Near the beginning of James Joyce’s 1916 novel, A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, we come across the ‘artist’s’ first artistic production, a limited and repetitive poem which consists entirely of the words ‘Pull out his eyes / Apologise’ (Joyce 1992, 4). Towards the end of the novel, an apparently more sophisticated Stephen writes another repetitive poem, this time in the form of a villanelle (Joyce 1992, 242–3). The second poem, scrawled on the back of a cigarette packet, comes to Stephen Dedalus in a moment of inspiration, which he identifies as an annunciation (236), but the transcendent moment is fleeting, and the sordid space of his room reasserts itself. The villanelle form is a technically difficult form to write, especially in English, a language with a scarcity of easy rhyme words. It consists of nineteen lines, divided into five three-line and one four-line stanzas, with only two rhyming sounds. The first and third lines of the first stanza repeat as the ‘refrain’ of the poem, forming the last lines of succeeding stanzas and the last two lines of the poem as a whole. Its movement dramatizes repetition with difference, for in the different contexts of succeeding stanzas, the same words come to function differently. And to this extent, the later poem and the earlier poem share something quite important: repetition and difference reiterated across the pages of the novel constitute one of this novel’s major themes. They stand for the ways in which subjectivity is made: the child repeats the words and gestures of others, but his repetition is always a modification of what has gone before, refracted through his developing idiolect and increasing consciousness of his own subject position.
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