‘The twilight turns from amethyst’ appears in ‘Chamber Music,’ the first collection of poems published by Irish writer James Joyce in 1907. One of thirty-six love poems that reveal the author of the modernist masterpiece ‘Ulysses’ as not just a magnificent writer but a more than competent poet as well. Some of his other collections include ‘Gas from a Burner’ (1912), ‘Pomes Penyeach’ (1927), and ‘Ecce Puer’ (1932).
All the poems found within ‘Chamber Music’ follow the professions of love made by a young man. The opening poem begins by introducing both the youth and the musical motif Joyce weaves throughout. While ‘The twilight turns from amethyst’ acquaints the reader with the woman he’s hopelessly enamored with. It’s also the second poem chronologically, loosely but convincingly linking all thirty-six poems together in the same way a symphony has different movements.
The twilight turns from amethyst James JoyceThe twilight turns from amethyst To deep and deeper blue,The lamp fills with a pale green glow The trees of the avenue.The old piano plays an air, Sedate and slow and gay;She bends upon the yellow keys, Her head inclines this way.Shy thought and grave wide eyes and hands That wander as they list—The twilight turns to darker blue With lights of amethyst.
Explore The twilight turns from amethyst
‘The twilight turns from amethyst’ by James Joyce observes a quietly intimate scene fixated on a solitary woman playing the piano at twilight.
‘The twilight turns from amethyst’ begins with a description of the transition from dusk to nightfall. The poem focuses particularly on the splendorous change in color witnessed in the sky and the foliage’s effect on the lamplight’s gloam. The sound of an “old piano” is introduced — it is both calming and unhurried but also happy.
Its player is revealed to be a woman who moves passionately along to the music, her head moving this way and that. The speaker goes into greater detail, focusing on the movements of her eyes and hands as she plays. They also unveil a little of what’s going through her head as “shy thought[s].” Attention then returns to the shifting in light and color occurring in the sky,
Structure and Form
‘The twilight turns from amethyst’ is comprised of three quatrains. The first sequence of three poems in ‘Chamber Music’ all follow this structure. The second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme, which creates a lulling and solemn cadence that mirrors the piano’s music.
‘The twilight turns from amethyst’ contains examples of the following literary devices:
- Auditory Imagery: the poem conjures up the sound of music when the speaker recounts how “the old piano plays an air” (5) and it is “sedate and slow and gay” (6).
- Kinesthetic Imagery: imagery related to movement is also present, as when the speaker describes the way the woman “bends upon the…keys, / Her head inclines this way” (7-8) and again when focusing on the way her “hands / …wander as they list—” (9-10).
- Visual Imagery: the poem is framed by the transition from dusk to night and focuses specifically on the color of the sky: “The twilight turns from amethyst / To deep and deeper blue” (1-2). Another example comes in the poem’s depiction of the lamplight, “The lamp fills with a pale green glow” (3).
The twilight turns from amethyst
To deep and deeper blue,
The lamp fills with a pale green glow
The trees of the avenue.
In the first quatrains of ‘The twilight turns from amethyst’ Joyce focuses on setting the scene. Using visual imagery and the emotive connotations of certain colors to create this dolorous atmosphere the pervades all three stanzas. The change in the twilight’s hue “from amethyst, / To deep and deeper blue” (1-2) mirrors the poem’s descent into an increasingly pensive mood. The “pale green glow” (3) of the trees illuminated by lamps on the street instills the image of a sickly and somewhat ethereal glimmer within the encroaching night.
The old piano plays an air,
Sedate and slow and gay;
She bends upon the yellow keys,
Her head inclines this way.
The second quatrain of ‘The twilight turns from amethyst’ introduces the sole character found within this sad scene. As the night sky grows dark, the speaker points out the sound of an “old piano play[ing] an air” (5). This nocturne is saturated by a reeling mix of emotions: “sedate and slow and gay” (6).
Joyce’s decision to withhold the identity of the piano player until the last two lines heightens the poem’s surreal and murky atmosphere. While also accentuating the vivid focus with which he adorns each of the various portraits and still-lifes within.
That elegance is reflected in the diction used to characterize the nameless woman. Offering no illustrations of her physical appearance, the speaker instead hones in on the way she moves her body to the music.
Shy thought and grave wide eyes and hands
That wander as they list—
The twilight turns to darker blue
With lights of amethyst.
The last quatrain of ‘The twilight turns from amethyst’ continues the speaker’s description of the woman as she plays the piano. We’re even allowed a glimpse into her mind as they refer to an ambiguous but compelling “shy thought” (9) hiding within her tilting head and behind her “grave wide eyes” (9). That wistful and perhaps melancholic image is juxtaposed by a paced flurry of movement as her hands move over the piano keys, “wander[ing] as they list” (10).
The poem is also framed by the transition from day to night. Just as it begins with the purples of twilight changing to a bolder blue, it ends in a much similar way. This time, Joyce inverts the line to indicate that dramatic shift: “The twilight turns to darker blue / With lights of amethyst” (11-12).
The poem explores a number of themes, such as the poignant beauty of music and romantic longing. Many of the poems in ‘Chamber Music’ are best understood when read as a sequence, though all express these in some ardent way.
Joyce wrote this poem as a part of his first collection of poems entitled ‘Chamber Music.’ Although the title was possibly originally conceived as an irreverent innuendo, poems like this one showcase a lyrical depth devoted to a youthful invocation of love.
Joyce fills the poem’s scenery with splashes of color that catalyze a variety of moods. There’s the somber and somewhat melancholy “amethyst” and “deeper blue” of the darkening evening sky; the eerie “pale green glow” of the lamps; and the aged “yellow keys” of the piano.
- ‘Sunset’ by Victor Hugo – This poem also imagines the sight of a magnificent sunset that explores themes such as time’s slow but ceaseless march toward death.
- ‘I Am in Need of Music’ by Elizabeth Bishop – This poem expresses a rapt desire to hear the sound of music.
- ‘Music’ by Walter de la Mare – This poem both celebrates and contemplates the benefits music has upon our lives.