Link to text of The Holy Office online: link
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One of the most interesting background facts about Joyce is that he wrote most of his works, including the series of short stories called Dubliners while he wasn’t in Ireland. In 1904, just before Joyce was about to leave Ireland for good (he would make rare trips back), he published The Holy Office, a poem denouncing what he considered to be the “introverted atmosphere of the Irish literary revival.” Considering how young Joyce was when he published The Holy Office and examining the artistic position that he lays out in the poem, sheds some light on Joyce’s style and his reasons for striking back against Ireland’s literary revival.
The most obvious part of Joyce’s satire is his attack on the close-mindedness of the Celtic revival. This element of the poem is most clear when Joyce compares himself to Thomas Aquinas, and makes mention of Aristotle. The part of Aquinas’ life that Joyce was referencing is when St. Thomas Aquinas was able to open the mind of the Catholic Church to examining classic writings. Aquinas’ commentary on Aristotle was able to combat the shunning of classical works by the Franciscans in the Church, and also helped to reintroduce classical works to Church intellectuals. Joyce obviously fancies himself in this same role, helping to spread literature outside of the Celtic revival to the Irish literary scene. Joyce’s comparison to Aquinas is seen when he says, “Bringing to tavern and to brothel \\ The mind of witty Aristotle” and even more clearly when he says, “Steeled in the school of old Aquinas. \\ Where they have crouched and crawled and prayed \\ I stand, the self-doomed, unafraid.” Joyce’s dislike of the state of the Irish literary revival, and what he saw as close-mindedness, is certainly one of the factors that caused him to leave for the rest of the European continent.
Another interesting part of The Holy Office, is the fact that Joyce sees his purpose, or his Holy Office, as a sacrifice that he is willing to make. I stand, the self-doomed, unafraid, \\ Unfellowed, friendless and alone, \\Indifferent as the herring-bone.” This pertains to another strained relationship that Joyce had in Ireland. There was no love lost between Joyce and the Dublin literary critics. In Joyce’s own words, in 1905 (a year after publishing The Holy Order) ”The Dublin papers will object to my stories as to a caricature of Dublin life... At times the spirit directing my pen seems to me so plainly mischievous that I am almost prepared to let the Dublin critics have their way.”
Amidst the comparisons to Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, and the references to the consequences of his exile for holding his “Holy Office” Joyce is able to paint a picture of the close-minded literary revival that spurned him and he fought against. The poem captures some of the reasons for Joyce leaving Ireland, and some of the feelings behind him leaving.