James Joyce Poetry: British Analysis
Chamber Music appeared in 1907, but James Joyce had been working on the poems that comprise the volume for some time before that date. As early as 1905, he had worked out a plan for the poems, different from the one finally devised for the 1907 version but perhaps more revealing of the thematic content of the poetry. With the addition of several poems not in the 1905 scheme, Chamber Music came to thirty-six poems of varying lengths and forms, the work of a young man who had already largely abandoned poetry in favor of prose fiction.
In many ways the poems of Chamber Music are typical of the period in which they were written. The poetry of the late nineteenth century in English has a hothouse quality; like the French Symbolists, who—next to the English Romantics—provided the chief inspiration throughout this period, the poets of the fin de siècle eschewed ordinary life in favor of an aesthetic ideal. This was in fact the final flowering of the ideal of art for art’s sake so important to nineteenth century literature and art, an attitude that the young Joyce flirted with and ultimately abandoned, satirizing it in the pages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In the poems of Chamber Music, however, the satire is less easy to detect, and fin de siècle themes provide the basis of many of the poems in the sequence. The dominant note of the poetry of the fin de siècle is one of weariness or sadness, the favorite time dusk or night, the favorite stance one of retreat; in Joyce’s Chamber Music poems, as later in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, such favorite attitudes are questioned but not totally rejected. If the final note is one of anger or bitterness rather than simply of sadness or despair, there is still a strong enough taste of the latter to mark the poems—even the celebrated number XXXVI—as the work of a young man who has grown up in the last important moment of aestheticism. Even so, the experience of the young man who is the principal speaker of the sequence of poems seems ultimately to toughen him in a way more typical of Joyce than of the poetry of the fin de siècle.
In Joyce’s 1905 sequence, the personas of the poems are more easily perceived, the themes developed in them clearer, as William York Tindall was first to point out at length in his 1954 edition of Chamber Music. In that sequence there are thirty-four poems, designated first in the following list, with the numbers from the 1907 edition in Roman numerals in parentheses immediately after: 1 (XXI), 2 (I), 3 (III), 4 (II), 5 (IV), 6 (V), 7 (VIII), 8 (VII), 9 (IX), 10 (XVII), 11 (XVIII), 12 (VI), 13 (X), 14 (XX), 15 (XIII), 16 (XI), 17 (XIV), 18 (XIX), 19 (XV), 20 (XXIII), 21 (XXIV), 22 (XVI), 23 (XXXI), 24 (XXII), 25 (XXVI), 26 (XII), 27 (XXVII), 28 (XXVIII), 29 (XXV), 30 (XXIX), 31 (XXXII), 32 (XXX), 33 (XXXIII), and 34 (XXXIV).
This sequence has certain important features. Poem 1 (XXI) introduces the young man of the sequence, a sort of romantic rebel in the tradition of the Shelleyan hero, a “high unconsortable one” more in love with himself than with anyone else. This theme of aloofness and narcissism is struck in several poems following this one—in 2 (I), 3 (III), and 4 (II)—but by 5 (IV) the young man has not only become the speaker of the poem, but he has also found someone to love. Poem 6 (V) gives her a name—Goldenhair—and establishes the theme of the next group of poems: the young man in pursuit of Goldenhair, in the traditional rites of courtship. In 7 (VIII), he pursues her through the “green wood,” and in 8 (VII), he sees her among the apple trees, vernal settings for these ancient rites. In 9 (IX), however, he cannot find her, and 10 (XVII) explains why: Here the third persona of the sequence is introduced—the rival who is a friend of the young man and who, at the same time, is threatening his relationship with Goldenhair: “He is a stranger to me now/ Who was my friend.” Poem 11 (XVIII), addressed both to Goldenhair and to the rival, complains of the failure of friends and suggests that another woman may well give the young man succor. As the poems proceed, this other woman takes on a variety of connotations, until finally, in 17 (XIV) the young man imagines his union with her in terms suggesting that she has combined characteristics, in Tindall’s words, “of church, mother, muse, nation, and soul.” After 17, the poems do variations on the themes of separation and lost love, ending in 33 (XXXIII) and 34 (XXXIV) on a decidedly wintry note: “The voice of the winter/ Is heard at the door./ O sleep, for the winter/ Is crying, ’Sleep no more.’”
This pattern of love challenged by a rival and ending in bitter or mixed feelings occurs elsewhere in Joyce’s work, most notably in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and in the play Exiles, where, as a test of a relationship, it provides the major theme. Chamber Music thus becomes an early working out of this theme, though Joyce ultimately agreed to an ordering of the poems (devised by his brother Stanislaus) different from the one of 1905—allowing for an ending on a much stronger note with poem XXXVI, beginning “I hear an army charging upon the land,” which was not part of the 1905 sequence at all and which suggests an attitude that is more than simply passive or accepting on the part of the young man. These little poems, while carrying the weight of themes developed more completely in Joyce’s later work, are also lyrics light and fresh enough to serve as the basis of songs. Joyce himself set a number of them to music, and over the years they have been set by many other composers as well.
Poem 16 (XI) illustrates the technique of the lyrics of Chamber Music. The diction is simple but frequently...
(The entire section is 2408 words.)