Musical Allusions in the Works of James Joyce by Zack Bowen

New York State University Press



Musical Allusions in the Works of James Joyce has grown out of (but hardly outgrown) Song in the Works of James Joyce (1959) by Matthew Hodgart and Mabel P. Worthington. The latter is now writing a separate book on musical allusion in Finnegans Wake, so that topic is (by mutual agreement) omitted here, Despite this indebtedness and collaboration, Zack Bowen does not flinch from criticizing his 1959 source whenever he sees fit. With this true scholarly objectivity goes a similar determination not to miss anything of value, or indeed anything at all. To the 1,000 or so song-titles previously identified he has now added another eighty, of which perhaps a dozen are signi­ficant. But he is mainly concerned not with mere listing, but with explication. For each work (mainly Ulysses, with 309 pages out of 369) he gives a general introduction, then the text of each successive passage containing a musical allusion, then detailed commentary. One basic assumption is that Joyce's citation of song-snippets implies a reference to the song itself, which then becomes available for critical exegesis.

   The success of this approach may be judged from the quality of the insights it affords. Here is a typical sample. Bloom, musing on a posse of policemen, thinks: "After their feed with a good load of fat soup under their belts. Policeman's lot is oft a happy one...." The commentary begins as follows:


The comic effect of the stuffed policemen emerging after their meal strikes Bloom as being fully in keeping with the comic spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance. In the passage above, he slightly alters the title of the song. His substitution of oft for not is appropriate in terms of the well-fed constables he is watch­ing. Though the words of the chorus ... may be perfectly true, the many off-duty activities of the portly constables seem to Bloom to demand the modification of not to oft....


The penetration of this aperçu is well matched by the concision and felicity of its expression.

   The whole book is stuffed with plums fully as succulent. Nor does Professor Bowen shrink from far bolder comment. Bloom's next little quip about the urinal and "The Meeting of the Waters" ("Ought to be places for women ... There is not in this wide world a vallee") inspires the suggestion that we are meant to hear the entire song as the description of urinals or women's genitals – a conjunction which Joyce himself might have described as piquant. Flushed with enthusiasm, Professor Bowen concludes that only on this interpretation "can the full incongruity of the double or triple meaning be appreciated". Too true. The objec­tion that we cannot be expected to know the whole song is easily countered. This is of course the very reason why we need to be given the complete song-texts – together with further detailed instructions. Thus when Bloom continues, "Great song of Julia Morkan's", we are told that "the song leads Bloom to think of the singer who was associated with it". All those who would otherwise have missed such references will welcome this guide to their higher literary studies.

   Nor are the glosses solely literary. Musicians and psychologists, among others, will find much that is memorable. "Là ci darem la mano" is snappily epitomized as "one of the most haunting, light, and lyrical" melodies in the whole of Don Giovanni. Bloom's remark "Good job it wasn't farther south" is critically explicated as signifying "toward the direction of his crotch". And this, as Professor Bowen astutely observes, "of course brings us right back to sex".

   Amid the present dense complexity of Joycean scholarship (well documented here in apparatus and bibliography) this less demanding approach may well make a special appeal. So does the disarming blurb, which explains that "Profes­sor Bowen's style is simple and clear, allowing Joycean artifice to speak for itself ". The best method of doing that, of course, is to keep quiet; but there is no denying that this book is, in its own way, almost equally successful.



Times Literary Supplement, Apr. 1975 © the estate of eric sams