‘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 JoyceStrings 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.
Explore Strings in the earth and air
‘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’ 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The poems of ‘Chamber Music’ are addressed to an unnamed woman whom the speaker is clearly in love with.
- ‘Music’ by Walter de la Mare – This poem also celebrates the beauty of music by ruminating over its pleasing effects.
- ‘That Music Always Round Me’ by Walt Whitman – This poem uses music as a means of conveying the passionate plurality of voices that comprise a nation.
- ‘My True Love Hath My Heart’ by Philip Sidney – This pastoral poem envisions a moment of love at first sight between two people.