illustrated portrait of Irish author James Joyce

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James Joyce Poetry: British Analysis

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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.

Chamber Music

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,...

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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 archaic—note the use of “thee” and “thy,” “hast” and “doth,” in keeping with much of the lyric poetry of the 1890’s—and the tone light and songlike, with touches of irony apparent only in the last few lines of the second stanza. This irony is heralded in line 9 by the verb “unzone,” which stands out in a poem of otherwise simple diction. Like many such words in these poems, “unzone” is unusual for the accuracy with which it is used (compare, for example, “innumerous” in poem 19 [XV]), Joyce returning to its original meaning of “encircle” or “surround,” derived by way of the Latin zone from Greek zona, or “girdle.” What is frequently most distinctive about Joyce’s choice of words, in prose as well as in poetry, is their accuracy. In this context, the contrast between the formality of “unzone” and the “girlish bosom” of the next line, reinforced by the irony in other poems of the series dealing with the wooing of Goldenhair, makes the reader question her innocence if not the young man’s intentions.

The repetition of the opening lines of 16 is another notable feature of the series. In 12 (VI) one can see the same quality on a somewhat larger scale, the final line pointing back to the beginning of the poem. If the poems of Chamber Music are relatively simply lyrics, they have their own complexities and ambiguities, as this poem shows. The “bosom” of the first stanza is conceivably Goldenhair’s, but may also be interpreted as that of mother or church. “Austerities,” like “bosom” used twice in the poem, in particular leads the reader to think so, the bosom or heart leading to an ascetic, not hedonistic, form of satisfaction for the young man. In this poem, the young man flees from the relationship with Goldenhair and seeks other means of satisfaction. The language of the poem creates irony through repetition, forcing the reader to reexamine the premises of the relationship described. If this technique is much simpler than the one Joyce employed in his prose masterpieces, it is certainly a technique of the same order.

Pomes Penyeach

In 1927, Joyce published a second volume of poetry with the unassuming title Pomes Penyeach. The occasion for the volume was largely negative; stung by criticism of “Work in Progress” from people such as Ezra Pound, who had been so supportive of Ulysses, Joyce wished to show that he could also produce a relatively simple volume of lyrics. However, the lyrics were too simple for the taste of the time, and the volume went largely ignored; Pound himself suggested that Joyce should have reserved the poems for the Bible or the family album. This criticism now seems unfair, or at least out of proportion. The thirteen poems of Pomes Penyeach do not in any sense break new ground in English poetry, but they provide a kind of personal comment on Joyce’s private life that is not easy to find in the prose works, and some of them are also simply good lyrics in the manner of Chamber Music.

The poems represent work of a period of approximately twenty years, beginning with “Tilly,” composed in 1903 just after Joyce’s mother’s death, and ending with “A Prayer” of 1923, though stylistically they are of a piece. In this poetry, Joyce favored a diction and tone that seemed archaic by the late 1920’s, and he did so without any of the irony apparent or at least incipient in certain poems of Chamber Music. If the mood of these poems did not suit the times in which they appeared, neither did it seem to suit the style of the supreme punster of “Work in Progress.” They provide the single instance in Joyce’s published work of an anachronism—a work that looks back in style and tone, in this case to the poetry of Joyce’s youth and young manhood, rather than forward in time—and this accounts in part for their unenthusiastic reception.

In Pomes Penyeach, the poems occur in roughly the order of their composition, and may be grouped according to subject matter. Some celebrate Joyce’s feelings toward his children, as in “A Flower Given to My Daughter” or “On the Beach at Fontana,” while others refer to feelings provoked in him by women he fancied himself to be in love with, either in the Trieste period or in Zurich during World War I. Some poems suggest certain of the prose works, such as “She Weeps over Rahoon” with its echoes of the long story “The Dead,” written some five years before the poem. The final poem of the group, “A Prayer,” returns to the mood of the darker poems in Chamber Music and to the image of woman as vampire that occurs so frequently in the poetry and art of the fin de siècle. It also suggests the strain of masochism that shows itself so often in Joyce’s work in connection with sensuous pleasure. All in all, these lyrics provide an engaging record of various moods of Joyce as he passed into middle age, tempered by the public reputation he had acquired by that time.

“A Flower Given to My Daughter” and “A Prayer” illustrate the extremity of mood and variety of technique of these poems. In the first, the inverted word order and quaint diction of the poem—“sere” is the best example of the latter—do not keep the last line from being extremely touching, in part because it is so realistic a description. Joyce manages in the best of Pomes Penyeach to find just such a strong line with which to end, establishing a kind of contrast between the somewhat antique technique of the poem and conclusions remarkable for their simplicity and strength. “A Prayer” is far more dramatic in tone, but here the long lines and the rolling words (“remembering” followed by “pitying”) also carry the reader into the joy become anguish of the final lines. In these poems as in others of the group, Joyce seems to be using the style and tone of another time with sometimes deadly effect—a conscious archaism rather than the more distanced irony of some of the poems of Chamber Music.

“Ecce Puer”

In 1932, Joyce published his last poem, “Ecce Puer,” a touching commemoration of two occasions—the death of his father and the birth of his grandson and namesake Stephen James Joyce, the son of Giorgio and his wife, Helen. “Tilly,” the first item of Pomes Penyeach, was written on the occasion of the death of his mother and is in many ways the strongest of the group; “Ecce Puer”—written just after the death of John Joyce—is even stronger. For felt emotion conveyed, it has no equal among Joyce’s works in this form, and its concluding stanza is all the more touching for its echoes of the theme of paternity so important to Ulysses—“A child is sleeping:/ An old man gone./ O, father forsaken,/ Forgive your son!” In fact, the poem was completed not many days after the tenth anniversary of the publication of Ulysses, which provides yet a third occasion for its composition.

Satiric poems

In addition to Chamber Music, Pomes Penyeach, and “Ecce Puer,” Joyce published occasional broadsides—satiric poems to express his unhappiness over various literary matters. These include “The Holy Office” (1904) (now the rarest of all the published works of Joyce), an attack on the Irish literary movement by a young writer who already knew that his work was to be essentially different from theirs, and “Gas from a Burner” (1912), an attack on the Dublin publisher who ultimately burned the proofs of Dubliners rather than print what he considered an indecent book.

Finally, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, one of the crucial moments occurs (in the final part of the book) when Stephen Dedalus composes a poem in the form of a villanelle. This poem, while technically not Joyce’s, represents as sure a comment as Joyce ever made on the aestheticism of the 1890’s, and thus stands in contrast with Pomes Penyeach, which echoes the themes and tones of that time.

Joyce’s poetry was ultimately expressed most fully in his prose works, where the traditional distinctions between poetry and prose are effectively blurred. Perhaps in the end, his lyric poetry is best viewed as a minor expression—almost a form of relaxation—of a master stylist in prose.


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