James Joyce composed ‘Gas from a Burner’ in response to learning that the printed sheets of his short story collection Dubliners had been destroyed by the printer John Falconer. The collection had already been rejected for publication on several occasions. After the incident, Joyce left Dublin on 12 September 1912 for Trieste, Italy, never to set foot in Ireland again. En route, he began to compose this cutting satirical poem at Flushing railway station in the Netherlands.
In Trieste, Joyce had the poem printed as a broadside – a large sheet of paper printed on one side. He sent copies to his brother Charles in Dublin to circulate among friends and enemies.
Who and what does ‘Gas from a Burner’ target?
‘Gas from a Burner’ is written from the dual perspective of John Falconer, the printer who burnt the sheets (as alluded to in the title), and George Roberts, manager at the publishers Maunsel and Company. The ‘Irish writer in foreign parts’ with ‘foul intent’, therefore, is Joyce.
Joyce focusses in on the fact that Maunsel and Company, after agreeing to publish Dubliners, rejected it for being ‘anti-Irish’. Refuting the accusation, Joyce follows in the footsteps of the great 18th-century Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, drawing on all the powers of satire. He paints Falconer/Roberts as false, cowardly and hypocritical, listing Maunsel and Company’s previously published authors whose works feature sex, obscenities and had even caused riots (i.e. The Playboy of the Western World by John Millington Synge).
Going further, Joyce attacks Irish culture at large – ‘This lovely land that always sent / Her writers and artists to banishment’. He implies that his ‘writing of Dublin, dirty and dear’ merely depicts the city as it truly is: ‘the foreigner learns the gift of the gab / From the drunken draggletail Dublin drab’.
Joyce does not cower to the accusation of indecency against Dubliners: ‘Gas from a Burner’ is full of uncensored, inflammatory content. It contains swearing, sex, references to farts and arses (rhyming ‘arse’ with ‘verse’), and blasphemies that culminate in the closing image of Falconer/Roberts’s assistant making the sign of the cross ‘upon my bum’ with the ashes of Dubliners.