PART 2: “Taking pleasure in the mere handling of the stops”: Yeats meets Joyce in poetry and prose

Adrian Paterson, NUI Galway

In the second of MSI’s Modernist Moments Essay series, Adrian Paterson unpicks the artistic consequences of James Joyce’s famous first meeting with W.B. Yeats. This is the second of two parts in this essay: the first can be read here.

Despite his determination to “damn Russell, damn Yeats, damn Skeffington […] damn editors!”, Joyce’s 1902 meeting with Yeats continued to resonate long after the event. It was certainly impressive enough to mention (with a typical familiar half-disclaimer in parentheses) in a letter to his mother. From Paris Joyce asserted:

My book of songs will published in the spring of 1907. My first comedy about five years later. My “Esthetic” about five years later again. (This must interest you!) Yeats (who is impressionable) said he knew me only a little time and in that time I had roared laughing at the mention of Balzac, Swinburne &c. I have more than once upset a whole French café by laughing (20 March 1903).[1]

That plea for the reassurance of her interest betrays a need rarely publicly displayed. But this passage forms an oddly neat summary of his aesthetic, and a pretty accurate prophecy.

James Joyce, Chamber Music (frontispiece, 1907)

Because in the event Joyce was just about right. Thanks to the continued ministrations of Yeats’s friend Arthur Symons, Joyce’s “book of songs” became a volume called Chamber Music published in London in 1907 by Elkin Mathews. His play Exiles was not meant as a comedy but is, according to Hugh Kenner in Dublin’s Joyce, “Joyce’s explication of Chamber Music. It contains four lyrical single-minded people unaware that their every gesture corresponds to the jerking of great parodying shadows on the wall beyond”.[2] If this is a little unfair on the play (which was turned down by Yeats’s Abbey Theatre) it speaks to a strained quality in Chamber Music’s sequence, the persona’s determination to be (as Joyce wrote of himself to Lady Gregory) “alone and friendless”. These plangent love lyrics are not parodies, and yet without the music they do so much to advertise they can be hard to pin down.

There’s nothing, for instance, in the decorous framing of the poems or musical frontispiece of Mathew’s art-house printing to suggest that a poem like ‘My love is in a light attire’, set in a recognisably Yeatsian landscape, has anything but an innocent interpretation:

            My love is in a light attire
            Among the apple-trees,
            Where the gay winds do most desire
            To run in companies.

            There, where the gay winds stay to woo
            The young leaves as they pass,
            My love goes slowly, bending to
            Her shadow on the grass;

            And where the sky’s a pale blue cup
            Over the laughing land,
            My love goes lightly, holding up
            Her dress with dainty hand.

Still, insinuations in Ulysses about the music of chamber pots have provoked critics such as William York Tindall to discover here, as he says, the presence of “micturition” (just so “my love goes”). We know from Stephen Hero Joyce had a habit of humming bits of French songs to suggest (even when there wasn’t) there was something scurrilous about the bits omitted. Laughter appears in the poem – but of what kind? And is the poem only interested in lyric patterns, taking pleasure in “the mere handling of the stops”? Holding up its skirts, is it discreetly delicately suggestive – or about to break out into ribald song? If the poems were actually spoken or sung tone of voice might tell us. Otherwise, we are stuck. Ulysses’ anachronistic Chamber Music jokes surely don’t accurately reflect their author’s private view, but they replay in comic mode the disclaimers about any reaction to his poems he made to Yeats. Given Joyce’s half-disclaiming of these poems (unless set to music, in line with Yeats’s strictures), and printed as they are with large amounts of inscrutable white space around them, these intricate, self-involved, musical exercises face the reader with a blank expression, inscrutable to interpretation, tone forever undetermined.

This points to an important ambiguity that Joyce’s fiction was able to exploit and extend by, for example, blurring how seriously we are meant to take the verse compositions or aesthetics of Stephen Dedalus (and A Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man maps pretty well onto Joyce’s promise of an ‘esthetic’). In A Portrait, for instance, Stephen’s conventional-sounding villanelle can be framed by his more sensual erotic thoughts, dry religion anticipating wet dream without quite losing its lyric poise.

This was not an unprecedented technique. Dante’s Vita Nuova describes incidents from the poet’s life, discloses the sonnets that came from them, and follows this with their line-by-line elaboration, in threefold translation. The gap between each iteration is hardly ironic, but nonetheless a fertile counterpoint starts to open up. Even here though Yeats had some priority. The Secret Rose and Stories from Red Hanrahan featured prose interspersed with his own verse, often passed off as folk song, providing anachronistic layers of authorship and supposed orality shrouded in the productive implacability of the printed page. Like Shakespeare’s too, his plays featured sung lyrics to counter the action. Most extraordinarily, the elaborate frame narrativesand mad whirling gyres of philosophy in Yeats’s A Vision were structured around major poems like ‘Leda and the Swan’ interpolated from other 1920s publications. And this was a book Joyce studied seriously, judging by how much its Viconian cycles of history appear in Finnegans Wake.

The technique was serious, then, although part of its freedom and scope was to allow in the kind of laughter that might upset a whole French café. Sometimes considered both poetically and musically conservative, Joyce’s use of poetry and music for narrative purposes in careful prose turned out to be revolutionary. In a sense then the rest of Joyce’s career was spent in filling the blank pages of Chamber Music. This discovery, which allowed songs, colour, and interior commentary to combine in macaronic, multi-authored, soundscaped discourse, what Mikhail Bakhtin would call the “polylogic” language characteristic of the novel, is in its own way as important as the “mythical method” TS Eliot hailed as Joyce’s great achievement, that semi-ironic layering of mythology for which the classically-named Ulysses became famous. 

James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

So when Yeats’s ‘Who Goes With Fergus’ arrives in the opening pages of Ulysses, an interesting kind of debt is being honoured. We first hear the poem droned out of the tower’s echoing stairwell by the jester Buck Mulligan, his over-mournful intonation needling Stephen Dedalus’s brooding over his mother’s death:

            And no more turn aside and brood
            Upon love’s bitter mystery
            For Fergus rules the brazen cars.

As words from the rest of the lyric start to infect the accompanying interior monologue, an aural memory of “twining stresses” and “a hand plucking the harpstrings” shows Stephen is replaying its performance to music (the actress Florence Farr playing the male bard Aleel) in Yeats’s The Countess Cathleen (1899) a play Stephen had recalled attending in A Portrait. As, fastened to its seaside surroundings, the intertextuality gets more intricate, with “wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide”, the psychology gets more interesting. That Mulligan is modelled on Oliver St John Gogarty, Joyce’s former companion and by 1922 Yeats’s friend and fellow senator, rather suggests Joyce wished to indicate who was the true disciple; or more privately, perhaps, note the poet’s contrasting kindness about his mother. (After remarking on his mother’s illness Joyce had added with bitter stoicism “O these things don’t matter”, though it was obvious to Yeats, who had a couple of years before lost his own mother, that they did). In this vein finally Stephen reclaims the poem as a kind of painful comfort for himself, remembering his playing and singing it to his mother as she lay dying. The swells and falls of Joyce’s own musical setting, although unconvincing reconstructions exist of the melody, can only really be gauged by the description:

‘Fergus’ song: I sang it alone in the house, holding down the long dark chords. Her door was open: she wanted to hear my music. (U 9)

Of course the door is closed to any reader who might want to actually hear this music. This poignant moment of reverie thus reveals how much you gain, and perhaps how much you lose, by replaying poetry and music in prose. Yeats had wrestled with this in books and lyrics ever since his first meeting with Joyce, though his answers often took him in different directions. What happens here adds up to more than just the author’s own Victorian piano-song, or a Dublin crossed-dressed stage performance, Stephen’s seaside poetic reverie or the mocking intonation of what started as a printed, folklorically-infused lyric, though memories and replayings of all these and more combine in a nuanced musical fusion. By placing this multi-layered poetic and folkloric tribute so early in the book, Joyce, who had much of Yeats’s verse and some of his prose by heart, was briefly disclosing the complex but sincere debt of one artist in words to another. Their unsettling 1902 meeting had in fact changed everything, and would be remembered in Finnegans Wake’s (Celtic) twilight meeting of birds over the Liffey estuary “in the twitterlitter between Druidia and the Deepsleep Sea”: “I have met with you, bird, too late, or if not, too worm and early” FW 37:17,13). Through the careful handling of poetry’s organ stops in prose, and by experimenting with the living voices of actual people speaking, singing, and remembering, could be found a new Bloomusic of modernism.


[1] Richard Ellmann (ed.), Selected Letters of James Joyce (New York: Viking Press, 1975), 19.

[2] Hugh Kenner, Dublin’s Joyce (London: Chatto & Windon, 1955), 96.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Adrian Paterson is Lecturer in English at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He has published widely on eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century literature from pianos to poems, with a particular interest in the artistic interactions of modernism and Irish literature. Co-editor (with Tom Walker and Charles Armstrong) of the forthcoming Edinburgh Companion to W.B. Yeats and the Arts, and with Christine Reynier two special editions of the E-rea journal on Modernist Non-Fiction, he is director of the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society and currently President of Modernist Studies Ireland.

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