Mary Lawton on the Interrelationship of Jame Joyce’s Ulysses and Phineas Fletcher’s Purple Island or The Isle of Man

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The third frame of the FestivalBloomsdayMontréal triptych was Mary Lawton’s discussion of the connection between Fletcher’s 17th Century “The Purple Island” and Joyce’s use of body structures and organs in the anatomy of Ulysses.

At the outset, I believed the comparison to be a false one. Fletcher’s construction is an allegory, more like a medieval morality play and without connection to an illustrative use of symbols in Ulysses, I thought. Some claim that Ulysses has no plot at all, but if we allow “plot” to mean exactly the bit of land on which Dublin sits, I can see the connection more clearly. The “wards” (with pun intended) on watch from my purple island failed to make sense of the meaning gathering in the mist offshore.

In “‘The Purple Island’ of Phineas Fletcher: allusions to the anatomy of the human body in English poetry up to the end of the seventeenth century,” John Riddington Young summarizes: 

A human’s sight is a warder; the teeth are porters. A human’s tongue and their ability to taste are embodied as a man and his wife. A person’s intelligence is the island’s prince and the prince’s counselors are the person’s five senses. The island prince’s enemies are epitomized as diseases and vices, while the island prince’s allies are exemplified by virtues.

If the Isle of Man is an appropriate alternate title, and if Dublin is a character of Ulysses’ plot (who could doubt that?), then an identity emerges. The allegorical body of man in Fletcher serves the same purpose as the body of Dublin does for Joyce. Let’s examine only the first and the last organs to appear on Gilbert’s Schema for Ulysses and compare these to Fletcher’s verse.

Canto II, 25-28

Beside the bladder there are six speciall parts contained in this lower region: the liver, stomack, with the guts; the gall, the splene, or milt; the kidneys, and parts for generation.

Fletcher described these conduits as passageways within the island. In the novel, the kidneys express the Isle of Calypso. From here, Bloom ventures out. When he is at home (“Who’s he when he’s at home?” demands Molly) a body sustains himself, Molly, daughter, and a cat. Molly is also equipped with a chamber pot. Ingress and evacuation are both prepared for in the structures that comprise Dublin. 

In the same room at the novel’s end, Molly represents the civic flesh.

Canto II, 14-15

The native colour of the skinne is white but (as Hippocrates) changed into the same colour which is brought by the humour predominant. Where melancholie abounds, it is swarthy; where flegme, it is white, and pale; where holer reignes, it is red and firy; but in sanguine of a rosie colour.

The skinne is covered with the cuticle, or flourishing of the skinne, it is the mean of touching, without which we feel, but with pain. It polisheth the skinne, which many times is hanged, and (as it is with snakes) put off, and a new, and more amiable brought in.

Molly is the flesh that draws the men of Dublin across the four bodily humors from phlegmatic to sanguine, choleric to melancholic. She is the flesh that brings the bones of Fletcher’s island houses alive. 

A city, a body, an island, a story are designed to survive invasions, viruses, storms, and short-sighted criticism like mine. Lawton said it was Joyce’s medical training that drew the analogy of the body’s organs and structures. Sensibly so.



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