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Ecce Puer (1932)
One of the characteristics of James Joyce’s work,\ that I have come across both in the analysis and biography that I’ve read is that Joyce’s work often contains an epiphany. In looking for one of Joyce’s poems to write a response to, I happened across “Ecce Puer.” The page on which I found the poem described it as having an ‘epiphanic title.’ It was the title that interested me in the poem, and after reading the poem, and looking for the epiphany, I realized how important the title was to discovering the meaning, and therefore the epiphany of the poem.
“Ecce Puer” is Latin for an exclamation such as ‘Hey’ or ‘Look’ and ‘puer’ means ‘boy.’ In Latin we always learned ‘Ecce’ simply as an exclamation that is used to get someone’s attention. It is very different from another Latin exclamation ‘eheu,’ which is a disappointed exclamation, meaning ‘alas!” At first read of the poem, I thought that ‘eheu’ might have been more fitting of the poem. The sadness of ‘eheu’ might better suit the poem because the poem contained a sad topic, the death of a father. The poem was written about a man who had just had a son, but around the same time his father also had died. The feeling of the poem, the joy mixed with disappointment and sadness, was captured in the line, “With joy and grief // My heart is torn.” However the last stanza, and particularly the last line stood out to me because they didn’t go along with the theme of torn or split emotions, the last stanza captured a feeling of regret and apology, especially the last line. “O, father forsaken \\ Forgive your son!”
Upon reading the poem a second and third time, one line stuck out at me more and more, this line was, “The world that was not \\ Comes to pass.” After reading this line, the epiphany became clearer to me. I began to realize that the birth of the son for the man made him remember and reflect on how he had neglected his father and not been a good son. In hoping for his son to be good, he was able to remember how he himself had been bad, by neglecting his father. The “life that was not” was the life in which the man neglected his father, and he now hopes that his son does not do the same thing to him.
The title of the poem lends a very important aspect to the meaning of the poem. Instead of implying that the father is thinking to himself, the ‘ecce puer’ exclamation adds the feeling that the author is addressing someone in the poem. Perhaps he is addressing the boy he once was, telling him of his mistakes, or maybe he is actually addressing his son, not only hoping that he doesn’t make the same mistakes, but is telling him not to. The title becomes even more fitting as ‘ecce’ when we think of its use, as a word to get someone else’s attention. For whether it is the man’s father asking for his attention, when he was neglected, or the man himself looking for attention from his newborn son, the ideas of neglect and attention are further emphasized. The ambiguity of the ‘Ecce Puer’ serves as an example of the main theme of the poem, how amidst joy and grief, new generations are born, and we hope, are able to learn from the lessons of the past.