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“I have met you too late”: James Joyce, W. B. Yeats and the Making of Chamber Music

Wim Van Mierlo
Affiliation:
Loughborough University
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Summary

Chamber Music is nowadays mostly relegated to the margins of James Joyce's canon in a way not dissimilar to the early poetry of W. B. Yeats in Poems (1895) and The Wind among the Reeds (1899). One of the reasons, surely, is because both Yeats and Joyce partially disowned their early work. Yeats gutted his earliest volumes of poetry when he assembled Poems, stating that the ones he retained were the only verse from his youth he wished to preserve (Poems v). Joyce, when he was seeing Chamber Music through the press three or four years after the collection's inception, and after it had been turned down by at least three publishers, at once renounced and embraced the book. As he wrote to his brother Stanislaus in October 1906, he felt it was too much the work of his younger self:

The reason that I dislike Chamber Music as a title is that it is too complacent. I should prefer a title which to a certain extent repudiated the book, without altogether disparaging it. […] I went through the entire book of verses mentally on receipt of Symons’ letter and they nearly all seemed to me poor and trivial: some phrases and lines pleased me and no more.

(Letters II 182)

Somewhat later, in February 1907, he wrote again to Stanislaus: “I don't like the book but wish it were published and be damned to it. However, it is a young man's book. I felt like that. It is not a book of love-verses at all, I perceive. But some of them are pretty enough to be put to music” (Letters II 219). The renunciation seems extraordinary. By now he had got used to the idea of being a prose writer rather than a poet, but the desire to see his writing in print was greater than his aversion to the immature work. At the time, he was of course also enacting a repudiation of his own self in the creation of his mock-heroic double in Stephen Hero, the writing of which at this stage was more than half finished.

Yet a crucial difference in the reception of Yeats's and Joyce's early work is that Yeats's early poems have retained a popular readership.

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Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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