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Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.
Sitting on the steps of the university library, Stephen watches a flock of birds circling above and tries to identify their species. He muses on the idea of flight and on the fact that men have always tried to fly. His thoughts turn to lines from a Yeats play that has recently opened, lines that characterize swallows as symbols of freedom. He remembers having heard harsh criticism of the play, as some young men accused Yeats of libel and atheism. Leaving the library, Stephen walks with Cranly and Temple, who fall into an argument. Stephen's beloved Emma leaves the library and nods a greeting to Cranly, ignoring Stephen. Stephen feels hurt and jealous, and envisions Emma walking home. A squat young man named Glynn approaches Stephen and his friends, and Temple engages them in a religious dispute about the fate of unbaptized children.
Leaving the rest of the students, Cranly and Stephen walk on alone. Stephen tells Cranly about an unpleasant conversation he has had at home. Stephen's mother wants him to attend Easter services in the church, but Stephen no longer feels religious faith and does not want to go. Cranly answers that a mother's love is more important than religious doubts, and advises Stephen to go. Cranly gently tests Stephen's new faithlessness by insulting Jesus and closely watching his friend's reaction. Cranly concludes that Stephen may still have vestiges of faith. Stephen sadly tells his friend that he feels he may soon have to leave the university and abandon his friends in order to pursue his artistic ambitions. Stephen says that he feels he must obey the dictum "I will not serve," refusing any ideology that is imposed upon him from above, even that of friends and family. Cranly warns Stephen of the risk of extreme solitude, but Stephen does not reply.
At this point, the narrative switches to a journal form, composed of dated entries written by Stephen himself, from a first-person perspective. Stephen records his scattered impressions of thoughts, perceptions, and events of each day. He tells of his conversation with Cranly about leaving the university, and mentions Cranly's father. He distractedly muses on the fact that John the Baptist lived on locusts in the desert, and comments on his friend Lynch's pursuit of a hospital nurse. Stephen notes a conversation with his mother regarding the Virgin Mary, in which his mother accuses Stephen of reading too much and losing his faith. Stephen, however, says that he cannot repent.
Stephen speaks of a squabble with a fellow student and of attempting to read three reviews in the library. He records two dreams: one of viewing a long gallery filled with images of fabulous kings, and another of meeting strange mute creatures with phosphorescent faces. He mentions meeting his father, who asks him why he does not join a rowing club. In his entry dated April 15, Stephen records meeting "her"—meaning Emma—on Grafton Street. Emma asks Stephen whether he is writing poems and why he no longer comes to the university. Stephen excitedly talks to her about his artistic plans. The following day, he has a vision of disembodied arms and voices that seem to call to him, urging him to join them. Stephen ends his journal with a prayer to his old father, Daedalus, whom he calls "old artificer," to stand him in good stead.
Stephen's long meditation on the birds circling overhead is an important sign of his own imminent flight. He cannot identify what species the birds are, just as he is not sure about his own nature. All he knows is that the birds are flying, as he too will fly. He will build his wings alone, just as his mythical namesake Daedalus alone crafted the wings with which he escaped from his prison. The birds offer Stephen relief from his daily worries: although their cries are harsh, the "inhuman clamour soothed his ears in which his mother's sobs and reproaches murmured insistently." The significance of the birds is, however, morally ambiguous. Stephen is not sure whether the birds are "an augury of good or evil," just as he cannot be entirely sure whether his decision to leave his family, friends, and university will have good or bad consequences. Finally, the birds are a symbol of literature and national politics as well. They remind Stephen of a passage from a recent Yeats play he has just seen, lines that refer to the swallow that wanders over the waters. As the nationalist play has attracted patriotic criticism, this swallow is a potent political symbol to which Stephen responds deeply.
Joyce and O'Casey were contemporaries. Was Mr. Casey, Irish Nationalist, in "Portrait" a nod to O'Casey?
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