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James Joyce’s Chamber Music (1918 American Edition)

- February 3, 2012 in chamber music, james joyce, love poetry, non-article, poetry, texts


Chamber Music, by James Joyce; 1918; B.W.Huebsch, New York.

Collection of love poems by James Joyce, originally published by Elkin Matthews in May, 1907, the same year he refused Joyce’s manuscript for Dubliners. Composed and revised between 1901 and 1906, the bulk of them were written for an imagined love, before he first ‘stepped out’ with his wife to be Nora in 16 June 1904. The title “Chamber Music” was reportedly a pun relating to the sound of urine tinkling in a chamber pot, though this seems to be a later embellishment by Joyce of the title’s meaning.

Joyce to Stannie, Feb 1907:
I don’t like the book but wish it were published and be damned to it. However, it is a young man’s book. I felt like that. It is not a book of love-verses at all, I perceive. But some of them are pretty enough to be put to music. I hope someone will do so, someone that knows old English music such as I like. Besides they are not pretentious and have a certain grace. I will keep a copy myself and (so far as I can remember) at the top of each page I will put an address, or a street so that when I open the book I can revisit the places where I wrote the different songs.


Joyce to Stannie, 11 Feb 1907:
I have certain ideas I would like to give form to: not as a doctrine but as the continuation of the expression of myself which I now see I began in Chamber Music. These ideas or instincts or intuitions or impulses may be purely personal. I have no wish to codify myself as anarchist or socialist or reactionary…


Joyce to Stannie, April 1907, debating cancelling the book:
All that kind of thing is false… (Ellmann’s paraphrase: …insincerity and fakery… an ironic note to make them modern… essentially poems for lovers and he was no lover).


Joyce to Nora, 21 Aug 1909:
I like to think of you reading my verses (though it took you five years to find them out). When I wrote them I was a strange lonely boy, walking about by myself at night and thinking that some day a girl would love me. But I never could speak to the girls I used to meet at houses. Their false manners checked me at once. Then you came to me. You were not in a sense the girl for whom I had dreamed and written the verses you find now so enchanting. She was perhaps (as I saw her in my imagination) a girl fashioned into a curious grave beauty by the culture of generations before her, the woman for whom I wrote poems like ‘Gentle lady’ or ‘Thou leanest to the shell of night’. But then I saw that the beauty of your soul outshone that of my verses. There was something in you higher than anything I had put into them. And for this reason the book of verses is for you. It holds the desire of my youth and you, darling, were the fulfilment of that desire.


In Nov 1909 Joyce had an elaborate handwritten copy bound as a Christmas present for Nora including this comment:
Perhaps this book I send you now will outlive both you and me. Perhaps the fingers of some young man or young girl (our children’s children) may turn over its parchment leaves reverently when the two lovers whose initials are interlaced on the cover have long vanished from the earth. Nothing will remain then, dearest, of our poor human passion-driven bodies and who can say where the souls that looked on each other through their eyes will then be. I would pray that my soul be scattered in the wind if God would but let me blow softly for ever about one strange lonely dark-blue rain-drenched flower in a wild hedge at Aughrim or Oranmore.


Joyce to Gorman, 1931:
I wrote Chamber Music as a protest against myself.


Open Library link

Note this text is in the public domain in the EU (and other countries with a 70+ years term on copyright), but may not be in other jurisdictions (e.g. the U.S.). Please check its status in your jurisdiction before re-using.



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