The stream of life

The stream of life

In Brief

As Bloom thinks of taking a bath at the end of Lotus Eaters, he inexactly recalls two lines from Maritana, a sentimental light opera from the mid-19th century. The aria In Happy Moments Day by Day is about how precious experiences succumb to the passage of time but are preserved by the power of memory, "Which in the flight of years we trace, / Is dearer than them all." Bloom's version is "Always passing, the stream of life, which in the stream of life we trace is dearer than them all." Although the operatic melody seems to be playing in his head as he comes up with these words, he adds a striking image very much his own.

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The three-act Maritana was written by Irish composer William Vincent Wallace and English librettist Edward Fitzball (born Edward Ball). It premiered at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London, in November 1845 and was produced in Dublin in 1846. After runs in Philadelphia, New York, and Vienna, the opera returned to Dublin in 1877 and to London in 1880 and 1902. Productions were still being mounted in London in the 1920s and 30s, and the Royal Dublin Society brought it to the concert stage in 2006.

James Joyce was evidently fond of the work. The bass who sings in "A Mother," Mr. Duggan, "had become a first-rate artiste. He had appeared in grand opera. One night, when a operatic artiste had fallen ill, he had undertaken the part of the king in the opera of Maritana at the Queen's Theatre." In The Dead, Mr. Browne waxes rhapsodic about "the old Italian companies that used to come to Dublin—Tietjens, Ilma de Murzka, Campanini, the great Trebelli, Giuglini, Ravelli, Aramburo. Those were the days, he said, when there was something like singing to be heard in Dublin. He told too of how the top gallery of the old Royal used to be packed night after night, of how one night an Italian tenor had sung five encores to Let Me Like a Soldier Fall, introducing a high C every time." This is an aria in the second act of Maritana.

The aria that comes next is sung by the villain Don Jose:

In happy moments day by day,

The sands of life may pass,

In swift but tranquil tide away

From time’s unerring glass. 

Yet hopes we used as bright to deem

Remembrance will recall, 

Whose pure and whose unfading beam
Is dearer than them all.

Though anxious eyes upon us gaze,

And hearts with fondness beat,

Whose smile upon each feature plays 

With truthfulness replete. 

Some thoughts none other can replace 

Remembrance will recall, 

Which in the flight of years we trace
Is dearer then them all.

The song's images of transience—sands in a glass, tides, flight—are transformed in Bloom's memory into a "stream." This image evocatively anticipates the final paragraph of Lotus Eaters, where Bloom will picture his penis as "a languid floating flower." For some readers it may also recall Heraclitus' saying that you cannot step into the same river twice: all things are constantly in motion. Just as the lotus-penis promises continuation in the midst of flux, the stream changes from moment to moment but remains the same in memory.

JH 2022
 Cover of sheet music ca. 1850 for Scenes That are Brightest, a song from Maritana. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
 An 1883 cigar box with a scene from Maritana. Source: Wikimedia Commons.