'The Holy Office', a poem by James Joyce


‘The Holy Office’ is a satirical poem by James Joyce that strikes back at contemporary Irish authors and posits an alternative artistic vision.

Joyce’s targets – including W B Yeats, Padraic Colum and John Millington Synge – were members of the Irish Literary Revival. Full of dense allusion and insider-references, Joyce essentially rejects his acquaintances, casting them as romantic, insular mystics and hypocrites, who, unlike him, do not depict the realities of Irish life. At this time Joyce was working on Dubliners, which he first submitted for publication in 1905 (the collection was finally published in 1914).

Casting himself as ‘Katharsis-Purgative’ (the Greek ‘Katharsis’ meaning purification or cleansing), Joyce maintains that his contemporaries collectively use him as a figure to not merely disapprove of, but to channel 'their filthy streams' while reinforcing their feelings of purity and superiority:

But all these men of whom I speak
Make me a sewer of their clique.
That they may dream their dreamy dreams
I carry off their filthy streams
For I can do those things for them
Through which I lost my diadem [crown]
Those things for which Grandmother Church
Left me severely in the lurch.
Thus I relieve their timid arses,
Perform my office of Katharsis.
My scarlet leaves them white as wool
Through me they purge a bellyful.

Martyr-like, Joyce closes the poem with a declaration of independence: ‘I stand the self-doomed, unafraid, / Unfellowed, friendless and alone’, ending, ‘And though they spurn me from their door / My soul shall spurn them evermore’. ‘The Holy Office’ thus marks out Joyce as artist in voluntary exile, a concept later explored in the novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Publishing history

‘The Holy Office’ is Joyce’s earliest published literary work, written in 1904 and published in 1905 when he was in his twenties. It is rare, believed to exist in fewer than 100 copies.

The poem was rejected by the University College Dublin’s magazine, St Stephen’s, and publication again failed – this time for financial reasons – after taking it to the Dublin Printing Company. Eventually, Joyce printed the poem in Pola, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, where he lived between November 1904 and March 1905.

Full title:
The Holy Office
estimated 1905, Pola [today part of Croatia, then part of Austria-Hungary]
James Joyce
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

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