Break the news to her

Break the news to her

In Brief

"Break the news to her gently," a phrase heard as Stephen imagines students in their rooms at Oxford, alludes to a popular song of the 1890s, though there are two candidates. This reference in Telemachus is the first of many instances in which the strains of popular songs from the streets, music halls, and drawing rooms waft through the verbal textures of Ulysses. Together with the more exalted strains like operatic arias, they provoke lingering aural resonances in the mind of any reader who knows the tunes. One cannot adequately “read” the novel without hearing these many melodic allusions. 

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The allusion may be to

Charles K. Harris' Break the News to Mother (1897). The composer of After the Ball, the first song to sell five million copies in sheet music, Harris wrote the sentimental and patriotic Break the News to Mother during the Spanish American War. When a new war came along twenty years later to renew patriotic fervor, his enormously popular song was revived to beat the drum once more. According to the publisher, it became the #2 hit of World War I, second only to George M. Cohan’s Over There.

Harris’ song tells the story of a young man who responds to his captain’s call to run through enemy fire to retrieve a fallen flag. He “Saved the flag but gave his young life, / All for his country’s sake,” and as he is dying he gasps the words of the chorus:

Just break the news to Mother, she knows how dear I love her
And tell her not to wait for me, for I’m not coming home;
Just say there is no other can take the place of Mother
Then kiss her dear sweet lips for me, and break the news to 
“From afar a noted Gen’ral” witnesses the brave deed and comes to see the man who did it, only to find that it is his own son, an under-age boy whom he thought “safe at home.” The boy says, “Forgive me, father, for I ran away," and the Chorus repeats.

Thornton, and Gifford and Seidman after him, cite Harris’ song as the likely source of Stephen’s phrase, but as Thornton notes, several "slightly different" versions of the song circulated. The closest analogue, not cited by any of the commentators, is a song from earlier in the 1890s that Harris’ composition apparently updated. This song, whose lyrics were apparently written by Edward B. Marks, tells a very similar tearjerking tale in which the heroism is supplied by firefighters. A young hero has given his life to rescue a small child, and now lies dying:

Break the news to mother gently, tell her how her brave son
Tell her that he did his duty, as in life he ever tried. 
Treat her kindly, boys, a friend be to her when I’m dead and
Break the news to mother gently, do not let her weep or

Stephen's inclusion of the word "gently" may indicate that he is thinking of this version. Elizabeth C. Axford’s Song Sheets to Software, 2nd ed. (2004) attributes its 1892 composition to Joe Stern, but other publications say it was written by Will H. Fox.

JH 2011

Cover of the sheet music of Break the News to Mother.