August 11, 2020

Clanging Upon the Heart

        Here’s an interesting fantasy poem by James Joyce (Ireland, 1882-1941), although probably it would be more accurate to call it a vision or a nightmare than “fantasy.”

I hear an army charging upon the land,
And the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their knees:
Arrogant, in black armour, behind them stand,
Disdaining the reins, with fluttering whips, the charioteers.

They cry unto the night their battle-name:
I moan in sleep when I hear afar their whirling laughter.
They cleave the gloom of dreams, a blinding flame,
Clanging, clanging upon the heart as upon an anvil.

They come shaking in triumph their long, green hair:
They come out of the sea and run shouting by the shore.
My heart, have you no wisdom thus to despair?
My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?

        This poem is actually a sort of response to or rewriting of William Butler Yeat’s 1899 poem “He Bids His Beloved Be at Peace.”  In his poem Yeats describes “the Horses of Disaster,” but ends with the idea that lovers can hide "their tossing manes and their tumultuous feet” of those horses while lying together.  The voice in Joyce’s poem, by contrast, has no beloved to lie with him “in deep twilight of rest.”
        Joyce’s poem, published in 1907, has some really wonderful, intense imagery, and magnificently dark phrases.  My favorites are “whirling laughter” and “clanging upon the heart.”  But what exactly is it about?  Again, without having any deep knowledge of Joyce, I’d guess that he meant it as an expression of dread and despair and longing.  These days I can certainly resonate with the oppressive feeling of the second verse.  As usual, though, if I look at it as fantasy, I imagine the host of demons or dark elves, or possibly unquiet ghosts of long-dead warriors.  It’s an intensely vivid evocation of images and emotion.

[Picture: Illustration of an Old Norse Ballad, wood block print by Olaf Willums, 1920s?]

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