Tag Archives: Nora Barnacle

Review: ‘Chamber Music’ by James Joyce

James Joyce’s ‘Chamber Music’ was published in 1907, a tightly organised collection of very singable little love songs published three years after he met his future wife, Nora Barnacle. She was a chambermaid from Galway, and their first outing together–a walk through the Dublin suburb of Ringsend–was sufficently memorable (she masturbated him) that the date of 16 June 1904 was made the day of the events of Joyce’s novel ‘Ulysses’, and is now celebrated in various fashions around the world as Bloomsday.

The first poem of ‘Chamber Music’ sets the tone, not necessarily what you would expect from Joyce, but definitely related to his very fine singing voice:

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 music bent,
And fingers straying
Upon an instrument.

Yes, well… Anyway, apart from the Joycean suggestiveness the lyrics provide a simple narrative over the 36 poems, short poems of eight to 18 lines. He sings of a girl, a maiden, shy, beautiful; she is a dove, a sweetheart, his true love, and only becomes a lady in Number 28. Then in the last three we have the “unquiet heart”, then “the grey winds”, and finally the last dream poem begins “I hear an army charging upon the land” and ends “My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?”

The narrative of the lyrics does not reflect Joyce’s life with Nora. She had moved with him to Austria-Hungary in 1904, and they stayed together until his death in 1941.