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James Joyce, Poet

James Joyce

Did James Joyce's literary career hinge on a single poem?

In our day James Joyce is highly regarded for his poetic prose, but in his own day he was an actual poet noted for his musicality. Joyce's first published book, Chamber Music, was a collection of melodic love poems; all 36 have since been set to music. Chamber Music was released in 1907 when Joyce was in his mid-twenties. But he would be in his thirties and deeply frustrated before his major prose works began to gain any real traction. The big break came when Joyce was "discovered" by two enormously talented and influential poets: Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats. Pound compared Joyce to the melodious Cavalier poet Robert Herrick and included one of his poems in his influential 1914 anthology Des Imagistes. Yeats praised the poem published by Pound (the second on this page) as "a technical and emotional masterpiece." And it seems possible that single poem may have saved Joyce from eternal obscurity ...

After nearly a decade of trying, Joyce had been unable to find publishers for his collection of short stories, Dubliners, or his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In fact, Joyce had become so disillusioned that in 1911 he had thrown his literary self-portrait into a fire; it was only saved thanks to his quick-thinking and quick-acting sister Eileen. But in December 2013 when Pound asked Yeats if there were any poets he would recommend for an upcoming anthology of Imagist poetry, Yeats mentioned Joyce and one poem in particular that had stuck in his mind. It took him some time to locate and name it: "I Hear an Army." In the meantime Pound had begun corresponding with Joyce, who was living in Trieste at the time. "Dear Sir, the first letter began, "Mr. Yeats has been speaking to me of your writing." We can only imagine the pleasant shock and warming encouragement Joyce must have derived from receiving such a letter "out of blue nothing." Once the poem had been identified, Joyce gave his blessing to the endeavor and also forwarded Pound a transcript of Dubliners and a chapter from his Portrait. Pound immediately recognized the quality of both and threw his considerable energies into the task of getting them published. In his collected letters we can see Pound contacting publishers and agents on Joyce's behalf, and even encouraging speedy payments! By the end of 1914 the short stories would be published and the novel would be serialized in The Egoist. Joyce would resume work on his most famous novel, Ulysses, and finish his play Exiles. Pound would produce the first sustained criticism of Joyce in the form of numerous essays and reviews. And the rest, as they say, is poetic history. Joyce's second poetry collection, Pomes Penyeach, would be published in 1927, followed by his Collected Poems in 1936 and 1957 editions.

FOOTNOTE: Two poems had been been late additions to Chamber Music. One of them was "I Hear an Army." Did we really come that close to never reading Ulysses?

On the Beach at Fontana

Wind whines and whines the shingle,
The crazy pierstakes groan;
A senile sea numbers each single
Slimesilvered stone.

From whining wind and colder
Grey sea I wrap him warm
And touch his trembling fineboned shoulder
And boyish arm.

Around us fear, descending,
Darkness of fear above;
And in my heart how deep unending
Ache of love!

I Hear an Army

I hear an army charging upon the land,
And the thunder of horses plunging; foam about their knees:
Arrogant, in black armour, behind them stand,
Disdaining the rains, with fluttering whips, the Charioteers.

They cry into the night their battle name:
I moan in sleep when I hear afar their whirling laughter.
They cleave the gloom of dreams, a blinding flame,
Clanging, clanging upon the heart as upon an anvil.

They come shaking in triumph their long grey hair:
They come out of the sea and run shouting by the shore.
My heart, have you no wisdom thus to despair?
My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?

Ecce Puer

Of the dark past
A child is born;
With joy and grief
My heart is torn.

Calm in his cradle
The living lies.
May love and mercy
Unclose his eyes!

Young life is breathed
On the glass;
The world that was not
Comes to pass.

A child is sleeping:
An old man gone.
O, father forsaken,
Forgive your son!


                              O bella bionda,
                              Sei come l'onda!

Of cool sweet dew and radiance mild
The moon a web of silence weaves
In the still garden where a child
Gathers the simple salad leaves.

A moondew stars her hanging hair
And moonlight kisses her young brow
And, gathering, she sings an air:
Fair as the wave is, fair, art thou!

Be mine, I pray, a waxen ear
To shield me from her childish croon
And mine a shielded heart for her
Who gathers simples of the moon. 

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.

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

At that hour when all things have repose,
   O lonely watcher of the skies,
   Do you hear the night wind and the sighs
Of harps playing unto Love to unclose
   The pale gates of sunrise?

When all things repose, do you alone
   Awake to hear the sweet harps play
   To Love before him on his way,
And the night wind answering in antiphon
   Till night is overgone?

Play on, invisible harps, unto Love,
   Whose way in heaven is aglow
   At that hour when soft lights come and go,
Soft sweet music in the air above
   And in the earth below.

Lightly come or lightly go:
   Though thy heart presage thee woe,
Vales and many a wasted sun,
   Oread let thy laughter run,
Till the irreverent mountain air
Ripple all thy flying hair.

Lightly, lightly — ever so:
   Clouds that wrap the vales below
At the hour of evenstar
   Lowliest attendants are;
Love and laughter song-confessed
When the heart is heaviest.

All day I hear the noise of waters
   Making moan,
Sad as the sea-bird is when, going
   Forth alone,
He hears the winds cry to the water's

The grey winds, the cold winds are blowing
   Where I go.
I hear the noise of many waters
   Far below.
All day, all night, I hear them flowing
   To and fro.

A Flower Given to My Daughter

Frail the white rose, and frail are
Her hands that gave,
Whose soul is sere, and paler
Than time’s wan wave.
Rose-frail and fair—yet frailest,         5
A wonder wild
In gentle eyes thou veilest,
My blue-veined child.

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