a Dublin setting. Moreover, he is also well-known for introducing the stream of consciousness form and for contributing to the modernist movement of the beginning of the twentieth century alongside T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, among others.

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