On this day…18 September

On 18 September 1904 Joyce wrote the poem ‘Bid adieu.’

Though the manuscript of the poem bears the date 18 September 1904, it is likely this is only a fair copy and that the poem was composed earlier. According to Patricia Hutchins, one of Joyce’s cousins claimed to remember him writing this poem on a Becker’s tea-bag at his Aunt Josephine’s kitchen table.

Joyce was pleased enough with his poem to offer it for publication in a few magazines. It seems he had offered it to Dana, a magazine edited by William Magee and Frederick Ryan, sometime before he left Dublin in October 1904. Dana had published Joyce’s poem ‘My love is in a light attire’ in August 1904, but ‘Bid adieu’ never appeared there.

In January 1905, while he was living in Pola, Joyce sent the poem to Harper’s but by February it had been rejected, and in October 1905 he wondered if he should offer it to the Nationist, a new Irish newspaper that was edited for a time by Joyce’s university friend Tom Kettle.

Joyce often referred to Chamber Music as a suite of songs, and the poems seem to have been intended as lyrics from the start. Shortly after Chamber Music was published, Joyce gave Geoffrey Molyneux Palmer permission to set some of the poems to music, and when he received Palmer’s settings of five of the poems Joyce’s only regret was that Palmer hadn’t set ‘Bid adieu’: Joyce told Palmer that he had set the poem to music himself.

Writing to his brother Stanislaus in December 1904 Joyce refers to this poem as an obscene song, and certainly the poet seems to be asking, albeit subtly, that his lover give up her maidenhood. It is the first poem in Chamber Music that makes use of conventional poetic archaisms (such as ‘thee,’ ‘thou,’ ‘thy,’ ‘doth,’ and ‘hast’) and particularly the use of the word ‘snood.’

Joyce seems to have taken the word ‘snood’ from Walter Scott, a snood being a head- or hair-band that signified young maidenhood. In the poem, ‘snood’ is made to resonate with ‘adieu’ and ‘woo’ and, in the end, the poet bids his lover ‘undo the snood / That is the sign of maidenhood.’ In his notes to Exiles, Joyce repeats this line, and there the loosening of the bound-up hair is again associated with loss of virginity.


Sources & Further Reading:

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.

Hutchins, Patricia: James Joyce’s World, London: Methuen, 1957.

Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.