Of all the epiphanic books I read at Notre Dame High School, it was in Patrick Flynn’s literature class during junior year when a particular passage sweetly shook me to the core. It was also the same year I decided to become a teacher. In later years, teaching A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to advanced placement seniors remains one of my fondest memories at Lyons Township High School.
“Where was his boyhood now? Where was the soul that had hung back from her destiny, to brood alone upon the shame of her wounds and in her house of squalor and subterfuge to queen it in faded cerements and in wreaths that withered at the touch? Or where was he?
“He was alone. He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and willful and wild hearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the sea harvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight and gay-clad light-clad figures, of children and girls and voices childish and girlish in the air.
“A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and soft-hued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips where the white fringes of her drawers were like featherings of soft white down. Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird’s soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark plumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.
“She was alone and still, gazing out to sea; and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness. Long, long she suffered his gaze and then quietly withdrew her eyes from his and bent them towards the stream, gently stirring the water with her foot… The first faint noise of gently moving water broke the silence, low and faint and whispering, faint as the bells of sleep; …and a faint flame trembled on her cheek.
“Heavenly God!’ cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy.
“He turned away from her suddenly and set off across the strand. His cheeks were aflame; his body was aglow; his limbs were trembling…
“Her image had passed into his soul forever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory…
“He turned landward and ran towards the shore and, running up the sloping beach, reckless of the sharp shingle, found a shady nook amid a ring of tufted sand knolls and lay down there that the peace and silence of the evening might still the riot of his blood.
“He felt above him the vast indifferent dome and the calm processes of the heavenly bodies; and the earth beneath him, the earth that had borne him, had taken him to her breast…
“He climbed to the crest of the sand hill and gazed about him. Evening had fallen. A rim of the young moon cleft the pale waste of sky like the rim of a silver hoop embedded in grey sand; and the tide was flowing in fast to the land with a low whisper of her waves, islanding a few last figures in distant pools...”
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Viking Press, 1964.