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.

The Creators of CARMEN: Prosper Mérimée and Georges Bizet


My recent recommitment to learning the piano led me to a passion for classical music. I have a book of simplified classic songs my late grandmother gave me. It is one of my most treasured gifts from Grandma Colleen.

I’ve been working through the pieces for a little over a month. To my delight, I came across one of my favorite songs: Habanera from the opera Carmen.

Habanera is not a difficult song to play. It’s packed with energy that keeps me awake as I’m practicing it. It makes me want to dance in a frilly skirt and sing off-key. I would venture to say Habanera is one of the songs that most people have heard in passing, even if they do not know where it is from.

There is no such thing as a coincidence, but something delightful happened last month, after I had begun practicing Habanera. I was reading the spectacular memoir The Seine by Elaine Sciolino, and she brought up composer Georges Bizet. He wrote the songs for Carmen’s opera adaptation.

Sciolino told the story of the opera’s premiere. With its sensuality and suggestive language, Carmen scandalized crowds, so its first reviews were heavy with outrage.

Those were different times, indeed.

Depressed by this cold reception of Carmen, Bizet fell victim to depression. It became so crippling that when he died, people speculated he had taken his own life. Carmen was the labor of his hard work and tears; any artist could understand the effect of scathing reviews.

That Bizet took his life appears to be a Parisian myth. In reality, Bizet had suffered from health problems throughout his life. He made a rash decision that winter to go for a swim in the Seine river. This is a bad decision because the Seine was freezing–but also because it’s dirty! After his swim, he contracted a violent fever. This induced a heart attack which led to his death on 3 June, 1875.

If only he could have known that the play would become timeless. Like Vincent van Gogh, his work was not appreciated in his lifetime.


When I had read about Georges Bizet in that chapter of The Seine, I was struck with curiosity about the man who wrote the story–the novella off of which the opera was based. 

Prosper Mérimée, born in 1805, was a French writer. He pertained to the movement of Romantic literature. Mérimée was one of the pioneers of the novella, which is defined as a short novel or a long short story. Carmen is a novella, and I finished it in a day.

Mérimée learned Russian and went on to translate the works of important writers such as Pushkin and Gogol. From 1830 to 1860, he became an inspector of French historical monuments, overseeing their preservation. This included the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. I can only imagine his heartbreak if he could see what has become of it now!

A Still from Carmen. Source: The Guardian

Mérimée seemed destined for great things, because he also made an important discovery that would forever change the world of visual art.

Along with author George Sand, he discovered the famous tapestries known as The Lady and the Unicorn. Not only did he write Carmen, a story which become a timeless opera; he also discovered those tapestries that enchant us today!

There is so much more to the story of Carmen and her creators, but it would not fit into a blog post. I’m a history geek and I had a field day reading about these incredible men. When I read Carmen, it dawned on me that a story can take on many forms: written and musical. 

When you read intentionally, you find that underneath every great story is a greater story. History is important because it shows us what humans are capable of. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and the lives of these two remarkable men could pass as yarns of fiction.

Never disbelieve that there is wonder in this world: all you have to do is explore history to find it.