“I Hear an Army”

by Anthony Domestico

James Joyce, while primarily known for his fiction, was also a published poet whose verse garnered attention (and occasionally praise) from W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and other arbiters of poetic taste in the early twentieth century.  Joyce’s poetry is at times plangent, even self-indulgent, the precious tinkling of sound without the naturalism of Dubliners or the physicality of Ulysses.  Later writing to his wife Nora Barnacle, Joyce described his ephebe self as “a strange, lonely boy, walking about by myself at night and thinking that some day a girl would love me.”[1]

Despite this tendency towards pure, almost saccharine lyricism, Joyce did occasionally produce poetry of lasting value.  In this wiki, I will focus on “I Hear an Army,” the last poem in the 1907 volume Chamber Music, Joyce’s first collection of poetry.  Yeats described this poem in 1915 as “a technical and emotional masterpiece,” while Pound claimed it had “strength and a fibrousness of sound”; it has subsequently been put to music by numerous musicians including Samuel Barber and Marc Heller.[2]  I will look at three material instantiations (to borrow George Bornstein’s term from Material Modernism) of “I Hear an Army”: its initial publication in Chamber Music in 1907; its appearance in a 1913 collection entitled The Wild Harp: A Selection from Irish Poetry; and its inclusion in the February 1914 issue of Glebe, an issue devoted to Imagism.

Chamber Music, Joyce’s first published manuscript, appeared in May of 1907.  Published at the behest of Arthur Symons, the British poet and critic whose study The Symbolist Movement in Literature would have a profound impact on Yeats, Eliot, and others, the volume was originally rejected by the publishing firms of Grant Richards, John Lane, and William Heinemann.  This inauspicious reception presaged the volume’s commercial failure: by July 1908, only 127 of the 507 printed copies were sold; by 1913, fewer than 200 had found buyers.[3]  The 1907 volume consists of 36 short lyrics, “I Hear an Army” being the last.  The title page has an ornate drawing featuring musical instruments, a curtain, a series of columns, and a scroll inscribed with musical notes, emphasizing design, refinement, and theatricality.  Two columns support a stage on which a piano sits.  The title and author appear towards the bottom of the page: music and artifice literally are elevated over the author.  The first poem opens, “Strings in the earth and air / Make music sweet,” and the rest of the poems continue this emphasis on musicality over content.  As the poems lack titles and have only roman numerals as headings, the individual poems tend to blend together.  We are encouraged to read the volume as the flowing, pleasing expression of pure sound.

In addition to their musical nature, many of the poems contain laments over a departed love.  These two general features encourage us to see “I Hear an Army,” which opens with sound – “I hear an army charging upon the land” – and closes with eros – “My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?” – as fitting in nicely with the volume’s overall tendency towards ethereal lyricism.  The bibliographic code—title page, lack of titles for individual poems, and the context of surrounding poems—obscures many of the poem’s most interesting, strangely discordant aspects: its initial focus on martial rather than erotic themes; its violent consonance (“They cleave the gloom of dreams,” “Clanging, clanging”); and its imagery that recalls the Books of Revelations and implicitly foreshadows apocalypse.

Despite the commercial disappointment of Chamber Music as a whole, “I Hear an Army” received its second material instantiation in 1913 in Katharine Tynan’s The Wild Harp: A Selection from Irish Poetry.  This volume was a manifestation of the Celtic Revival occurring in Ireland at the time.  The page opposite the title page contains red, purple, and green Celtic dragons with a fanciful inscription:

The Irish Harp has three strings,
One of Love and the Joy of Battle
One of Sorrow and Death
The third—of Sleeping and Dreaming—is sweetest.

The introduction, written by Tynan, is surrounded by gray Celtic dragons and contains justification for the selection:

THE WILD HARP is not intended to be at all representative of Irish poetry generally. Its intention is to capture for English ears, sensitive to a wild music, just such strains as might be sounded by the strings of a harp – something thin, strange, forlorn, something a little unearthly and exquisite, else there would be no reason to garner it.

Later, Tynan adds, “Again, I have excluded nearly all poetry which shows a derivation from English influences – although I have not always been able to resist an exquisite artificiality.”  The poem explicitly defines itself against general English taste and for Irish expression, against stateliness and for naturalness.  The focus on Irish literary nationalism guides Tyna’s choice of poems.  There are 160 pages of verse, with Yeats (three poems), A.E. (two poems), and other poets interested in Irish culture well represented.  The volume opens with “Dark Rosaleen” by James Clarence Mangan, a translation of a Gaelic poem written during the Elizabethan era espousing Irish national pride and subtly disdaining Saxon influence.  “After Aughrim” by Arthur Gerald Geoghegan similarly posits a transhistorical Irish spirit, while “Oh Say, My Brown Drimin” by Jeremiah Joseph Callanan rails against British imperialism.  Irish and pastoral symbols—the color green, cows, the River Erne—appear in many of the poems.

Placing “I Hear an Army” in this context, one can’t help but more plainly see the charioteers “long, green hair”; the horses and charioteers seem, perhaps, a symbol of the Easter Rising that would come only three years later.  Joyce is the only poet with two poems appearing consecutively: “I Hear an Army” is situated between Joyce’s own “At the Hour,” the third poem in Chamber Music, and “Verses for Music” by John Todhunter.  Todhunter, a friend of Yeats involved in the founding of the Irish Literary Society of London, again directly places Joyce’s poem in a nationalist context.  Where Chamber Music made “I Hear an Army” a pure, unadulterated expression of love and loss, The Wild Harp mediates the poem through culture.  Bornstein claims that anthologies tend to elide “historical and political” meaning;[4] by placing Joyce’s poem in an historical, political anthology, however, Tynan contrarily draws forth these previously obscured meanings.  No doubt this context made Joyce, an artist who exiled himself from Ireland and was notoriously wary of national pigeonholing, uneasy.  With his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man being serialized the following year in the Egoist, however, Joyce seems to have reluctantly thought that any publicity, even when draped in nationalist rhetoric, was good publicity.

The final appearance of “I Hear an Army” that I will consider is its publication in Des Imagistes: An Anthology, the February 1914 issue of Glebe.  On December 26, 1913, Pound asked for Joyce’s permission to include “I Hear an Army” in an issue of Glebe devoted to Imagism.  Joyce agreed and received one guinea and the promise of a share in the profits of the anthology.[5]  The anthology contained no manifesto and grouped together disparate poets with disparate aesthetic projects—Pound himself, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Allen Upward, F.S. Flint, and others.  Eleven poets appeared in the sixty-two pages of poetry, with most poems around a single page.  Joyce’s poem was perhaps most striking in how it differed from the other selections: it contained rhymes where most of the others were free verse; it was allusion-free, where the poem’s sandwiching it—Williams’s “Postlude” and Pound’s “Doria”— refer to Venus, Mars, Poseidon, Orcus, and others.  Joyce’s poem here, as in The Wild Harp, contains a title.  This seems appropriate given the Imagist project: each poem is a separate, discrete “intellectual and emotional complex,” as Pound defined the image.  Where before “I Hear an Army” alternatively seemed the expression of a single, plaintive speaker or one in a series of Irish songs, here Joyce’s poem was associated for the first time with the avant-garde and formal experimentation.

This, of course, is the context in which we most associate Joyce— formally daring, attempting to subvert and rewrite literary convention.  It is striking, however, that this context only emerged in 1914, nearly 7 years after “I Hear an Army” first appeared, by which time Joyce’s Dubliners was known in literary circles if not yet published and A Portrait was on its way into print.  It is as if only Joyce’s well-regarded, modernist prose could enable his poems to be placed in the context of well-regarded, modernist verse.  “I Hear an Army” is fascinating in the various material contexts in which it appeared (lyrical, nationalist, and modernist) and in what these contexts can tell us about Joyce’s changing position within broader literary culture.

  1. ↑ Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 283.
  2. ↑ Robert Deming, James Joyce: The Critical Heritage (New York: Routledge, 1997), 598, 169.
  3. ↑ Ellmann, 262.
  4. ↑ George Bornstein, Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 31.
  5. ↑ Ezra Pound, ed. Forrest Read, Pound-Joyce: The Letters of Ezra Pound to James Joyce (New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 1970), 18.