A few nights after this public chiding he was walking with a letter along the Drumcondra Road when he heard a voice cry:
He turned and saw three boys of his own class coming towards him in the dusk. It was Heron who had called out and, as he marched forward between his two attendants, he cleft the air before him with a thin cane in time to their steps. Boland, his friend, marched beside him, a large grin on his face, while Nash came on a few steps behind, blowing from the pace and wagging his great red head.
As soon as the boys had turned into Clonliffe Road together they began to speak about books and writers, saying what books they were reading and how many books there were in their fathers’ bookcases at home. Stephen listened to them in some wonderment for Boland was the dunce and Nash the idler of the class. In fact, after some talk about their favourite writers, Nash declared for Captain Marryat who, he said, was the greatest writer.
—Fudge! said Heron. Ask Dedalus. Who is the greatest writer, Dedalus?
Stephen noted the mockery in the question and said:
—Of prose do you mean?
—Newman, I think.
—Is it Cardinal Newman? asked Boland.
—Yes, answered Stephen.
The grin broadened on Nash’s freckled face as he turned to Stephen and said:
—And do you like Cardinal Newman, Dedalus?
—O, many say that Newman has the best prose style, Heron said to the other two in explanation, of course he’s not a poet.
—And who is the best poet, Heron? asked Boland.
—Lord Tennyson, of course, answered Heron.
—O, yes, Lord Tennyson, said Nash. We have all his poetry at home in a book.
At this Stephen forgot the silent vows he had been making and burst out:
—Tennyson a poet! Why, he’s only a rhymester!
—O, get out! said Heron. Everyone knows that Tennyson is the greatest poet.
—And who do you think is the greatest poet? asked Boland, nudging his neighbour.
—Byron, of course, answered Stephen.
Heron gave the lead and all three joined in a scornful laugh.
—What are you laughing at? asked Stephen.
—You, said Heron. Byron the greatest poet! He’s only a poet for uneducated people.
—He must be a fine poet! said Boland.
—You may keep your mouth shut, said Stephen, turning on him boldly. All you know about poetry is what you wrote up on the slates in the yard and were going to be sent to the loft for.
Boland, in fact, was said to have written on the slates in the yard a couplet about a classmate of his who often rode home from the college on a pony:
As Tyson was riding into Jerusalem He fell and hurt his Alec Kafoozelum.
This thrust put the two lieutenants to silence but Heron went on:
—In any case Byron was a heretic and immoral too.
—I don’t care what he was, cried Stephen hotly.