Dulcimers, or “Dull Summers”? Joyce’s Use of Kubla Khan
In the New Bloomsday Book’s section on Calypso, Harry Blamires provides a useful summation of Bloom’s daydream after leaving he leaves his house for breakfast, which is presented by Joyce with an aura of discomfort. Bloom is discomforted in being forced to leave the front door unlocked because he does not want to wake a sleeping Molly for the key, and he is discomforted by the heat his dark suit creates, which he must wear to a funeral. There is a difference between how things should be and how they actually are.
Blamires writes:“Bloom indulges a daydream of setting out in the east and traveling to a strange, walled oriental city with its turbaned crowds, carpet shops, its pedlars and mosques, its rich night sky and the damsel with her dulcimer. But Bloom has enough common sense to recollect that the dream east of books misrepresents the real thing” (24). What bears mentioning about this description is where these images of the east come from. We hear about “turbaned faces,” “shadows of the mosques,” “their dark language,” as well as “Turko the terrible, seated crosslegged, smoking a coiled pipe” (4.88-96), all of which function as stereotypical depictions of the east and its inhabitants. In fact, Joyce is toying with descriptions similar to those of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” especially when Bloom tells us he hears “a girl playing one of those instruments what do you call them: dulcimers” (4.98). Kubla Khan also includes a woman playing a dulcimer as part of its Oriental imagery, and in that poem, the speaker wishes he could remember the song of a woman playing the dulcimer (“Could I revive within me/ Her symphony and song,/ To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,”). Part of what makes Kubla Khan so memorable is the failure of memory, how Coleridge wrote the poem after being unable to recover essential details from a dream, which is reflected in the speaker’s longing to recount the song of the female dulcimer player.
In Ulysses, we instead find Leopold Bloom in a daydream (i.e. he’s not actually asleep). After watching a maternal figure call her children home, he faintly hears music. “Beyond strings twanged. Night sky, moon, violet, colour of Molly’s new garters. Strings. Listen.” But then he “passes,” which I interpret as both the literal “he walked by the dulcimer” and the metaphorical “he rejected the dulcimer.” This metaphorical “passing” is portrayed to the reader in the following paragraph, when Bloom realizes the sentimentality of his daydream: “Probably not a bit like it really. Kind of stuff you read…” (4.99-100).
While I agree with Bloom (and the non-fictional critic Edward Said) that such portrayals of the east rely on formulaic stereotypes and usually serve as oversimplified contrasts to Western life, Joyce’s response to Kubla Khan also bears significantly on Bloom’s marriage. There is a highly sexual/marital aspect to Bloom’s rejection of the dulcimer. The whole daydream begins after Bloom sees Boland’s breadvan, which reminds of him of Boylan and his wife (“Boland’s breadvan delivering with trays our daily but she prefers yesterday’s loaves turnovers crisp crowns hot. Makes you feel young. Somewhere in the east…”). The east serves as pleasant alternative to Bloom’s current marital situation, to his “dull summer.” I find it hardly coincidental that Joyce chooses the image of the woman playing the dulcimer, whose strings remind Bloom of “Molly’s new garters,” as the thing that will get Bloom out of his idealized daydream and back to the reality of his dull summer, which so far consists of going out to get breakfast in spite of his wife not directly answering “yes” or “no” to his question and going to a funeral.