“All Day I Hear the Noise of Waters,” James Joyce (1907)

All day I hear the noise of waters
  Making moan,
Sad as the sea-bird is, when going
  Forth alone,
He hears the winds cry to the waters'
  Monotone.

The grey winds, the cold winds are blowing
  Where I go.
I hear the noise of many waters
  Far below.
All day, all night, I hear them flowing
  To and fro. 

This short poem by the young James Joyce I only recently came across, and as I have not read the poems that accompany it in its cycle, Chamber Music, I can only write on it with reservation. An admission of known potential ignorance is an excellent way to start a piece concerning anything on Joyce’s work by the way. So on with it.

Though short and simple, this poem has charmed me. It wears its technique on its sleeve, so to say. It isn’t “sophisticated,” nor very “oblique,” except in one sense, which I will turn to first. To begin with a simple observation, it is a meditation on a particular natural scene, well known to anyone who has lived near the ocean: what it is like to stand upon a sea-cliff overlooking the vast sea, hearing the waves crash and fold over again and again endlessly, while always hearing the seagulls and other birds making their rather unpleasant noises, also endlessly. Joyce was a native of Dublin on the shores of Ireland, and so would have been able to frequent Ireland’s coast at many points of his life, where he would have been treated to the bleary days of grey clouds and blustering winds more common than not throughout the year.

At one level, the poem evokes well the sensations of just this scene, of the experience of it. Beyond that, it is a testament to not only what such an experience brings up in one’s mind, but also what sort of mental state seems to fit prima facie within that natural complex. In other words, there seems to be places, locations in the world, which are formed as it were to a certain mood or contemplation, which is why that context can create that particular set of emotions and thoughts when it occurs, and also why we might go looking for it to describe our own condition, whether or not it is physically present to us.

I italicized “natural complex” in the previous paragraph to indicate that it has a technical status in my mind. I am right now trying to formulate the right word or term for that conjunction of elements that seem to come together in the world so rightly. It does really seem that a blustery day on the seashore – the winds, the clouds, the rain, the mist and fog, the birds, the swelling grey and deep waters – well, it seems like all the parts belong together somehow: they seem fitted. Sometimes, when this is not the case, it can be both jarring and rather pleasant. When we see half the sky full of clouds pushed by the winds towards, let’s say the east, while the other half is clear with the sun bright, maybe even setting and filling up the cloudy east with colors while the western sky remains fading blue and clear – in that case, the stark clash of these two, one dreary and one bright, both complementing each other, well, it might be concluded such things really go together to, if in a differing manner. But in this poem, all is referring to a setting where the elements do not collide but inhabit each other in something like a single direction, a single motion, which the mind follows with ease, not needing to puzzle it out, but only going down deeper and deeper into the simplicity of it.

Joyce evokes melancholic sadness, which might iterate over and over again its griefs. It is not an intense sorrow that is being set out, but a reflective one. Of course, it couldn’t be too intense, since it is heard “all day, all night,” and everything else in this poem brings up the almost eternal repetitions of the sea. Feelings of great intensity don’t last that long; they can’t.

Joyce also introduces and weaves new elements into the poem in, I think, a rather pleasant way. The first element is “…the noise of waters” that the listener hears. Its sound is “…sad as the sea-bird,” the bird being the second element. The bird then “hears the winds,” as the human listener heard the waters, and the bird hears them “…cry to the waters’/Monotone.” So the listener hears the waters, which are like the sound of a lonely sea-bird, which itself hears the winds, which are then themselves crying to the waters, and so the elements are brought full circle back around to the waters. The second stanza then begins with the winds and ends again with the waters. In fact, if I were to reduce the poem to a formula, not of rhyme, but of these elements, it progresses like this: stanza 1 – listener/waters/seabird/winds/waters, stanza 2 – winds/listener/waters. A calm and steady repetition of elements, which formally occurs, is in step with the themes within this short poem.

To refer to it briefly, the rhyme scheme also achieves the same end: abcbab cdadcd. Four rhymes repeated over twelve lines, so the clustering is tight and iterative, reinforcing the same note of endless recursion and reflectiveness. As well, the poem is obviously lyrical in its rhythmic force; it almost begs to be hummed to something.

I think it is worth noting that this poem was written by Joyce in his early twenties. There is a naivete about it, something shamelessly straightforward. And that is no negative critique (though I admit it may sound backhanded). I will add as well that there is also a peculiar accuracy about it. And “peculiar accuracy” is just what one is looking for in poetry, I should think.

Featured image: ‘Cliffs by the Sea at Cézembre, Brittany,’ by Eugène Isabey (circa 1830), image in the public domain.

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