On 7 September 1913 Joyce wrote the poem ‘Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba.’
Joyce wrote the poem after watching his brother Stanislaus compete in a boat race at San Sabba. He sent the poem to Stanislaus two days later, and it was published in the Saturday Review in London on 20 September 1913.
As the rowers neared the shore at the end of the race at San Sabba, they started to sing Dick Johnson’s aria from the last act of Puccini’s opera La Faniculla del West (The Girl of the West). Johnson is about to be executed but he wants his lover Minnie to believe that he has gone far away and that he will never return (“ed io non tornerò”). This theme is echoed in the final line of each stanza of Joyce’s poem: “No more, return no more,” “Return, no more return.”
In Joyce’s poem, this ‘return no more’ can also be seen as a lament for lost youth: though the poet hears the young rowers, he appears not to be one of them, as if he is an older, wiser observer on the shore. The poet also thinks that the rowers’ mourning for lost love is in vain since love passes like the wind through prairie grasses, never to return.
The themes of lost youth and lost love also have a personal resonance for Joyce in this poem. ‘Needleboats’ appears to be a Galway term for racing sculls and recalls the Galway of Nora Barnacle’s youth and her lost lover, Michael Bodkin. The chiasmus or reversal of word order found in the final line of each stanza of Joyce’s poem is also reminiscent of the reversed word order found in the phrases “falling softly…softly falling” and “falling faintly…faintly falling” at the end of ‘The Dead.’
At the end of his aria, Dick Johnson says of Minnie: ‘Ah, tu della mia vita mio solo fior!’ (‘Ah, you’re the only flower of my life’), and this helps connect this poem with ‘A Flower given to my Daughter’ which follows it in Pomes Penyeach, thus also connecting it with Joyce’s infatuation with his pupil Amalia Popper.
Joyce sent the poem to Stanislaus on 9 September 1913, suggesting that the rowing club might like to use it on a dinner programme, and he also submitted it to the London Saturday Review where it was published on 20 September 1913. When the poem appeared in Pomes Penyeach in 1927, however, Joyce gave it the dateline ‘Trieste 1912.’
Sources & Further Reading:
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. II edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.
– -: Poems and Exiles, edited with an Introduction and Notes by JCC Mays, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1992.
– -: Poems and Shorter Writings, edited by Richard Ellmann, A Walton Litz, and John Whittier-Ferguson, London: Faber & Faber, 1991.