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The Harp’s the Thing

Wednesday, September 30, 2009; 02:28 am Leave a comment Go to comments

In Ulysses Annotated the entry “Harp Eolian” describes a harp meant to be played by the wind (of Aeolus) rather than fingers. The harp in general was the instrument of the Celtic bards and a national symbol of Ireland. “Harp,” the Annotated goes on, is also slang for an Irish Catholic.

From these simple definitions arise some obvious inferences. First, Joyce’s reference takes place on pp. 105  in episode 7, titled “Aeolus,” after the Keeper of Winds who first aided and then rebuffed the home-seeking Odysseus. Interpreting Myles Crawford as the correspondent Aeolus, and the episode itself as being full of “bad wind,” with “wind” in general corresponding to rhetoric – rhetoric, I propose, with little or no purpose, empty words for the moment – we can see the “harp” being played by Myles and his associates at the offices, discussing the fruitless past, flowery speeches and semantics, passing stories of disappointment, and going about their daily business, the paper, itself an old and wasted item after one day. Second, the slang usage of “harp” refers to Crawford and his associates, but not Bloom or Stephen. Third, the most obvious correspondent for an actual harp, as in the instrument, lies in the floss used by either the professor or Myles to clean his teeth. When plucked between the teeth, the floss goes “Bingbang, bangbang.” I’m not certain what the significance of the floss being the harp is, but several ideas come to mind: a) the floss/harp in this section only plucks at waste and detritus, thus the gaseous ideas and frustration espoused/blown everywhere b) it sets up the next episode featuring “bad food” and where it might possibly come from (or come out of), and c) the floss/harp is the only instrument at the moment capable of cleansing away this detritus, and not enough people in this episode are using poetry/rhetoric correctly to cut down on the frustrated winds blowing everywhere.

The actual above reference occurs in a section of the episode entitled O, Harp Eolian! This invokes not only the above associations but also a strong connection to the Samuel Coleridge poem “The Eolian Harp.” The poem, begun in 1795 and revised frequently by Coleridge until 1817, was one of the first conversation poems – a group of eight poems in which Coleridge applies conversational language to describe nature, life, and death. That such a reference, not including the above connotations, should appear in the “rhetoric” episode, where dialogue and conversation are key, is unsurprising. The poem itself deals with the author’s (impending) marriage by examining love through nature, which is chiefly represented by the Eolian Harp and the music it produces. More importantly, the poem sets up a series of oppositional ideas – coyness and innocence, wilderness and order, motion and slumber – and shows how these two disparate ideas actually compliment each other. This reconciliation of seeming contradictions occurs frequently throughout Ulysses, though Joyce is careful to have the ideas reconcile only so much, leaving a bit of tension for readers to follow throughout the texts. For example, the issues we discussed on Monday regarding the overlapping and complex relations between Ireland, Greece, Rome, Britain, and Judaism (not to mention the anti-Semitism displayed by many of the local characters); or Bloom’s original love of meat turned sour by “cannibalism” only to be reconciled later (in his mind) by sex – which leads down a dizzying path of its own.

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