The Waltz of Song & Poetry: CHAMBER MUSIC by James Joyce


There’s music along the river
For Love wanders there.

– James Joyce, Chamber Music

The Waltz of Song & Poetry

It is common for well-loved songs to find their inspiration in poetry. Some are written with the goal of being transformed into music, including Chamber Music by James Joyce.

Our culture is laden with songs that underwent this transformation. We’ve all heard some of them–classics such as “Auld Lang Syne,” a traditional Scottish song derived from a poem by Robert Burns (1759-1796). “America the Beautiful” was the work of Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929).

Secular music has also been touched by poetry. A collection of songs exist based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. (Listen to Annabel Lee by Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac fame). We can’t forget songs inspired by novels or poems about music and its power.

Seeking the link between music and poetry sends a person down a literary and musical rabbit hole.


The Words of James Joyce

Joyce himself was not very romantic when he spoke of the title Chamber Music. He said of it that he referred to the sound made by a lady using a chamber pot. Most literary experts consider this mere off-color humor.

When composer Geoffrey Molyneux Palmer (1882-1957) composed a tune for Chamber Music, Joyce was pleased with the outcome. Palmer was not the only one who gave a tune to Joyce’s verses, though Palmer’s was Joyce’s favorite attempt. Other composers took up the challenge, including Moeran, Bliss, and Charlotte Milligan Fox.

Joyce said in a letter to Palmer regarding the work, “(…) you may set all of Chamber Music in time. This was indeed partly my idea in writing it. The book is in fact a suite of songs and if I were a musician I suppose I should have set them myself.”

While casual readers can enjoy Chamber Music and the imagery within, it was not received with enthusiasm on its publication in 1907. Joyce was criticized for using many styles and forms, making the piece difficult to label.

What’s more, Chamber Music was published during a year of political turmoil in his native country of Ireland. Fellow Irish writers scorned that it did not “serve the cause.” Compatriot poet Yeats complained that Joyce had no interest in Irish politics.


What Happened in Ireland?

I wondered while researching why it was such an issue to Yeats that Chamber Music was not political. What was this strife in Ireland capable of turning talented writers against each other? IrishRep summed up nicely:

After nearly eight centuries under forced British rule, the late 1800s brought a wave of Irish nationalism in the form of The Gaelic Revival, which encouraged the reemergence of the Irish language, and the Irish Literary Renaissance, which revived Irish folklore and other storytelling tradition through new works by famed authors including W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, John Millington Synge, Lady Gregory, and more.

read more

We then understand that it was a literary issue. Joyce’s apparent indifference in Chamber Music may have been labelled treason. We can’t forget that he was unique with his writing–anyone who has glanced at Finnegan’s Wake knows what I mean.

Ponder for a moment that this poem can be linked to pop-culture today as well as old political spats. A poem is never just a poem, a book never only a book! The poem’s troubled history is part of its legacy. All things considered, the imagery remains beautiful.

I’ve read a few literary essays by professors, but cannot agree that there is a flaw in Chamber Music. It makes me want to try my own hand at composing music for a few stanzas.

Enriched by the history of Chamber Music, we can enjoy it in all its depth. I live to dig up the “story behind the story.”

How do music and poetry mingle in your life? The two have waltzed for centuries as if in a forbidden romance. Search your Spotify playlist for tracks where they embrace for three magical minutes.

Poem: Avonlea


Five monarchs flutter in a row–
They’re grace on wings,
And as they go,
Time stops. Am I in Avonlea?
Though Avonlea has never seen
Five monarchs in a row!

They make no sound to my own ear,
Yet my heart makes out
Music here.
Five monarchs make a chord of light.
It will ring clear into the night.
What dark have I to fear!

To Whom It May Concern


Let it be said of me
That my words waded
Where the waves
Devour,

Intent on saving you
For a new Day,
For it was not
Your Hour.

I don’t believe
I will meet you;
I shall not Know
Who you are,

Yet my words,
Relentless, found you,
Be it near or far.

For those who found my work long aft I’ve faded like a flower,

I hope you found a verse or two, to last another hour.

xx

Prologue


Let it be said of me,
“She was open, like a book.”
& like a book,
Some people can’t get much
Further than page 1.
I am a poem-volume
Amidst documents of war;
The thrill explorers felt as
Their schooners left the shore.

One day I’ll be a Favorite Book
Read ‘neath the setting sun.
For now, I’ll stay true to myself
And whisper my page 1.

Shared with dVerse Open Link Night. Check them out for great poetry!

Dwelling-Place of Storm


I am a poet,
Keeper of flowers
Dwelling-place of storm.

My emotions
Manifest in
Terrifying form.

I can destroy you
With my words,
Feeling no remorse,

Or I can calm you,
Fighting battles
For you at the source.

I’ve learned there is
No middle ground:
Believe me, I tried.

I am a dwelling-place
Of storm;
Friend, I never lied.

Hundred-Acre Grave


Yesterday, the blue and gray
Skies rolling overhead,
Sighing, seemed to me to say
The rivers had turned red.

Treading gentle on the grass,
I sought peace but found none.
April, she had come to pass,
Her faithful weeping done.

Musical, the ancient trees
Groaned with the bluegray sky.
Their duet, a mournful sound,
Spoke of a world awry.

One persistent hummingbird
Called, as if I could save
Her home from the fate I heard,
A hundred-acre grave.

As I trekked an ancient trail,
Trees around me died.
Had April seen her tears fail,
Longer she’d have cried.

Poetry


Bottle up your pain
In an old, glass jar.
Let it sit there for a day
‘Til it’s black as tar.

Fall down on the grass,
Find a feather there.
Take your bottle; feel the sun
Shine down on your hair.

Use the feather, trace
Feelings in the dirt.
It would be a shame to waste the
Art found in your hurt.

If a leaf falls down,
Take to it with ink.
Rinse your newly emptied jar;
Just don’t stain the sink.

Finally, you’ll breathe;
Pressure, it will fade.
This is how the realest sort
Of poetry is made.

Calluses


I am building calluses
Around my heart.
Nobody can come in
To hear my song.

She’s losing strength
Because I exposed her
To empty souls who
Did not know,

That she is a melody
Few have heard,
And she is timid.
She will hide.

I will not forsake her
Or sing her to the dark,
So I am building calluses
Around my heart.

Flowers


You were never going to see me
Among all the other flowers,
Watching idle as the strangers
Daily passed me by.

I am not unlike my sisters,
Neither am I just like them;
We are gathered as a body
Staring at the sky.

If you deign to come in closer
And, for once, get on your knees,
You might see my red is different—
Only by a hue—

Maybe if you bowed your head
And plucked me from the ground,
You could press me in a book,
A love poem for you.