Every work of art is in part inspired and disciplined. We may betake ourselves into pessimistic circles because it is easier to be captious and punctilious than to embrace broadly what is imperfect, but love is truly what inspires and disciplines us at once. From our teenage years on we develop a sense of what it is to become an adult; to be responsible for one's words and actions; to choose a path and have the wherewithal to maintain the course; to be old enough to fall in love that is undeniably real and eternal. For every sniper who claims love is merely the troubadour's expression of a chemical bond, I give him the love of something greater than a human body or soul, the love of what we breathe, the love of memory, of time, of joy, of lessons that make us the adults we have always wanted to become. The casual love of an ephemeral being who just happens to be beautiful and reminiscent of some poem we read once, a long time back, about another person in love beyond her means, we can impute to our need for understanding and, more than that, for sympathy. Which brings us to this tale of youth and regret.
The young protagonist and narrator is a Catholic school pupil who is neither rich nor abjectly poor. He attends school, his streets are lit ("the space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns"), and his family is around him and patient. He has discovered something new in life, something that begins and ends with one note, something he would espy in her home from his own rowhouse, "a figure defined by the light from the half-opened door." This Beatrice is the sister of his classmate Mangan, and she is oddly introduced as just that; never is she given her own identity outside the likelihood of marrying the sister of one's friend since no one ever really leaves the street of one's childhood. This unnamed lass soon engirds our narrator with her endless horizons:
Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.
Her name is never mentioned and probably doesn't matter, although one might surmise that it has much the same phonetic flavor as Araby, the production which she cannot attend. The narrator departs and leaves everything behind except what he can snatch from her, from this being presumably a bit older or at least more mature, who has all the trappings of the princesse lointaine necessary for a poet. Why does a poet need such a distanced object of admiration and affection? Because that distant object is really his own future work, the embodiment of inspiration – the lyric sensations that this being produces within him – and the discipline that involves forsaking all the women of the world for one woman. This is the task our narrator undertakes and the one which, of course, is bound to disappoint him since all juvenile love is by definition disappointing.
There cannot be a simpler premise to a story than this. Our protagonist has little else to do but think about this unapproachable object who, as it were, does talk to him, exuding enough civility to suggest indifference rather than some kind of precocious ego boost. Time is not, however, on our lad's side:
When I came home to dinner my uncle had not yet been home. Still it was early. I sat staring at the clock for some time and when its ticking began to irritate me, I left the room. I mounted the staircase and gained the upper part of the house. The high cold empty gloomy rooms liberated me and I went from room to room singing. From the front window I saw my companions playing below in the street. Their cries reached me weakened and indistinct and, leaning my forehead against the cool glass, I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discreetly by the lamplight at the curved neck, at the hand upon the railings and at the border below the dress.
It has been said that true maturity arrives when we find ourselves dissenting from group activities, collective notions of fun and edification, and the hedonistic and self-serving interests concealed by the greyness of bourgeois mores. Our hero enjoys such a moment, however briefly, when some particle of him suddenly feels above the daily hubbub caused and reveled in by his contemporaries. He wants and in fact deserves more; his soul is deeper and richer than the yells and taunts that surround him. So, near the story's beginning, when we get a whiff of the "dark and odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness," we may recall a stanza from this poem:
When last I saw thee drink! Away! The fever'd dream is o'er,
I could not live a day and know that we should meet no more!
They tempted me, my beautiful! – for hunger's power is strong –
They tempted me, my beautiful! But I have loved too long.
Too long means past the daydreams that dissolve time into clear segments – with and without; and to be the subject of such a story only one of these conditions can triumph. Alas, we know all too well which one.