O, harp Eolian!

O, harp Eolian!

In Brief

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.

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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.

§ Aeolian 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.

JH 2023
Source: discover.hubpages.com.
Source: www.examples.com.
Aeolian harp made in London by John & Gerard Vogler ca. 1775-90, held in the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia.
Source: emuseum.history.org.
Simon Speed's 2013 photograph of an Aeolian harp made by Robert Bloomfield ca. 1812-23, held in the Higgins Art Gallery & Museum, Bedford, England. Source: Wikimedia Commons.