The Hyacinth Girl

topic posted Thu, July 14, 2005 - 8:12 AM by 
I've been meaning to transfer over to this list an interesting discussion/disagreement barnaby and I were having on the James Joyce list regarding the Hyacinth Girl. I never got around to it.

But yeah, it might be fun to be active in this tribe every now and again. So here it is, for your discussion pleasure (or not).

The original thread can be found here:

I'll post the discussion next, in one long post....
posted by:
  • Re: The Hyacinth Girl

    Thu, July 14, 2005 - 8:15 AM
    The original point of discussion was a comment Joyce made about intellectual women.

    Barnaby responded:

    On the surface, I think this comment is simply rather boorish and unfortunate, despite being all-too-common for the day. On a more psychological level, it raises some interesting questions about the modernist use of women as a symbol of the immanent.

    Joyce and Eliot certainly both capitalized on the ubiquitous Occidental pairing of woman and the Earth, as opposed to men and the mind/spirit. I think of the Waste Land as a clear example, where we have the hyacinth girl as a fertility symbol, associated with the land (arms full of flowers), and posited as an object of the narrator's quest for liberation from the prison of their subjectivity.

    Compare that with "In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo". In Prufrock, the intellectual woman strikes me as an image comparable to a smile on a dog.

    In both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake we see women as object, as ground, as earth, as home, and as the immanent essence of life itself many times.

    The distasteful quote Brian has given emphasizes a possible gestalt into which that reading of the feminine is situated. In my eyes, it's a case of confusing the symbolic function of the archetype of the feminine with actual women.

    I replied:

    Barnaby, I think you're right about the distinction between Woman as principle, which the mods were definitely big on, and actual women as people with whom these guys worked, collaborated, dated, married, etc.

    Don't agree with you about how those feminine 'archetypes' show up in various works though. Joyce's, maybe. His women aren't all that complicated, ultimately, which is why he's not my favorite modernist. But if the Hyacinth Girl in The Waste Land is a fertility figure, she's a very strange one. For one thing, her gender is by no means certain. In the poem, her words are quoted as the speaker's distant memory of some unspeakable revelation or event. For another, the Hyacinth of myth was a boy, not a girl, whom Apollo loved and accidentally murdered. His story is one of many in Ovid's Metamorphoses, several others of which Eliot regularly cites in The Waste Land: Philomela, Tiresias, etc. Furthermore, allusions in some of Eliot's letters associate hyacinths with lilacs, and lilacs with his memory of Jean Verdenal, a dear friend who died in WWI.

    In this light, the Hyacinth girl fits right in with the other gender-uncertain speakers/characters in the poem: Madame Sosostris, Tiresias, etc. Their role is prophecy, not fertility. Fertility is the thing that is, by definition lost in The Waste Land--in favor of prophetic knowing.

    Barnaby responds:

    Hi Shannon

    An interesting read of the Hyacinth girl, though it probably goes without saying that I don't agree!

    Given that the poem says "They called me the hyacinth girl", I think you would need much stronger evidence to motivate the character as gender-ambiguous. There is nothing in the text itself that that suggests the Hyacinth girl is either androgenous or masculine.

    Sooo, what do the rest of you think? Hyacinth Girl: feminine principle or flowery drag? Discuss!
    • Re: The Hyacinth Girl

      Sat, July 16, 2005 - 5:34 AM
      But Shannon, you've excised the most entertaining part of the thread from the Joyce tribe -- the back and forth regarding Joyce's comment about intellectual women!

      In any case, I would tend to agree with Barnaby. Eliot's use of the word "girl" in this case is hard to find ambiguous.
    • Unsu...

      Re: The Hyacinth Girl

      Fri, October 21, 2005 - 2:49 PM
      Not sure, being as I have never read anything to support this idea, but being as Eliot was overly fond of symbolism, the hyacinth girl might represent the meaning of the actual flower as represented in the Victorian language of flowers*.


      general: games, sport, rashness, flower dedicated to Apollo

      blue: consistency

      purple: I am sorry, sorrow

      red or pink: playful joy

      white: unobtrusive lovliness, I'll pray for you

      yellow: jealousy

      ("...the practical application of the language of flowers was to create
      a bouquet that would convey a passionate message to the recipient,
      who would decode it by consulting the books and then respond, perhaps in kind.
      The lexicons compiled sentiments and thoughts that describe the "feminine" attitudes
      toward love and courtship and promoted Victorian ideals of womanhood
      by identifying women with flowers."

      -Magazine Antiques, Oct, 1999 by Judith Walsh)
      • Unsu...

        Re: The Hyacinth Girl

        Mon, December 5, 2005 - 5:48 PM
        Hi Shannon

        I just now read a very interesting article by Eliot scholar Cyrena Pondrom that made me remember this ancient thread. The article is an analysis of the Waste Land as anticipating Judith Butler's theory of gender as a kind of ritualized performance we enact through discourse. It is very thought-provoking.

        Professor Pondrom cites a literature arguing that the primary inspiration for the Hyacinth Girl is Eliot's college friend Emily Hale. You may very well know that Eliot considered proposing marriage to Hale just before leaving for England, and that he quickly proposed to Vivienne instead. Eliot describes in personal correspondance that he loved Hale and did not love Vivienne. He explains that it was precisely this personal failure that precipitated the dire mood that was the origin of The Waste Land.

        Of course, a biographical inspiration for a poetic image need not define that image's total parameters. However, Professor Pondrom's argument, which I quite agree with, is that the primary locus of ambiguity in gender in The Waste Land is in the poet's first-person voice. That is where we truly do not know gender in most cases.

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