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The Harp’s the Thing

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

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.

Dulcimers, or “Dull Summers”? Joyce’s Use of Kubla Khan

Wednesday, September 23, 2009; 04:00 am 1 comment

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.