O, harp Eolian!
Figure of speech. One of Joyce's headlines refers to
a stringed instrument called the Aeolian harp, which carried
lofty associations in the 19th century but which in Aeolus
becomes a glorified name for some twanging dental floss.
Speaking to the floss as if it were a melodious wind harp, the
headline employs the rhetorical device of apostrophe,
in which an orator turns aside from the audience to address
someone or something else.
Apostrophe (uh-POS-truh-fee, from Greek apo- = away +
strephein = to turn) is a "turning away" from the
audience. Gideon Burton (rhetoric.byu.edu) observes that the
resulting address may be "to an abstraction, to an inanimate
object, or to the absent. Since this figure often involves
emotion, it can overlap with exclamatio," the Latin term for ecphonesis.
Shakespeare employs the device in Julius Caesar when
Mark Antony turns to Caesar's body and says, "O, pardon me,
thou bleeding piece of earth, / That I am meek and gentle with
these butchers!" (3.1.254-57), again when he says, "O
judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts, / And men have lost
their reason" (3.2.104-5), and yet again when he says, "For
Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel. Judge, o you gods,
how dearly Caesar loved him!" (3.2.181-82). In all three
instances, addressed respectively to a corpse, an abstraction,
and the gods, Antony uses the exclamatory "O!" that is a
common feature of apostrophes.
In Aeolus the exclamatory address is made to a
musical instrument. Aeolian harps, produced in Europe from
about 1650 onward but probably invented in antiquity, were
named after the god of the winds, Aeolus. Traditionally they were
wooden boxes about one meter long, with a sound board, one or
more sound holes, and two bridges. The gut strings stretched
across the bridges could be tuned to different pitches, or
strings of different thicknesses could all be tuned to the
same pitch. Placed in an open window or other breezy spot, the
instrument would produce only harmonic
frequencies––"overtones" of a third, a fourth, a fifth, an
octave. The result was eerie, ethereal sounds that rose and
fell with the breezes, creating the impression that a god, or
Nature, was playing the instrument.
harps became popular household instruments in the Romantic
era, and for writers of that time (Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alfred Lord
Tennyson) they evoked transcendent qualities. Coleridge's The
Aeolian Harp describes how the breeze caresses "that
simplest Lute, / Placed length-ways in the clasping casement,"
producing "delicious surges" of airy music, a "floating
witchery of sound." Listening, the speaker of the poem
entertains rapturous pantheistic thoughts, asking if "all of
animated nature / Be but organic Harps diversely framed, /
That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps / Plastic and
vast, one intellectual breeze, / At once the Soul of each, and
God of all?" Shelley's Ode to the West Wind addresses
the wind as a vast power bringing life and death to all
things: "Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!" After
repeating the "O hear!" refrain at the end of its first three
sections, the poem opens its fifth and final section with a
request to "Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is."
The inverted word order and ecstatic "O!" of "O, HARP EOLIAN!" give off an air of romantic sublimity, possibly echoing Shelley's apostrophes to the great west wind: "O hear!" But Joyce uses the rapturous headline to introduce a remarkably banal action: "He took a reel of dental floss from his waistcoat pocket and, breaking off a piece, twanged it smartly between two and two of his resonant unwashed teeth. / — Bingbang, bangbang." This instrument produces some very non-ethereal music, but it is indeed a kind of harp, with vibrating floss providing the string, Professor MacHugh's mouth serving as a sound hole, and a funny kind of onomatopoeic music (bingbang, bangbang) floating out.
§ Gilbert (seconded by Seidman) cites "O, HARP EOLIAN!" as an instance of the rhetorical figure of synaeresis (sin-AIR-uh-sis), a kind of metaplasm in which two syllables are contracted into one, because it shortens the usual Æ to a simpler anglicized E. This claim seems weak, since Æ is actually a diphthong rather than two distinct syllables. Gilbert's example of apostrophe, Simon Dedalus' "Agonizing Christ, wouldn't it give you a heartburn on your arse," is even more dubious, since Dedalus is not really addressing Christ, but only taking his name in vain. "O, HARP EOLIAN!" is a much stronger example of apostrophe: in it, the headline wryly addresses Professor MacHugh's little string instrument.