On this day…6 May

On 6 May 1907 Chamber Music was published.

Joyce’s first published book was a collection of thirty-six poems entitled Chamber Music, published on 6 May 1907 by Elkin Mathews in London.

The poems were written between 1901 and 1904, and though some of them were published in 1904 in the Speaker, Dana, and the Venture, Joyce found it difficult to get a publisher to accept his book. He sent it first to Grant Richards in 1904, but it was only in July 1905 that Richards admitted he’d lost the manuscript and asked Joyce to resubmit it. Despite admiring the poems, Richards declined to publish it, after which three more publishers also rejected it. In October 1906 Arthur Symons recommended it to Elkin Mathews who agreed to publish it.

In recommending it, Symons told Mathews that Yeats had acknowledged Joyce’s ability as a poet, but he insisted that Joyce’s work was not in the Celtic style of Yeats. Instead, Symons described the poems as Elizabethan, a description that was to recur in later assessments.

Though Symons referred to it as A Book of Thirty Songs for Lovers, Joyce had been using the title Chamber Music as far back as June 1904. Stanislaus Joyce claimed to have suggested the title, thinking that it reflected the themes and grace of the poems. But Joyce may have had something else in mind too: Leopold Bloom in the ‘Sirens’ episode of Ulysses imagines ‘chamber music’ as a kind of pun, referring to the tinkling sound of someone using a chamber pot!

In the initial manuscript that Joyce was circulating in 1905, the thirty-four poems were arranged with three poems as a kind of prelude and another as an end-piece. The rest of the poems were divided into two sections, the first rising and the second falling. Apparently this was intended to reflect the movement of a love affair, rising from its early intensity to a peak from which it then declines. It was not until  the manuscript was being sent to Elkin Mathews that Joyce added two more poems, including ‘I Hear an Army…’ which became one of the most popular of the poems, favoured by Yeats and Ezra Pound.

By the time Mathews was ready to publish the book, Joyce had lost all interest in it, and he allowed Stanislaus to re-order the poems. Stanislaus grouped the poems according to similarities of mood, but in October 1906 Joyce wrote to say he didn’t understand some of Stanislaus’ arrangement, and asked him to make clear what he intended. He also didn’t like the title any longer, thinking that it was too complacent. Nonetheless, the title stood and so did Stanislaus’ ordering of the poems.

Joyce grew increasingly concerned that the sentiments in the poems were false and with the publication day approaching he decided to send a telegram to Mathews to stop the publication. Stanislaus persuaded him that publication of Chamber Music would help encourage publication of his other books and Joyce decided not to send the telegram.

Joyce regularly referred to the book as ‘a suite of songs’ and he claimed that he wanted the poems set to music. He tried setting one to music himself, and a great many composers have set poems from Chamber Music since the book appeared. Geoffrey Molyneux Palmer contacted Joyce shortly after publication about setting some poems to music: in all, he set thirty-two of the thirty-six poems. In her book, Myra Teicher Russell lists some 141 composers who have set poems from Chamber Music.

The muse for the poems was Mary Sheehy, sister of Richard Sheehy with whom Joyce went to school at Belvedere College. But Mary Sheehy was supplanted as muse by Nora Barnacle after June 1904. Joyce dedicated one of the poems to Nora, though the dedication was later withdrawn, and during his visit to Dublin in September 1909, he had a necklace of ivory made for her inscribed with the last line of the poem ‘Winds of May…’ For Christmas 1909 he presented Nora with a copy of Chamber Music, handwritten in India ink on sheets of parchment and bound in a cover with their entwined initials on the front.

After the book was published, Tom Kettle, a friend of Joyce’s from university, gave it a favourable review and when, in September 1909, Kettle married Mary Sheehy, the original muse for the poems, Joyce sent them a copy of Chamber Music as a wedding present.

Despite Stanislaus’ optimism, the publication of Chamber Music didn’t help get Joyce’s other works published and sales of the book were small. Three years later, Joyce wrote to Elkin Mathews remarking on the “fewness” of the copies sold and complaining that it was not promoted enough despite the good reviews it got.


Sources & Further Reading:

Deming, Robert H: James Joyce – The Critical Heritage, vol. I, 1902-1927, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Fargnoli, A Nicholas, & Michael Patrick Gillespie: James Joyce A-Z – An Encyclopedic Guide to his Life and Work, London: Bloomsbury, 1995.

Joyce, James: Poems & Exiles, edited with an Introduction and Notes by JCC Mays, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1992.

Joyce, Stanislaus: My Brother’s Keeper, edited with an Introduction by Richard Ellmann, & Preface by TS Eliot, London: Faber & Faber, 1958.

Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Russell, Myra Teicher: James Joyce’s Chamber Music – The Lost Settings, Bloomingdale: Indiana University Press, 1993.