A very dear friend introduced me to James Joyce many years ago with his coming-of-age almost-biography, A Portrait of a Young Man, which had a deep impact on me. But it's only now I'm starting to pick up on just what a master of the English language Joyce was—through his poetry.
Joyce for many people, I am sad to say it, might always be an inaccessible bastion of 20th century literature. It's true that I've struggled and failed to maintain enthusiasm for, much less read Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, as highly regarded as they are.
But Joyce's power over the English language was demonstrated ever so well in his poems, too, and it's these that I treasure above his larger volumes. If you're not convinced, spend a few hours reading chamber music carefully. It's truly beautiful and evocative.
Yet, until very recently, I had totally missed out on this shorter poem:
She Weeps Over Rahoon
Rain on Rahoon falls softly, softly falling,
Where my dark lover lies.
Sad is his voice that calls me, sadly calling,
At grey moonrise.
Love, hear thou
How soft, how sad his voice is ever calling,
Ever unanswered, and the dark rain falling,
Then as now.
Dark too our hearts, O love, shall lie and cold
As his sad heart has lain
Under the moongrey nettles, the black mould
And muttering rain.
There is some biographical background to this poem, which is that Joyce's lover was visiting the grave of a previous love, which inspired Joyce to write the poem. Doesn't it evoke some of the poignant sadness of that occasion, as well as some of the other sad fates of unmentioned Irish men?
But as with many 20th century authors, although the context is interesting, the text is much more than a sum of its parts. For me the cadence of the poem as well as its structure conjures up the wind, rain and bleakness of Rahoon. But just enough of it is obscure that I start to ruminate over what I don't know, or isn't explicitly stated.
For instance, why is it Rahoon she weeps over, not her lover? Is there some greater tragedy below the surface? The line dark too our hearts makes me think about my own mortality too, which brings the tragedy home with a great sharpness.
Joyce was an absolute master of the English language, and seemed to know just what to say that would reach through the pages into the readers' heart.