Sirens (Episode 11)
Ulysses is an uncommonly musical novel. Several characters, including Molly Bloom and her lover Blazes Boylan, are professional singers, while others, like Stephen Dedalus and his estranged father, Simon, are talented amateurs. Most of the rest, like Leopold Bloom himself, are music-lovers. This is only the beginning of musicality in Ulysses, however. The text itself is woven through with references and allusions to music of all kinds. More than three-hundred songs are listed in the index to Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated, a list that includes nursery rhymes and bawdy ballads; liturgical music and jingles; pop songs and rebel songs, earworms and arias. Some songs are used in passing, others recur as motifs or reveal a character’s state of mind (imagine how much more annoying that summer chart-topper would be if, like Bloom, you knew it was by your sexual rival). At least one song, a duet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, subtly foreshadows the famous final line of the novel’s coda. The better we understand Joyce’s use of music in Ulysses, the deeper our understanding of the book as a whole. And nowhere in Ulysses is music more central than in Episode 11, where Joyce has set himself the seemingly impossible task of both writing about music and attempting to make music with his writing. Music is referenced throughout Ulysses but Episode 11 is music.
In Homer’s Odyssey the Sirens are two magical creatures who lure sailors to crash on the rocky shore of their small island by singing an irresistible song promising each listener gifts of wisdom and prophecy. Determined to hear the siren’s song without falling victim to it, Odysseus orders his men to tie him to the mast and plug their ears with wax so that he can listen while his men row on to safety.
In Ulysses, the Sirens episode is set in the Ormond Hotel bar, an actual location that was a well-known haunt for amateur musicians at the turn of the last century. The episode takes place around 4:00 PM, an hour that has particular importance to Bloom, who knows this is when his wife has arranged a rendezvous with her lover, Blazes Boylan. Bloom is surprised, then, when he sees Boylan’s car outside the Ormond Hotel, and decides to investigate under the guise of meeting with an acquaintance in the hotel saloon. Two barmaids, Miss Kennedy and Miss Douce, who idly flirt behind their reef-like bar, partially stand in for the sirens—though the closest they come to singing are peals of orgasmic laughter. (Miss Kennedy also makes a sort of music when she obliges a customer by snapping an elastic garter strap against her thigh). The singing is left to the male patrons, most significantly Simon Dedalus, Stephen’s father, a talented singer and raconteur who squanders his talents in pubs and bars while his family slips into poverty. Simon Dedalus and the other patrons take turns playing the piano and singing, while Leopold Bloom, ever the voyeur, looks on from his seat near the door, sometimes covertly joining in by strumming an elastic band of his own.
In Episode 7, Aeolus, Joyce displayed his tremendous command of language and rhetoric. Here he combines those skills with his understanding of music, which was formidable in its own right. Joyce was an accomplished tenor who considered a singing career (as Stephen Dedalus does in Episode 10). His knowledge of music was encylopedic and throughout his life he was known to give impromptu recitals at parties and literary events, accompanying himself on the guitar or piano. That same knowledge provides him with an arsenal of devices as he strives to make music with words.
Here are a few examples:
- The episode, which Joyce described as a fugue, begins with what appears to be sixty-three lines of non-sequiturs, sentence fragments, and even meaningless strings of letters (“Imperthnthn thnthnthn”). In fact, as literary historian Kevin Birmingham writes in his excellent The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, those sixty-three lines are “an overture, an introduction to the musical sounds and phrases that would be repeated, contextualized and vested with meaning over the course of the chapter.” In context they make more sense: “Imperthnthn thnthnthn” proves to be a barman’s juvenile mockery of Miss Douce’s haughty promise to report his “impertinent insolence.”
- Throughout the episode, Joyce insinuates musical terminology into his writing with puns like “play on her heartstrings pursestrings too” and “if he doesn’t conduct himself.” In describing Miss Kennedy’s mouth with the phrase “coral lips” he simultaneously evokes the siren’s coral reef and vocal (choral) music.
- Joyce also plays with sentence structure to bring a sense of music to his writing. Consider this three-sentence paragraph, which critic Declan Kiberd likens to “finger exercises in musical scales, ringing changes on the same set of words”: Miss Kennedy sauntered sadly from bright light, twining a loose hair behind an ear. Sauntering sadly, gold no more, she twisted twined a hair. Sadly she twined in sauntering gold hair behind a curving ear.
So what temptation does Bloom, like Odysseus, experience without succumbing to its power? For the men and women in the Ormond Hotel bar, the camaraderie that comes of sharing songs is as important as the songs themselves. They are unified as much by the patter and banter surrounding the music as they are by each nostalgic, sentimental song. Even Bloom, the lurking outsider, experiences a moment of community in the section of Episode 11 I have chosen as this year’s excerpt. Bloom listens as Simon Dedalus performs a beautiful rendition of M’Appari (“Come Thou Lost One”), an aria from Friedrich Von Flotow’s light opera Martha, in which Lionel, a successful farmer who has fallen in love with a Lady masquerading as a servant girl, laments her sudden disappearance. For nearly one-hundred lines, Joyce cuts between the text of the aria (Simon Dedalus sings a loosely translated version) and Bloom’s interior monologue as he responds to the words and music. The climax so moves Bloom that character, singer, and listener become entwined, an ecstatic state Joyce captures with the portmanteau word “Siopold!”—an exultant combination of Simon (singer), Lionel (character) and Leopold.
It is a powerful moment, one that has genuinely moved Bloom even though, true to his contemplative nature, he soon goes on to reflect: “Numbers it is. All music when you come to think. . . Do anything you like with figures juggling. . . And you think you’re listening to the etherial.” Still, music is important to Bloom. He takes an active part in his wife’s singing career and wonders why their daughter, Milly, has not inherited her parents’ discerning taste. As Kiberd suggests, “the beauty of good music is that you can hear it many times with added pleasure. . . At its best, it may evolve new forms, which work in surprising ways; but sentimental songs performed around the piano by tired men will not generate new meanings. These men want to retreat into a past which will allow them to forget the unhappy present.” When Bloom hears another talented singer (Ben Dollard) bringing another sentimental song (The Croppy Boy) to its tragic climax, he thinks it best to “get out before the end.” Tellingly, the song-forged trinity of performer-character-listener embodied by the one-line exclamation “Siopold!” has been replaced by passing uses of “Lionelleopold” and “Simonlionel”—a lingering trace of the character, Lionel, remains in both men but the connection between singer and listener has vanished. For Bloom, the community in the Ormond Hotel bar is an enticing trap that uses fetishizing the emotional power of music as a lure. “Better give way only half way,” he decides. So Bloom leaves the Ormond to continue his journey across Dublin having enjoyed some beautiful singing without falling victim to its charms. Outside, though, he makes a little music of his own, letting loose a noisy fart (“Pprrpffrrppffff“)—a residual echo (or, perhaps, a distillation) of the songs he heard in the Ormond.
Below is this year’s excerpt (the Siopold section described above). As usual, I’ve also included an audio clip of the excerpt from the 1982 RTÉ full-cast production of Ulysses. Given the musicality on display in the writing, more than ever I would encourage readers to play the clip and follow along.
—Each graceful look…
First night when first I saw her at Mat Dillon’s in Terenure. Yellow, black lace she wore. Musical chairs. We two the last. Fate. After her. Fate.
Round and round slow. Quick round. We two. All looked. Halt. Down she sat. All ousted looked. Lips laughing. Yellow knees.
—Charmed my eye…
Singing. Waiting she sang. I turned her music. Full voice of perfume of what perfume does your lilactrees. Bosom I saw, both full, throat warbling. First I saw. She thanked me. Why did she me? Fate. Spanishy eyes. Under a peartree alone patio this hour in old Madrid one side in shadow Dolores shedolores. At me. Luring. Ah, alluring.
—Martha! Ah, Martha!
Quitting all languor Lionel cried in grief, in cry of passion dominant to love to return with deepening yet with rising chords of harmony. In cry of lionel loneliness that she should know, must martha feel. For only her he waited. Where? Here there try there here all try where. Somewhere.
—Co-ome, thou lost one!
Co-ome, thou dear one!
Alone. One love. One hope. One comfort me. Martha, chestnote, return!
It soared, a bird, it held its flight, a swift pure cry, soar silver orb it leaped serene, speeding, sustained, to come, don’t spin it out too long long breath he breath long life, soaring high, high resplendent, aflame, crowned, high in the effulgence symbolistic, high, of the etherial bosom, high, of the high vast irradiation everywhere all soaring all around about the all, the endlessnessnessness…
Come. Well sung. All clapped. She ought to. Come. To me, to him, to her, you too, me, us.
—Bravo! Clapclap. Good man, Simon. Clappyclapclap. Encore! Clapclipclap clap. Sound as a bell. Bravo, Simon! Clapclopclap. Encore, enclap, said, cried, clapped all, Ben Dollard, Lydia Douce, George Lidwell, Pat, Mina Kennedy, two gentlemen with two tankards, Cowley, first gent with tank and bronze miss Douce and gold Miss Mina.