The Musicality of "Sirens"

Joyce Playing Rimbaud in Paris

Joyce as French poet Arthur Rimbaud (Paris, France 1902).

Arthur Rimbaud's "Vies" Jef Rosman's "Arthur Rimbaud wounded" Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 Video of Bach, "Little" Fugue in G minor, Organ The Ormond Hotel "The Siren" oil painting by J.W. Waterhouse "Sirens" Page Proof

James Joyce’s Ulysses is undeniably a text of depth and literary profundity, filled with Joycean esotericisms to only be fully understood by a select few worshippers of this distinguishable literary work. All of the images and events impound upon one another as the work progresses; the rapidity at which the text unravels leads to a convoluted ambiguity revolving around how the characters find themselves and just how each episode, each turn, correlates with the prior and proceeding events.

Over the span of the seven years it took Joyce to write Ulysses, he undeniably grew as an artist himself. As he interwove the lives of Stephen, Bloom, and Molly, Joyce found inspiration from the world that surrounded him. Joyce found energy in the art, literature, music, and pop culture of his time—as well as the times that preceded him. He took these energies in, consolidating them and re-inventing them with his own interpretations, as is quite evident in his parodies of women’s magazines and literature in “Nausicaa.”

“Sirens,” episode XI of Ulysses aptly depicts an integration of artistic appreciation and responsibility; the episode is a musical experience that carries the reader through a journey that yearns to appreciate the craft of an artist, which Joyce uses to emphasize both the fatality and livelihood of sentimentality.  The craft of the episode creates an experience that evokes a sense of elation similar to that of a musical composition. Further, this favoring of the arts inadvertently builds a bridge between the religious and the secular; as one drives across, towards artistic fulfillment, he finds himself further from the rigidity of religion. 

Joyce was strongly influenced by the works of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and established a particular sense of connectivity with Rimbaud’s works during his time in Paris. In 1902, Joyce is said to have dressed as Rimbaud during his much self-imposed “exile” to Paris, France—an exile that was, like Stephen, cut short by his mother’s illness. Upon his return to Ireland, Joyce was initially ostracized and thought to have fallen victim to the arts by his family and peers. The religiosity and Catholic faith from which he came placed on emphasis on the divine and an external devotion, whereas Joyce’s new artistic inclinations placed a greater emphasis on internal emotion and understanding.

Joyce had spent a great deal of time dabbling with poetry and working to establish himself as a credible writer (Davis). These dabbles incited a bout of intense intellectual reflection that caused Joyce to begin reconsidering the aesthetic and intellectual value of art and language. Joyce found himself reconsidering the value of the written word, which consequentially inspired the seemingly unintelligible “lyrics” of the beginning of “Sirens.”

Arthur Rimbaud is known to have invented a language of his own; Rimbaud desired inventer une langue that returned to words “the full meaning they had once possessed” (Starkle). In his works, Rimbaud expressed an ineffable quality, creating a language “not bound by logic, nor grammar or syntax,” but one that communicated an intelligence and intuition far beyond the written word—regardless that this oft convoluted the understanding of his works (Starkle). He desired so strongly for language to be found and redeemed from the convolution that grew to riddle it over time. Rimbaud was convinced, much like Joyce that the modern understanding of language came with no intrinsic value or substance. Rather, words worked in conjunction with one another to convey a meaning and fill a page. The embodiment of this Rimbaudian ideology is evident in “Sirens;” Joyce deliberately works to give each word or phrase a particular meaning, which is only further emphasized by the fact that each individual part of the opening lyric speaks to a different element of the overall story within “Sirens”

Rimbaud’s poem “Vies” is part of his uncompleted collection Les Illuminations, published in 1886, by the efforts of his lover, French poet Paul Verlaine. In his poem “Vies,” or “Lives,” Rimbaud writes of the burden of religious entrapment; he writes of the “enormous avenues of the Holy Land, the temple terraces!” (Varese 29). The prose poem continues: 

I remember silver hours and sunlight by the rivers, the hand of the country on my shoulder and our caresses standing on the spicy plains…An exile here, I had a stage on which to play all masterpieces of literature…My wisdom is as scorned as chaos…I am an inventor more deserving far than all those who preceded me; a musician, moreover, who has discovered something like the key of love…I expect to become a very vicious madman...I am really far beyond the tomb, and no commissions. (Varese 29-33).

An explication of the words of Rimbaud in this prose, and many others, proves a clear parallel in Joyce’s “Sirens.” The exile, the advent of a language implemented by a “madman,” and the stark desire to find a stage “on which to play” all speak to Joyce’s motives for creating this seemingly cacophonic narrative dissonance that, in reality, tells a beautifully melodic story. French Rimbaud enthusiast and poetry critic Enid Starkie notes Rimbaud as he relates to music. First, many critics have noted the musical quality of Rimbaud’s poetry, most specifically his prose poetry. The musical quality within his prose are self-evident and “undoubtedly possess a sure ear for sonorous effects, both delicate and sublime...his lines melodious without being musically evocative” (114). Joyce likely had a similar reaction in his exposure to Rimbaud and found meaning behind the words of Rimbaud. Interestingly, Starkie notes that Rimbaud is said to have lacked the awareness of the evocative power of music lyric. His understanding of the power of music was minimal and he found no inspiration, nor artistry behind musical expression. Joyce’s understanding of Rimbaud is more akin with the literary critiques that hear this musical tone within Rimbaud’s work, despite Rimbaud’s original his intentions. Looked at from a new critical perspective, the reader’s understanding of the work is truly all that matters; Joyce took from Rimbaud this lyrical genius that reinstated that majesty of the written word, and he applied this inspiration in “Sirens.”

Minor Belgian painter, Jef Rosman’s portrait of Rimbaud is one of two authentic portraits of the great poet. Painted in 1873, the work depicts the poet as he lies in bed after being wounded by his lover, French poet Paul Verlaine. The young Rimbaud rarely found himself is such a state, riddled with malady and emotional (and physical) woes. Rather, he was an insolent individual to be around. Rimbaud, in all of his youthful genius and glory, was allegedly a facetious prick, intent on making his genius known. Rimbaud’s stamp of identity is that he not only integrated his artistry as a poet into his works, but that he also integrated his poetic visions to become a way of life. Most notably, he considered his poetic clarity as a renewal of sorts, an absolution of sin synonymous with that of a religious confessional, thereby mitigating a need for religious hierarchy—a quality from which Joyce undoubtedly drew inspiration.

In accordance with Rimbaud’s views on religion, there is a clear parody of religion in “Sirens.” Academic Linda Hutcheon defines a literary parody as “a form of imitation…characterized by ironic inversion” (Hutcheon 6). Hutcheon believes that parody can be used to “satirize the reception or even creation of certain kinds of art” (16). Nonetheless, parodies can and should also serve as a sort of inverted structuralism that intends to recycle a previous understanding to bring new meaning and purpose. Joyce’s parody of religion, as conveyed by Rimbaud, is not exactly a stylistic parody. Rather, Joyce’s adaptation is an ideological. The religious references throughout the episode are continuous: “Pray for him! Pray, good people...Religion pays,” Joyce writes (XI 51; 187). Together, with the constant chimes of bells and the gold and bronze imagery layered throughout the episode, Joyce appeal’s to one’s theological sense but parodies the secondary nature of religious fulfillment—the primary sense of fulfillment again being an artistic sense. Joyce engages in this parody by creating an indirect undertone of polygamous belief. He writes of the “blessed virgins,” the plural of “virgins” serving as a blasphemous statement in itself. Further, he says, “God they believe she is, or goddess…The sweets of sin. Sweet are the sweets. Of sin” (152-157). Joyce’s stance on religion shifts throughout the work. Nonetheless, with Rimbaud’s pre-existing condemnation of the Church, and Joyce’s means of artistic inspiration, it can be understood that Joyce more oft than not took a stance that condemned the rigidity of the Church.

Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565) is a classic work of organ music by the great composer. As with many works, particularly organ works, there is no autographed manuscript of BWV 565. Nonetheless, versions of the "original" manuscript yet persist and have been studied and imitated for years after publication. Before explicating the correlation of this musical composition to Joyce’s writing process for “Sirens,” it’s important to understand the intention of the aforementioned. The title of “Toccata and Fugue” is multi-fold and refers primarily to the progression of the music. The "toccata" refers to the free, expansive opening of the work, while the "fugue," the portion that Joyce draws parallels to, is representative of the fugal section in which the musical notes compete against one another both in succession and all at once. Joyce has claimed there to be eight regular parts throughout the episode that work in both contrapuntal harmony and dissonance to create an overall sound of uniformity. These parts work as a governing framework for the entirety of the chapter, utilizing the polyphonic narrative to give rise to a new way of understanding the words of the underlying narrative. Joyce writes, “Words? Music? No: it’s what’s behind” (XI; 703). The musical profundity of the episode takes precedence over the narrative and lends itself to a strong and profound articulation of every word—for the unique pronunciation and articulation of each words creates a sound the contributes to the song as a whole.

The video, pulled from Youtube, is a recreation of Bach’s “Little” Fugure in G minor, played on the organ. The visual aptly depicts the intricacy Joyce aimed to recreate in ”Sirens”—an intricacy that not only interweaves the different elements involved, but also culminates to create a uniform masterpiece with all of the different levels coming together in a harmonized fashion. The relevance of this video is that parallels Joyce’s intention with the episode—most especially with the beginning of the chapter. Each sentence of the beginning is a part of a whole—each sentence alludes to an oncoming event, yet, with the succession of each of the independent phrases, Joyce emphasizes the dissonant yet uniform series of events that unfold. Further, he shows just how intertwined the becoming of these events are, which is a theme that runs rampant throughout both the episode and the novel.

This image of The Ormond Hotel, Dublin is a still from 1950. The Ormond is the setting for a majority of the episode and is the site of the Sirens’ Bar. This waterside hotel aptly sets the scene; although the scene takes place inside, the waterfront location of the hotel speaks to the enchanting, unknown nature of the vast body of water that surrounds it—the vast body of water that is home to the original Sirens. Joyce again parodies the original designation of the Sirens; although the women of “Sirens” do not embody all of the mythological qualities of the Sirens described in The Odyssey, they possess a similar quality in that they yet captivate and can destroy men with an appeal to desire.

Around 1900, English painter John William Waterhouse completed his oil painting “The Siren,” intended to serve as a recreation of the Sirens described in Homer’s The Odyssey. Specifically, Waterhouse focuses on the allure of the Sirens, not at the cause of their beauty—which is undeniable, as Joyce also emphasizes—but rather at the cause of the melodic allure created by the Siren, as seen in the painting. Overall, the parody of the Sirens extends into the issue of man’s battle with desire—and ultimately replaces this desire for and allure of women with an enchantment created by the musical note.

Lastly, a page proof from The Rosenbach Manuscript collection of Ulysses solidifies the aforementioned contention that Joyce’s incorporation of musicality throughout “Sirens” was a progressive effort. The proof page details some of the changes Joyce made to the episode after the original draft. The manuscript is originally from the summer of 1921, the year before the publication of Ulysses. The prime example of this progressive advance towards a more unique narrative style is the following: Joyce alters “Hair uncombed” to “ Wavyavyevyeavyheavy hair uncomb:’d” (XI; 809). He takes a clear phrase and intentionally convolutes it to, one, be relatively nonsensical, and, two, carry a more lyrical weight than previously. 

The Musicality of "Sirens"