‘Flood’ by James Joyce is a three stanza poem that was written in 1915, and is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Joyce has chosen to structure this piece with a consistent rhyme scheme. It follows the pattern of abab cdcd eaea. A reader should take particular note of the recycling of the ‘a’ rhyme that appears in the last stanza. This creates a unifying circular motion to the stanzas, bringing the reader back to the beginning.
Joyce has also chosen to imbue this piece with a constant metrical pattern. The first three lines of each stanza are written in iambic tetrameter. This means that the lines are divided up into four sets of two beats, or iambs. Additionally, the first of these beats is unstressed and the second stressed The final line of every stanza is only half the length of the preceding ones with two sets of two beats per line.
The poem was original published in Pomes Penyeach, a collection that contained thirteen short poems written between the years of 1904 and 1924. The volume was published by Shakespeare and Company and its title references the French word for apple, “pommes,” and their sale for only a penny.
Summary of Flood
The poem begins with the speaker describing how the “Goldbrown” vines that were once staunchly connected to rocks have been moved away by the flood. They are floating in the water, which has come and taken what it wanted. The “flood is “sated” now but continues to rage. All this occurs while the sky looks on with “disdain.”
The next lines speak to the same images. Here the speaker gives greater detail to the “ruthless” nature of the water and its ability to take anything it wants to. In the final lines Joyce brings the text around to speak about love. Here, the speaker is asking that the listener “Uplift” their “fruits” to “love’s full flood,” and perhaps embrace the complexity of experiences that comes with the emotion.
Analysis of Flood
Goldbrown upon the sated flood
The rockvine clusters lift and sway;
Vast wings above the lambent waters brood
Of sullen day.
The speaker begins this piece with a compound word that falls into the category of a Joycean neologism, or coined word. It was common within Joyce’s works for two different words to come together and create an entirely new compound. This can be seen with “Goldbrown” in the first line and “rockvine” in the second. Often this choice was made in an effort to make a particular meaning or image clearer. These words also assist in the structuring of a consistent metrical pattern.
It is in this first line that the speaker introduces the reader to the “sated flood.” The narrative begins after the flooding has already started. It has become “sated” or satisfied. This is the first instance of personification in the text. Joyce chose to imbue various elements with human qualities in an effort to better portray their natures. The water feels greedy. It took over the land, consuming everything in its path till it was sated.
Throughout the waters the speaker takes note of the “Goldbrown…rockvine.” There are various vines scattered on top of the water, floating aimless away from whichever rocks they originally grew on. While flooding is inherently dangerous there is also a beautiful quality to the water. This juxtaposition taps into an element of art and writing known as the sublime. It occurs when beauty and terror are seen within one landscape or happening.
The next two lines could have a couple of different meanings. If one continues on with the theme of plant life, the “Vast wings” could refer to large swaying trees. Another interpretation could paint the “wings” as being simply what they sound like, the wings of birds. On the other hand the wings could refer to the clouds in the sky. The wind is moving so quickly, due to the environmental conditions which caused the flood, that the clouds appear like wings. They are “brood[ing]” over the landscape, darkening the day.
A waste of waters ruthlessly
Sways and uplifts its weedy mane
Where brooding day stares down upon the sea
In dull disdain.
In the second stanza the speaker returns to the water itself. The vast body is referred to as a “waste of waters.” There is so much the speaker sees it as being a “waste,” surely less would’ve done the same job. The most dangerous moments of the flood might be over but the water has not settled. It is still “sway[ing] ruthlessly.” This is another interesting juxtaposition in that “sway” and “ruthless” are not normally considered together. Here though, the beauty comes hand in hand with the destructive power.
The water has the ability to lift up the “weedy mane.” This is another vague reference which lends credence to the previous supposition that the “wings” belong to another form of plant life. The flood seems to be doing the most damage to the natural elements of the land, or at least these are the ones Joyce chose to focus on. The “weed[s]” are being lifted from the ground and forced to join in with the water.
All of this is occurring without interference from God. The sky is still “brooding,” looking down with a combination of annoyance and disdain. These lines could be interpreted to mean that God wanted this flood to happen. It is impossible to consider the image of a great flood without looking back to the story of Noah’s Ark.
Uplift and sway, O golden vine,
Your clustered fruits to love’s full flood,
Lambent and vast and ruthless as is thine
In the final quatrain the speaker returns to the “vine” mentioned in the first stanza. It is moving up and “sway[ing]” with the water. This one plant is being disturbed to no end by the flood. The next line makes use of the second person possessive pronoun “your” for the first time. This lends the tree an addition sense of agency. It is being addressed just as one would speak to a fellow human.
The tree is said to have “clustered fruits to love’s full flood.” At this point the poem takes on additional meaning. It is possible to continue reading this piece as a discussion of the sublime elements of natural events, but there is an underlying theme of love that should not be ignored.
The speaker has now turned the text towards a discussion of the emotional power of love. The flood itself can be seen as a representation of these emotions which come without warning. The “fruits” of the final stanza might represent the listener’s own heart, soul, or instincts. They are being asked to “Uplift” the fruits to “love’s full flood.”
In the last lines of the piece the complexity of emotions is on full display. The listener is said to be “glowing” and “ruthless” at the same time that they are uncertain. Joyce’s speaker does not seem to be condemning love itself, just the impacts that can easily come from it.