“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
From “The Dead” by James Joyce, in The Dubliners
I have always found this paragraph remarkable. It moves perfectly in sound, imagery, development.
First, the snow takes his attention, “made him turn”. The snow taps against the window and draws him into the cold dark. “It had begun to snow again.” The prosaic nature of this sentence matches nicely upon magical, strange first sentence.
The effect of the snow is hypnotic, nearly mystical. “He watched sleepily….” we are moving into dreams. Then death intrudes, “his journey westward”.
Then comes the movement beyond the window: By mentioning the “newspapers” he turns to “all over Ireland”. Death, newspapers, we have an obituary.
The snow falls to the very west, even into the sea. The snow will not be escaped even in death. Thus, the mention of the churchyard merely takes the image and draws back around to death — though this time without symbolism but rather in concrete burials. It falls upon the “crooked crosses” — though don’t miss Joyce’s germanic sounding “It lay thickly drifted”: the language is archaic.
The it moves out from the graveyard into the entire universe — real snow falling all through the universe is absurd, but Gabriel (the angel sent from God) has drifted into revery — sense is nearly lost here. Michael (the other angel) has been buried and Gabriel is lost to his wife.
“Their last end” – who is “they”? The lovers? The snowflakes?
But something has completely covered the living and the dead. Joyce could never escape the guilt of sin.
There is also the extraordinary first sentence — which is quite fun, but not nearly as brilliant as the last paragraph:
“LILY, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.”
Lilies belong to funerals.
“A caretaker” sounds like one who runs a cemetery.
If she “literally run off her feet” she’s be dead.