Chamber music

Chamber music

In Brief

In Sirens Bloom thinks, "Chamber music. Could make a kind of pun on that. It is a kind of music I often thought when she. Acoustics that is. Tinkling. Empty vessels make most noise." "It" is the sound of bodily fluids resonating in a chamber pot. The pun was implicit in the metaphorical title of Joyce's first book-length publication, a collection of 36 short lyric poems written from 1901 to 1906.

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Chamber music is simply classical music with a small number of parts and one performer to a part. The term usually refers to instrumental genres like the string quartet, but it might as justly be applied to the Elizabethan lute songs that Joyce was enamored of in his early 20s. These delicate compositions bear more than a passing resemblance to Joyce's early lyric poems—resonant mood pieces that, although far removed from the rhythms of speech, require attention to each word, much as lute songs highlight each syllable in the voice and each quaver in the responsive instrument.

Joyce's brother Stanislaus noticed the resemblance between his poems and chamber music, and suggested the metaphorical title. A chance incident suggested the additional scatological pun. Ellmann relates the event: "Gogarty, who was then in Dublin, had brought Joyce to visit Jenny, an easy-going widow, and while they all drank porter Joyce read out his poems, which he carried with him in a large packet, each written in his best hand in the middle of a large piece of parchment. The widow was pleased enough by this entertainment, but had to interrupt to withdraw behind a screen to a chamber pot. As the two young men listened, Gogarty cried out, 'There's a critic for you!' Joyce had already accepted the title of Chamber Music which Stanislaus had suggested; and when Stanislaus heard the story from him, he remarked, 'You can take it as a favorable omen'" (154). Joyce did.

Few people would associate a countertenor plaining to his lute with a woman pissing into a ceramic pot, but in Joyce's imagination the connection became almost inevitable. Even in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where spirituality and physicality are not fused so dramatically as in Ulysses, Stephen's thoughts run the ethereal-carnal gamut: "His mind, when wearied of its search for the essence of beauty amid the spectral words of Aristotle or Aquinas, turned often for its pleasure to the dainty songs of the Elizabethans. His mind, in the vesture of a doubting monk, stood often in shadow under the windows of that age, to hear the grave and mocking music of the lutenists or the frank laughter of waistcoateers [prostitutes] until a laugh too low, a phrase, tarnished by time, of chambering [fornication] and false honour, stung his monkish pride and drove him on from his lurkingplace."

Some readers may recall that the best-known of these delicate songs, "Greensleeves," concerns "chambering" in this sexual sense of frequenting women's bedrooms and their vaginas: it makes its complaint to a woman who accepted all the singer's rich gifts in return for sexual favors, and then left him. The John Dowland song attached here effects a similar linkage between Petrarchan adoration and carnal knowledge: the repeated words "come" and "die" both contain strong sexual meanings.

Joyce was not content simply to have Bloom state the connection between dainty music and women's genitals. In Penelope he staged a performance on the chamber pot and insinuated a reference to the musical effects of poetry, bringing the scatalogical implications of his poetic title to life. When Molly's period comes on her and she sits on the pot that the Blooms keep beside their bed, the sounds make her think of a lyric poem that rings with countless rhymes.

JH 2019
1907 first edition of Joyce's collection of poems titled Chamber Music, published by Elkin Mathews of London. Source: jamesjoyce.ie.