16 June 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/25

The twilight turns from amethyst
       To deep and deeper blue,
The lamp fills with a pale green glow
       The trees of the avenue.

The old piano plays an air,
       Sedate and slow and gay;
She bends upon the yellow keys,
       Her head inclines this way.

Shy thoughts and grave wide eyes and hands
       That wander as they list –
The twilight turns to darker blue
       With lights of amethyst.

James Joyce

Today, for Bloomsday, we have a poem by James Joyce. His poetry was mostly written early in his career, before he started turning his prose into prose-poems, and many of his lyrics use conventional rhyme and meter. That's not a criticism; it's just sometimes unexpected by readers who come to him knowing mostly his reputation as the high priest of modernist obscurity. But he was drawn to complicated patterns and repetitions (for example, the way each chapter in Ulysses has a body part and a color associated with it) and regular rhyme and meter would obviously appeal to someone with such a taste. He was musical, and sang in what was reportedly a beautiful but not overly strong tenor. He considered singing professionally but for various reasons decided it was not for him. All this means he had a taste for the lyrical and a familiarity with much of the song literature; some of his lyrics would not be out of place in collections set by Dowland or Purcell.

This one to me is very evocative of turn-of-the-last-century lyricism, with its emphasis on atmosphere as a way of creating a fraught psychological picture. Though the subject – a solitary woman idly making music at twilight – is timeless, the instrument she's playing marks it as coming from the period when any family with pretensions to artistic cultivation had (and used) a piano. Probably the first thing the reader takes in about this poem is how colorful it is, though the colors themselves are not vivid and bright, but tend towards the dark or otherwise muted: the amethyst of twilight, the "deep and deeper blue" as night falls, the "pale green" glow of leaves under the streetlamps, the yellow keys of the piano (piano keys were then commonly made of ivory, so the yellow would be the soft beige-gold of aged ivory; Joyce tells us that this is an "old piano," another touch which helps create an atmosphere cut off from the garish world of day). At the end, he (with his love of patterning) reverses the initial colors, and as twilight progresses towards night the sky is now dark blue, with amethyst only in light spots. This is an accurate description of twilight turning into night, as well as a lovely and evocative picture. But it also creates a psychological sense of isolation around the woman, who is sitting alone in a room that is getting darker and darker.

Clearly she is absorbed in her thoughts, rather than the world around her. And what is she thinking? A hint is in what she is playing: an air "sedate and slow and gay." Gay is an interesting word there, as it connotes something light-hearted and carefree (this was long before the word was commonly used to mean "a (non-insulting) term for homosexual men"). Combining the word with sedate and slow creates a sense of emotional tension. Having a piano in the house is not only a sign of culture, but of a certain level of respectability. The puritanical streak in Irish Catholicism is well-known. The woman's thoughts are described only as shy: is she dreaming of a lover? Or is she feeling a longing less specific and more profound? Her eyes are grave – the word as used here carries the primary sense of serious or solemn, but as an undercurrent we can't help but think of grave in the sense of a burial place. Her thoughts are shy, her eyes are grave, the tune is sedate and slow: yet it is also gay, and her hands "wander as they list" – something a respectable woman could not do, perhaps even in thought (and perhaps that is why her thoughts are shy). There's an interesting tension in the picture, and the sense that this woman is trapped, at least psychologically, as the world darkens around her. The fall of night often carries an implication of approaching death. How long has she been dream-like in this twilight world? Will the music she makes always be a separate thing from her life and even her thoughts?

This is the second poem in Joyce's first collection, Chamber Music. The first poem describes Love, personified as a young man wandering along the river, "All softly playing, / With head to the music bent, / And fingers straying / Upon an instrument." Most readers of the volume would probably start at the beginning and read at least the first few poems consecutively, and would notice that the "head to the music bent" in the first poem is echoed in the "head incline[d] this way" of the second. They are also linked by subject matter – a solitary person making music. But in the first we see not just a young man in love, but Love himself, as shown by his costume (unusual for early twentieth-century Dublin) of pale flowers on a mantle and dark leaves on his hair – note the use of pale and dark, which also connects this poem with the second one. But he wanders freely outside, while the woman is stationary and indoors. There is an implication, though, that there is something melancholy about his love, too: he is playing by the river "where the willows meet." The willow is a traditional sign of unhappy or unsuccessful love, which is why Desdemona sings the "Willow Song" right before Othello smothers her, and why Viola (disguised as Cesario) tells Olivia in Twelfth Night that she would "make me a willow cabin at your gate."

I should probably just go ahead and give you the whole first poem; you're getting them out of order but what the hell:

Strings in the earth and air
       Make music sweet;
Strings by the river where
       The willows meet.

There's music along the river
       For Love wanders there,
Pale flowers on his mantle,
       Dark leaves on his hair.

All softly playing,
       With head to the music bent,
And fingers straying
       Upon an instrument.

James Joyce

I took this from my very old copy of Joyce's Collected Poems, which seems to be out of print, though other editions are available. I have to admit I'm casting covetous eyes at Joyce's Poems and a Play recently published in the Everyman's Pocket Poetry series (the play is Exiles, Joyce's only work for the stage).

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