Bronze by gold

Bronze by gold

In Brief

The overture of musical motifs in Sirens begins very strangely with an amalgamation of four metals: "Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing." The body of the chapter immediately reveals the referents: bronze is the color of "Miss Douce's head"; "Miss Kennedy's head" is golden; and iron and steel refer to the shoes of horses drawing the viceregal party down the quays, which the two women see going by "over the crossblind of the Ormond bar," where they work. Joyce clearly has a musical purpose in evoking the clatter of horses' hooves, and a visual one in his delineation of hair colors, but bronze and gold may also serve a conceptual purpose, drawing on the splendor of precious metals in Homer's Odyssey.

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In countless musical instruments, not to mention more utilitarian objects like klaxons, whistles, anvils, hammers, spoons, and oil drums, metals produce pure tones suited to making melody and harmony. But horseshoes don't really ring when they strike pavement; most people would categorize the sound as mere noise, not music. Sirens sets out to complicate this binary. Throughout the chapter rubber bands "twang" and "snap," rain and leaves "murmur," garters "smack," shells "plash" and "roar," canes "tap," and intestines burble and growl. Bloom thinks, "Sea, wind, leaves, thunder, waters, cows lowing, the cattlemarket, cocks, hens don't crow, snakes hissss. There's music everywhere. Ruttledge's door: ee creaking. No, that's noise." Before capitulating to the conventional wisdom, "No, that's noise," Bloom is onto something: "There's music everywhere." Many professional musicians would agree. In 1979 John Cage composed his remarkable Roaratorio, which sets parts of Finnegans Wake to a music that combines speech, singing, musical instruments, crying babies, street sounds, animal and bird calls, and much more.

At times in Sirens, repetition of the barmaids' color-tags contributes to lyrical tunecraft: "Yes, bronze from anear, by gold from afar, heard steel from anear, hoofs ring from afar, and heard steelhoofs ringhoof ringsteel"; "Shrill, with deep laughter, after bronze in gold, they urged each each to peal after peal, ringing in changes, bronzegold, goldbronze, shrilldeep, to laughter after laughter." But their dominant effect is visual. In the course of hearing them mentioned many dozens of times ("bronze" at least 38, "gold" at least 26, plus two more times when the pair appear in Wandering Rocks), the reader learns to render them as simply "the redhead" and "the blonde." Other colors often figure in descriptions of the two women: "their blouses, both of black satin" as they stand behind their "reef of counter," the gold lettering on the mirror behind them, the rose on Miss Douce's chest, the "cool dim seagreen sliding depth of shadow, eau de Nil" behind the bar, rendered in the overture as "oceangreen of shadow." (The eau de Nil shade, named for the appearance of Nile river water, is a pale green. Very early in the chapter, Miss Douce has seen the wife of the viceregent pass by in "pearl grey and eau de Nil.")

But after noting all the aural and visual associations that iron, bronze, and gold pick up along the way, readers may still find themselves wondering why Joyce chose to highlight metals in the first place. One possible answer may be found in his intention to have the two barmaids play the Homeric role of sirens, evidenced in their working in seagreen shadow behind a reef and listening to the haunting music inside a seashell. Gifford notes that "Bronze and gold were the principal metals in the world of Homer's epics; iron was the metal of Homer's own time" (290). If one accepts his inference, then the awe-inspiring beauty of bronze and gold in the Odyssey informs the allure of the barmaids. They are not simply two young women earning a living and trying to catch the eye of young men, but exotic objects of desire, precious substances.

Since swords, spears, shields, and armor were fashioned of bronze in the Mycenaean age represented in the Odyssey, one might expect this metal to carry only harsh military resonances, consistent with the themes of war sounded sometimes in Sirens. But Homer treats bronze as an exquisitely decorative substance, gleaming with a light that evokes the celestial dwellings of the gods. In book 4 of the Odyssey, when Telemachus beholds the "godlike house" of Menelaus and Helen in Sparta, which "shone like the dazzling light of sun or moon," it is the bronze that first awes him: "Pisistrarus! Dear friend, do you see how / these echoing halls are shining bright with bronze, / and silver, gold, ivory, and amber? / It is as full of riches as the palace / Of Zeus on Mount Olympus!" (41-44, 71-75).

Odysseus has similar responses when he enters the palace of Nausicaa's father Alcinous, the king of the Phaeacians: "Odysseus approached the royal house, / and stood there by the threshold made of bronze. . . . The palace of the mighty king was high, / and shone like rays of sunlight or of moonlight. / The walls were bronze all over, from the entrance / back to the bedrooms, and along them ran a frieze of blue. Gold doors held safe the house. / Pillars of silver rose up from the threshold, / the lintel silver, and the handle, gold. / Silver and golden dogs stood at each side" (7.82-92). Golden door handles and silver sculptures contribute to the splendor, but it is bronze that dominates the senses, surpassing the other precious metals with its celestial shining.

This overpowering brilliance may figure in the passage where, having just daringly exposed her thigh for Boylan's benefit, Lydia is stunned by his sudden departure: "Miss Douce's brave eyes, unregarded, turned from the crossblind, smitten by sunlight. Gone. Pensive (who knows?), smitten (the smiting light), she lowered the dropblind with a sliding cord. She drew down pensive (why did he go so quick when I?) about her bronze, over the bar where bald stood by sister gold, inexquisite contrast, contrast inexquisite nonexquisite." The light here is supplied by the late afternoon sun, not by "her bronze" (she is the one who is "smitten"), and it is Miss Kennedy beside whose beauty homely bald Pat the waiter offers "inexquisite contrast." But Miss Douce, bathed in radiance, seems to carry some of the splendor described in Odyssey 4 and 7. It is not the first time that bronze and gold have been thus lit up. At the beginning of the chapter Lydia has "darted, bronze," to the window, "flattening her face against the pane in a halo of hurried breath," and Mina has "sauntered sadly from bright light, twining a loose hair behind an ear. Sauntering sadly, gold no more, she twisted twined a hair."

The ironic contrast between seeing bronze and gold as mere shorthand for hair colors or as manifesting the godlike splendor of a heroic age seems perfectly consonant with Joyce's larger seriocomic purposes in Ulysses.

JH 2020
Bronze and Gold, Coco Berkman's reductive linoleum print (16 colors, oil-based inks), date unknown. Source:
Eau de Nil curtain fabric. Source:
Corinthian bronze battle helmet ca. 540 BCE, held in the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Source: