On 18 August 1917 Joyce was incapacitated by an attack of lumbago.
Joyce had been walking along Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich when he suffered a severe attack of lumbago. It was followed by an attack of glaucoma which resulted in his first eye operation.
Shortly after the Joyces moved into the apartment at Seefeldstrasse 73 at the end of January 1917, Joyce suffered an attack of iritis and synechia that made it impossible for him to work for the rest of the month. By the end of April, he was suffering painful attacks of glaucoma, and his doctors suggested an operation. Joyce resisted that idea, blaming the weather for his eye problems, and for the tonsillitis that followed in July.
His doctors advised that he should leave Zurich for somewhere in the Italian part of Switzerland where the weather might be more suitable, and Joyce decided that he would move to Locarno. Nora and the children went ahead to Locarno at the end of July, and Joyce was supposed to follow soon after.
The attack of ‘Hexenschuss,’ as he called it in a letter to Ezra Pound, on Bahnhofstrasse on Saturday 18 August (birthday of the Emperor Franz Josef, as Joyce noted later) left Joyce incapacitated for twenty minutes. He told Pound that he managed to crawl into a tram in order to get home. The lumbago subsided that evening but was followed the next day by acute glaucoma. At this stage, his doctors decided that the persistent eye problems could only be resolved by an operation.
In 1918, not long after Joyce’s interest in Marthe Fleischmann began, he wrote a poem entitled ‘Bahnhofstrasse,’ recollecting in part the painful attack he suffered in August 1917. In the poem, fear of increasing blindness in the aftermath of the attack of glaucoma is associated with the loss of youth and youthful love. The narrator’s feeling of youthfulness is mocked by his own eyes, the deterioration of which points towards old age and decrepitude. The repeated use of the word ‘star’ in the poem is a pun on the German terms for cataracts (‘grauer Star’) and glaucoma (‘grüner Star’).
The poem was first published in the Anglo-French Review in London in August 1919. Joyce made some changes to it before it appeared in Pomes Penyeach in 1927.
Sources & Further Reading:
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Gysling, Fritz, “A Doctor’s Look at a Neglected Poem,” in James Joyce Quarterly, vol. 7, no. 3 (Spring 1970), pp.251-252.
Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. II, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.
– -: Selected Letters of James Joyce, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1975.
Lyons, JB: James Joyce and Medicine, Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1973.
Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.