I Hear An Army by James Joyce

‘I Hear An Army’ was published in 1907. It was featured in Chamber Music, a poetry collection by James Joyce that didn’t sell well at the time of its publication. Later, Joyce said: “When I wrote [Chamber Music], I was a lonely boy, walking about by myself at night and thinking that one day a girl would love me”. Chamber Music is a compilation of lyrical love poems, which were intended to be accompanied with music. The poems in Chamber Music brighten the style of the Celtic revival with Joyce’s own technique and playful irony.

Chamber Music has 36 poems of various lengths and forms, connected by the same thematic content found in most of the lyrical texts. ‘I Hear An Army’ is the last poem of the collection. According to many critics and readers, this poem is the best in the collection. Moreover, Ezra Pound included it in an Imagist anthology in 1914. As the rest of the poems included in the collection, ‘I Hear An Army’ expresses the lamentation of lost love. Furthermore, the poems in Chamber Music were written as songs, related to the musical interest the author had. Throughout the collection, James Joyce alters tradition and offers an innovative form of poetry. Musicians like Geoffrey Molyneux Palmer and Ross Lee Finney, among many others, appreciated the collection’s suitability for musical interpretation.

‘I Hear An Army’ is a rewriting of a poem by W. B. Yeats (He Bids His Beloved Be at Peace’ from The Wind Among the Reeds). There are similarities in language, rhythm, and tone between James Joyce’s poem and Yeats’s poem. ‘I Hear An Army’ is a lyrical poem that contains some vocabulary of disdain. The tone of the poem shifts with the passing of the stanzas, like the lyrical voice experiments with a martial vision. The rhyme scheme of the poem is ABAB. ‘I Hear An Army’ captures the feeling of lost love through intense imagery and the use of musical patterns. In the poem, there is a description of a group of charioteers, riding out of the sea and approaching the lyrical voice that culminates with the thought of yearned affection.

I Hear An Army by James Joyce

 

I Hear An Army Analysis

Stanza One

I hear an army charging upon the land,

And the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their knees:

Arrogant, in black armour, behind them stand,

Disdaining the reins, with fluttering whips, the charioteers.

This first stanza of ‘I Hear An Army’ opens with a vivid description. The lyrical voice starts the poem by describing an army that is moving across the land. The stanza has a soft and questioning tone, which is accompanied by the regular pace of the rhyme scheme. In the first line, the lyrical voice will state clearly what he/she is describing and the following lines will expand this image. Moreover, the first two lines give a general image (“I Hear an army charging upon the land,/And the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their knees”) whereas the following two lines create vivid images through a different and more dynamic sentence structure (“Arrogant, in black armour, behind them stand,/ Disdaining the reins, with fluttering whips, the charioteers”). Notice how the lyrical voice enumerates a series of attributes (“Arrogant, in black armour…”, etc) and he/she mentions the thing that is being described (“the charioteers”) at the very end of the phrase. With this particular syntax and with the adjectives used to depict these men, the lyrical voice questions these figures that he/she is describing.

 

Stanza Two

They cry unto the night their battle-name:

(…)

Clanging, clanging upon the heart as upon an anvil.

In this second stanza, the lyrical voice shifts the attention to him/herself. The lyrical voice refers to the charioteers’ cry during the night (“They cry unto the night their battle-name”) and how this affects him/her. The tone of the poem becomes angrier but still questioning. The stanza is constructed with abrupt and short phrases, which emphasize the meaning and description of the words. Thus, the lyrical voice expresses his sufferings when he/she hears the charioteers at night (“I moan in sleep when I hear afar their whirling laughter/They cleave the gloom of dreams, a blinding flame,/Clanging, clanging upon the heart as upon an anvil”). There is an onomatopoeia and a repetition in the last line that accentuate the description and make the stanza culminate in a more dramatic tone.

 

Stanza Three

They come shaking in triumph their long, green hair:

(…)

My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?

This final stanza continues the description that started in the previous stanza. The lyrical voice depicts the physical characteristics of these charioteers in more detail (“They come shaking in triumph their long, green hair:”) and how they approach the land (“They come out of the sea and run shouting by the shore”). Notice how the lyrical voice mentions, once again, the cry and the shouting of the charioteers. The tone of the stanza is soft, as in the first lines. There is a repetition in sentence structure and syntax that enables the construction of a new rhythm at the end of ‘I Hear An Army’. The first and second lines and the third and fourth lines have parallel sentence structures. Finally, the last two lines express the lyrical voice’s thoughts and feelings towards these charioteers. The final words show the lamentation of lost love through a repetition (“My love, my love, my love…”) and a melancholic tone.

 

About James Joyce

James Joyce was born in 1882 and died in 1941. He had little success as a poetry writer and is better known as a novelist. By 1932 James Joyce had stopped writing poetry altogether. Nevertheless, James Joyce is considered one of the most prominent literary figures of the twentieth century. He was an Irish novelist and a short story writer but his works also include three books of poetry, a play, some journal articles, and published letters. James Joyce’s most famous book is Ulysses, which is based on Homer’s Odyssey and parallels its structure but with a Dublin setting. Moreover, he is also well-known for introducing the stream of consciousness form and for contributing to the modernist movement of the beginning of the twentieth century alongside T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, among others.

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