If one wanted to examine Joyce's portrayal of women a little more closely, this passage wouldn't be a poor place to start. Within this text, women are constantly equated with water. In fact, the object of Steven's desires ignited the flame that lead him to this point when he witnessed her wading into the water. Conversely men are often equated with fire. I've already touched on how fire relates to Steven himself, but keep in mind Uncle Charles characterized primarily by the twist he indulges in and the smoke that seems to follow him. The last sentence of this passage uses the words “flowed” and “water” and “liquid” twice, not to mention “element “ (as in the element of mystery, which the “liquid letters of speech” are symbols of according to the narrator).
Whereas Uncle Charles begins as a benevolent figure, he ultimately ends up being dismissed by Steven. This may be because Steven understands men, or at least thinks he does. Uncle Charles was a suitable role model and patriarchal figure for a young Steven, but as Steven comes into his own (or begins to think that he's come into his own) he can't bring himself to believe that a figure like Uncle Charles has much to offer in the way of inspiration. What enchants him about women is that he doesn't understand them. Steven sees this as quite romantic, if he has no context in which to understand women other than the ways in which they relate to him (read: sex) there is therefore an element of mystery, and in turn an opportunity to produce the work he wants to produce: language divorced from human context. The irony in all of this of course is that women are women and not the mystic, elemental dark eyed creatures Steven views them as. The mystery that Steven sees in them is a creation of his own immaturity, his own inability to view them outside of the the very reductive perspective he has (madonna/whore) that was instilled in him by his catholic upbringing.
Once again we see that Steven has managed to shake off some of the constraints of his upbringing, but can't understand how those same constraints still rest inside him and warp his world view. The idea of a world view becomes an important one, as the dates at this novel's conclusion (“Dublin 1904, Trieste 1914”) suggests that Steven finally does recognize how little he has actually known and seen. Its notable that Steven's villanelle is a series of questions directed at this woman he hasn't actually had sex with. Even more notable is the continued fire and water imagery, describing a “flame of praise” likely emitting from his heart that has been “set ablaze” drifting over an ocean. To him a woman is like the ocean, vast and unknowable, something to traverse and write poetry about, a naïve notion that he might see as such if he ever actually crossed the sea.