Strings in the earth and air

James Joyce

‘Strings in the earth and air’ by James Joyce is a romantic poem that imagines love as a youth playing sweetly enchanting music.


James Joyce

Nationality: Irish

James Joyce was an incredibly important Irish writer.

He completed short stories, novels, and poetry throughout his life.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: An expression of passionate love through lyrical poetry and music

Themes: Beauty, Desire, Love

Speaker: A lovelorn youth

Poetic Form: Ballad

Time Period: 20th Century

James Joyce's poem relies on the delicate beauty of his imagery to create a scene that echoes this tenderly lilting vocalization of love.

‘Strings in the earth and air’ begins the sequence of thirty-six lyrical love poems found within Irish writer James Joyce’s first book of poetry entitled ‘Chamber Music.’ Published in 1907 (seven years before the arrival of ‘Dubliners’), the collection floundered commercially but found critical favor from writers like Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats. In the century since, the poems have become representative of the motifs of love and salacious passion that would distinguish later works like ‘Ulysses.’

But the poem also offers an intimate glimpse at Joyce’s own lovelorn youth. As he once characterized himself in a letter: “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.” Unsurprisingly, the speaker of these poems is also a young man enraptured by the possibility of love. ‘Strings in the earth and air’ introduces Joyce’s personification of love as both an idyllic youth and an enchanting musician playing “music sweet.”

Strings in the earth and air
James Joyce

Strings in the earth and air Make music sweet;Strings by the river where The willows meet.

There’s music along the river For Love wanders there,Pale flowers on his mantle, Dark leaves on his hair.

All softly playing, With head to the music bent,And fingers straying Upon an instrument.


‘Strings in the earth and air’ by James Joyce illustrates a pastoral setting in which love — imagined as a youth — plays beautiful music on an instrument.

‘Strings in the earth and air’ begins with the speaker acknowledging the sound of strings being played, their sweet music encompassing and resounding throughout the “earth and air.” The sound is traced to a nearby river that’s banked by a gathering of willows. Love in the form of a man is described as wandering along this same river.

The speaker attributes the music’s presence there to this individual with “pale flowers” on his head and “dark leaves” in his hair. His head moves along to the soft music he is observed playing, focusing in particular on his fingers as they roam “upon [their] instrument.”

Structure and Form

‘Strings in the earth and air’ is a lyrical ballad comprised of three quatrains. With the exception of lines five and seven in the second stanza, much of the poem follows a rhyming pattern of ‘ABAB.’

Literary Devices

‘Strings in the earth and air’ contains the following literary devices:

  • Auditory imagery: Joyce calls upon an array of aural images in the poem, creating a scene in which “strings in the earth and air / Make music sweet” (1-2). Other examples include descriptions of the youth “softly playing” (9).
  • Kinesthetic Imagery: The poem also illustrates moments of movement, as when the speaker mentions that “Love wanders there” (6) when referring to the river. Their depiction of the youth’s “fingers straying / Upon the instrument” (11-12) serves as another instance of motion in the poem.
  • Visual Imagery: There are a variety of purely visual images created by Joyce to adorn the poem’s pastoral setting, which is described as a “river where / The willows meet” (3-4). The speaker’s characterizations of “Love… / Pale flowers on his mantle, / Dark leaves on his hair” (6-8) is another example of such imagery.
  • Personification: Joyce’s poem portrays love as a person with human features and characteristics, the speaker referring to them as a man with hair and the ability to play music.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

Strings in the earth and air
Make music sweet;
Strings by the river where
The willows meet.

The first quatrain of ‘Strings in the earth and air’ orchestrates for the reader a scene swelling with the sound of music. Joyce’s diction characterizes this auditory imagery as a melody of strings “[making] music sweet” (2). The speaker also describes it as being resoundingly omnipresent — as if by volume or emotion, it travails both the “earth and air” (1).

In the last two lines of this stanza, the speaker hones in on what will become the poem’s primary setting. One where music wafts in the air like a pleasing aroma before settling by a “river where / The willows meet” (3-4). Here, Joyce’s imagery starts to develop the idyllic and somewhat romantically pastoral motif that courses throughout all three stanzas.

Stanza Two

There’s music along the river
For Love wanders there,
Pale flowers on his mantle,
Dark leaves on his hair.

‘Strings in the earth and air’ offers an explanation for the music’s presence by the river in its second quatrain. “For Love wanders there” (6), the speaker declares, with “pale flowers on his mantle, / Dark leaves on his hair” (7-8). Although brief, this description of love’s personification is exceptionally telling and reveals much about the speaker’s own emotional state.

At first, it might appear that all we really know about “Love” (6) is that they are male. However, given Joyce’s age when he wrote this poem, it’s not so farfetched to imagine them as a young man either. Their temperament is also hinted at, as the “pale flowers” and “dark leaves” might be interpreted as symbolizing the fading or decaying of love’s vitality. This contrasts greatly with the beautiful music playing around them.

Stanza Three

All softly playing,
With head to the music bent,
And fingers straying
Upon an instrument.

Like the previous stanzas, the last quatrain of ‘Strings in the earth and air’ opens with the speaker reiterating the ubiquitous nature of the music — “All softly playing” (9) — as if produced by a harmony of innumerable and invisible instrumentals. Joyce’s diction further enhances the ethereal and sublime qualities of the music.

The speaker then returns their attention to the personification of love. “With head to the music bent” (10), the youth appears to be listening intently to the music, just like the speaker. But the last two lines of the poem also reveal them to be one of its players: their “fingers straying / Upon an instrument” (11-12).

A parallel also emerges between the poem’s two examples of kinesthetic imagery, the words “wanders” (6) and “straying” (11), imparting a melancholic connotation. One that accentuates the lovelorn manner with which “Love” (6) meanders about and plays their instrument.


What is the theme of ‘Strings in the earth and air?

The poem explores a number of themes regarding love’s expression and nature. For example, Joyce symbolizes love’s sublime beauty as a pervasive melody, accentuating its universality. But he also hints at the wistful effects that come with being surrounded by such ephemeral splendor.

Why did James Joyce write What is the theme of ‘Strings in the earth and air?

This poem was written to be the first poem in Joyce’s poetry book ‘Chamber Music.’ As a result, it introduces a number of core themes and narrative details essential to understanding many of the other poems in the collection, including the personification of love as a young man and the motif of music that’s woven throughout.

What do the “willows” symbolize in the poem?

Everything about Joyce’s diction in this poem is intentional, and the speaker’s mention of “willows” is no different, especially in a stanza that characterizes love’s personification as being adorned with dead flowers and leaves in their hair. This juxtaposition stirs up the tree’s associations with grief and sadness, further suggesting love’s forlorn mood.

To whom is the poem addressed?

The poems of ‘Chamber Music’ are addressed to an unnamed woman whom the speaker is clearly in love with.

Similar Poems

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Strings in the earth and air

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James Joyce

This poem by James Joyce is the first one found within his 1907 collection 'Chamber Music.' One that introduces the titular motif of music that echoes throughout as an enchanting symbol of love's beauty. Like so many of the poems in the collection, it reveals the Irish writer's talent for conjuring poignant scenes of romance and passion.
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20th Century

James Joyce was an important writer who wrote a majority of the works for which he is remembered in the first half of the 20th century. Novels like 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' and 'Ulysses' established him as a gifted and experimental prose writer. But his collection of poems like this one is just as affecting.
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James Joyce was one of the most well-known and accomplished Irish writers of the 20th century. He is an accomplished novelist whose literary contributions to modernism have continued to reverberate decades after his death. Although his poetic ventures are not as famous as 'Ulysses,' they deserve just as much recognition, especially when it comes to poems like this one from 'Chamber Music.'
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One of the core themes of James Joyce's poem surrounds their depiction of beauty. Every aspect of the imagery found within, from the descriptions of the verdant scenery to the sound of the "music sweet," utilizes a diction that is meant to accentuate each as wondrously beautiful. Setting up the romance that is eventually articulated in the later poems of 'Chamber Music.'
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A theme that is subtly explored in James Joyce's poem is desire. The speaker's invocation of love implies that they themselves are possessed by a yearning for another. Although that individual isn't introduced in this opening poem, the reader can still infer, based on the characterization of love's personification, that they are pining passionately over someone.
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Love is one of the central themes, not just in this poem by James Joyce, but in all the poems found in 'Chamber Music.' As if to emphasize the importance of that emotion and its enrapturing effects, he personifies love as a lovelorn youth. An image that in turn conveys the bittersweet nature of love itself.
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Loving Someone You Can't Have

James Joyce's poem infers a distance between the speaker and the person they so desperately desire. The essential clue of this interpretation comes in the form of their characterization of love as a man with "pale flowers" and "dark leaves" in their hair, the presence of the dead plants symbolizing love's melancholy. As if reflecting their own mood onto their imagining of love.
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An emotion that's present in James Joyce's poem is passion. It might not be vociferous and bold, but rather, it is a pensive intensity of emotion. One that builds out of the swelling strings that carry love's song. Later poems in 'Chamber Music' offer illustrations of ardent desire, but this poem's portrait of it is far more tender.
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There is a faint lilt of sadness found within the poem by James Joyce. One that is hinted at in the precise diction used by the poet to characterize and describe the scene of the poem. These include the mention of willow trees and the dying plants in Love's hair, as well as the manner in which the latter plays their instrument.
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This poem by James Joyce touches on the topic of the earth in its opening lines. Mentioned when the speaker comments on the expansive range of the music they're listening to, describing it as being both in the "earth and air." The insinuation is that the music fills the earth's atmosphere and can be heard by anyone and everyone within it.
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Music is obviously one of the core topics of James Joyce's poem, as well as the entirety of 'Chamber Music.' He uses the auditory imagery of melody and sound to symbolize love's alluring beauty. Like a tune that's hard to eradicate from the mind or a song too sweet to ignore, love can be just as seductive an element as music.
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James Joyce personifies love in this poem as a young man who also appears smitten by someone they cannot have. Despite being the source of this beautiful music, they wander aimlessly alone along a river, wearing once vibrant and living flowers and leaves in their hair as if to imply that their love has faded.
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A topic mentioned in James Joyce's poem comes in the form of the many types of plants that appear in the poem. Its setting is one of pastoral and verdant beauty, where "willows meet," and love's personification wanders with "pale flowers" and "dark leaves" in their hair. This lush presentation of plants adds to the poem's idyllic atmosphere.
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This poem by James Joyce is an example of a lyrical ballad, one with a loosely followed rhyming pattern of 'ABAB.' Such a form was popular for recounting short narratives and creating a musical cadence. For both of these reasons, it was most likely chosen by the author as the ideal structure and form for the poem.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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