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.