Contending with the likes of James Joyce can be a daunting and even off-putting endeavor for undergraduate students. In an (advanced composition) introductory course in fiction, I assigned the following response paper on Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to give students a concrete entry point from which to write about the text. After distributing the following prompt, I set aside class time to show students how to navigate james-joyce-music.com, their secondary resource for this assignment, which provides audio snippets, lyrics, and histories of the musical allusions that Joyce incorporated throughout his oeuvre. The assignment itself asked students to consider one musical allusion in A Portrait. By narrowing their focus to a single scene and combining it with a familiar medium—song—the students were better able to grapple with Joyce’s difficult text. From this pairing, students learned that cultural artifacts within narratives play a significant role in creating meaning. This realization also resulted in stronger engagement with other artifacts and thematic threads in the text. Thus, the act of demystifying the nuances of one scene in the book improved their overall ability to dissect and discuss the narrative’s broader themes, such as history, identity, artistry, and more. One bonus is that this assignment may be adapted for other writings by Joyce.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Music Response Paper
“If he had not become a writer, there is a very good chance that James Joyce would still have made a name for himself by pursuing a career as a vocal performer.” ~ james-joyce-music.com
Known for his striking tenor voice, James Joyce set aside his vocal ambitions to devote himself to the occupation of writing. Yet he did not abandon music. By weaving songs and musical allusions into his prose, Joyce married his love of music with his love of the written word. In this assignment, you will compose a response paper in which you analyze Joyce’s allusion to one song in A Portrait. By consulting the history, lyrics, and an audio performance of the song, which are all available on james-joyce-music.com, you will consider how, why, and to what effect the song is placed in the narrative. Why, for example, does Stephen’s mom sing a musical rendition of Thomas Moore’s poem “Oft in the Stilly Night” before dinner? What is the effect of young Stephen recalling “Brigid’s Song” while he is ill and bed-ridden? How does Cranly use the iconic music hall ditty, “Sweet Rosie O’Grady,” to challenge Stephen’s philosophical views? Other songs you may choose from include “O Twine Me a Bower,” “The Groves of Blarney,” “Killarney,” and “Lily Dale.” As you write your analysis, keep in mind that you may also reflect on your song’s musicality. How might its rhythm and melody, for instance, affect the tone of the scene in which it appears? Overall, what does Joyce reveal to us through his reference to this song in A Portrait?
Julie McCormick Weng, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign