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.
So light imagery isn’t as prevalent in the text some other themes, so in my opinion the best way to go about taking apart the meaning of references to light is to unpack individual mentions of it and use those moments as a microcosm for the overarching ideas in Joyce’s writing style and the text.
The first references to light that appear in this last section of reading actually occur in a cluster, as opposed to spread out in passing mentions. Interestingly, these first instances of light imagery appear in the quoting of another’s words, not in statements within the conversation or even as part of Bloom’s internal monologue. The speech quoted by Dedalus and the other men at the newspaper holds not only multiple references to light, but rather sophisticated, though as the professor recognizes, bombastic vocabulary. These references come at the end of a very verbose description of Ireland, being “steeped in the transcendent translucent glow of out mild mysterious Irish twilight” (7.323-4). First of all, I find this quote interesting in the juxtaposition of “transcendent” with “translucent,” as descriptors of “glow,” an example of the types of word play Joyce seems to love, especially in this episode. The repeated syllables cause the reader to slow down, the similarity encouraging us to actually comprehend the words, giving more weight to the image. The comical nature of the description is also apparent in the definitions of the words; how can something be so awesome that it surpasses the ordinary but at the same time be diffuse, unfocusing the light? Not opposite, but certainly not synonymous. In truth it is a rather cloudy description, as insubstantial as many in this highly mocked speech.
It is that derision that is the basis for another direction of analysis for this snippet. With the exception of Bloom, who speculates that it is the medium which fails the speech without actually defending the words, the men in the newspaper office for the most part wholly reject the flowery language of the speech. Dedalus even claims that “life is too short” to continue to listen to the recitation (7.330). Bloom muses that the men should no reject the speech so completely, instead attempting to respect an honest bit of work, looking at the writer as a successful member of Dublin society, monetarily secure with a daughter about to marry well (7.340). This incident serves as another example of his practical nature analyzes the situation, but just as characteristic of Bloom, he says nothing.
The issue of profession is also underscored by this section. The men marvel that anyone was paid for this work, when the professor notes a few pages later that they also belong to creative professions, the classics, literature, the press (7.605). Really, his respect for these professions as a whole but rejection of this individual show a contradiction. The writer of the speech is nicknamed “Doughy Daw,” perhaps his writing is rejected not for its quality but because he is a lowly baker who attempts to dabble in the arts. His criticism links back to Bloom, who is only jokingly included in the list of admirable professions, and hints at the debate between work to express creativity or as a duty to your family.
Now I’d like to go out on a limb. It seems we can’t ignore the subject matter or the speech, the supposed majestic beauty of Ireland. In their scorn for the writer, are the men rejecting this idealized view of Ireland in favor of their every day experience of it? Or is their distain linked with a disagreement of his descriptions; we certainly see Stephen at least (though not yet arrived on the scene) feel trapped by Ireland, expressing his failure to escape it. It seems counterintuitive based on the extreme patriotism of many Irish that they would dislike their country, but some descriptions and comments thus far hint at possibly incomplete devotion. A budding hypothesis, but I think worth considering.