Ιt’s no great surprise to find composers in the field of classical music influenced by the three Irish poets, writers and dramatists. Research on the connections of literature and classical music is a beloved field for many years. In this article I will try and investigate the unknown incursion of rock, pop and electronic music into the realms of Joyce, Wilde and Yeats and their musical effect on various aspects of popular music and artists


Works of James Joyce are held in high esteem by writers, readers, critics and academics.  As a writer, he incorporated music into all his works, especially in  Chamber Music, Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake.

James Joyce was an author who was extremely interested, even obsessed with music and his writing is infused with it, as he was both an excellent singer and a pianist with a wide musical knowledge of every type and genre.


Chamber Music is a collection of poems by James Joyce that represent his poetry at its most basic. The collection originally consisted of 34 love poems, but before publication by Elkin Matthews in May of 1907, two further poems were added (All day I hear the noise of waters and I hear an army charging upon the land).

Ezra Pound admired those early poemswhile Yeats described the poem 

I hear an army charging upon the land as a technical and emotional masterpiece.

Τhe poems that comprise this early volume by Joyce  have been set to music and performed by a variety of composers and artists over the years, from the Irish composer Geoffrey Molyneux Palmer (1882-1957), who, in 1907, was the first to set the songs to music with Joyce’s encouragement, to Samuel Barber, Luciano Berio, Martyn Bates of Eyeless in Gaza, Jim O’Rourke, Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, Willy Mason and others.

In 1909, Joyce declared to his wife Nora –Chamber Music was the only book of Joyce’s that Nora really approved- that he had written the poems when he was lonely and looking for love, so the time period that these poems were written in, is framed by their courtship. Therefore, Joyce always hoped that the Chamber Music poems would find their way to being set to music.

n 16th June of 2008, 100 years since its original publication, it was James Nicholls, Fire Records boss, who probably listened to Joyce’s echoes and desire while reading an article about Chamber Music.

He says:

The idea was simple: find contemporary artists influenced by Joyce’s style to finally turn the poems into musical works. Our only directive was to not mess with the words!

So, Fire Records spent 5 years in the making to release one of the most challenging music projects on James Joyce’s works, the Chamber Music Collection, by Various Artists. It’s a two-disc compilation featuring all 36 poems set to music by 36 of today’s finest contemporary alternative artists.

With contributions from major established artists (Mercury Rev, Ed Harcourt, Peter Buck from R.E.M. under the moniker Airport Studies, Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth, etc) and cult players (Jessica Bailiff, Gravenhurst, Mike Watt, Bardo Pond) this represents a sweeping but unified expression of Joyce’s early verses. Each artist was given one of the 36 verses from Chamber Music and asked to set it to music. The interpretations are contrasting echoing different music genres but all resulting in a totally unique musical project, which probably “scandalised” some of Joyce’s more conservative fans.

  ●        Ed Harcourt resurrects poem number ‘III’ ( or At that hour when all things have repose) adding to it a psychedelic/gothic touch. He says:

These poems remind me of William Blake, I’d never read them until I was approached by Fire Records and was immediately interested in doing something. I had the idea of shouting the words like some kind of mad preacher towards the end of a musical mantra, building and building and getting more intense…It could’ve been easy for me to do an acoustic, pastoral sounding number but I wanted to do something different; the verses have this desperation to them that intrigue me; in fact I think Joyce was quoted as saying:” I wrote Chamber Music as a protest against myself.”

●        Venture Lift from Woodstockmingle electronic samples and spoken words, creating a mystical atmosphere in “Poem V”, recalling Syd Barret’s version.  Syd Barrett , the genuine rock legend, English singer-songwriter, guitarist,  painter and most remembered as the founding member of the psychedelic/progressive rock band Pink Floyd, borrowed years ago the first lines Lean out of the window, Golden Hair from Joyce’s 1907 Chamber Music’s  “Poem V”. Those lines are also the first ones of his song Golden Hair, includedin his 1970 album The Madcap Laughs.   Also, on the Syd Barrett tribute album, Beyond the Wildwood, a group called The Paint Set covered Golden Hair.

●        Indie rock Mercury Rev’s touch on poem number ‘XXIII’ (23) is quite minimal while spoken words allure with backing of sonic textures, resulting to an evocative contribution.


The unceasing use of music in Joyce’s Ulysses is apparent, even to his most novice reader. Joyce uses a musical reference throughout his novel as the vehicle to underscore points in the narrative, to add weight to the statements of the characters, linking together segments, episodes and themes.


Many of popular music’s most famous artists have drawn from Joyce in a myriad of ways.

●        Barry Moore, Irish folk-rock singer and songwriter, took the surname of Leopold Bloom to complete his own moniker Luka Bloom.

●        Jefferson Airplane’s  song Rejoyce rises from Ulysses.

●         In 1982, Louis Stewart composed a jazz suite, based on Joyce’s Ulysses, for the Cork jazz Festival.

●        Lou Reed drew extensively from Ulysses in his song My House where he sings, My Daedalus to your Bloom .

●        Irish songwriter Gavin Friday borrowed the Tell Tale Heart. The line to die with one’s mouth full of ashes refers to Stephen Daedalus, one of the main characters in Ulysses

●       Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, inspired Dutch – German singer Amber for    her dance song Yes, which appears on her 2002 album Naked.

Bloom’s soliloquy, a compilation of the thoughts of Molly Bloom, is presented in the eighteenth, and final, chapter of James Joyce‘s novel Ulysses. The final words of Molly’s reverie, are the very last words of the book.

●      In 1989 and in her sixth studio album The Sensual World, Kate Bushset Joyce’s original text to music in her song The Sensual World .

Originally Bush had written the song to directly quote Ulysses, but after Joyce’s estate refusal to give permission to use the extract, she rewrote the lyrics to avoid breaching copyright. It is notable that a year before writer’s copyright expires -James Joyce’s works finally begin migrating into public domain in January 2012- and more than 20 years from her first request, the estate finally gave her the permission. Bush’s 2011 album Director’s Cutincludes a version of the track with the original Joyce text, entitled Flower of the Mountain.


From Dubliners to Finnegans Wake, there is a long way ofinsiparion and adaptations:

●        Two Gallants,a folk-rock duo from San Francisco, California named after the Dubliner’s story.

●        Country songwriter Jimmy Buffet is also an admirer of Joyce as he states, My life’s an open book / By James Joyce and Agatha Christie, on his song If It All Falls Down.

●        The Pogues a London folk punk band,  drew inspiration from Berenice Abbott’s classic 1929 photograph of Joyce to create a montage of both themselves and James, in the same dress and pose, which appeared on the sleeve of their album If I Should Fall From Grace With God‘.

●        The Irish singer and songwriter Van Morrison, mentions Joyce in two of his songs. He says James Joyce wrote streams of consciousness books, in his song Summertime in England (on Common One  album) and he compares himself with him in his song Too Long In Exile (on 1993’s Too Long in Exile album) when he says, Been too long in exile / Just like James Joyce. According to Richard Hayes, Van Morrison set one of Joyce’s poems to music and recorded it in the late 1970s, but was not allowed to release it because The Society of Authors would not grant permission.

Joyce’s impact was massive in his own day, and since his death in 1946 his writing is inspiring for people involved in all art forms.


Why Yeats poetry reacts like a huge magnet that attracts so many musicians? Surely, he is the most widely admired of all modern poets who have written in English, having the unique gift of enchanting the ear of people of all countries. With a subject palette ranging from ancient myths to contemporary politics, folk tales of Ireland and religious teachings of theosophy, Platonic dialogues and the Indian Upanishads and mysticism he is a great influence to contemporary artists, speaking to a wide audience.

Two years before his death, W. B. Yeats broadcast a series of programmes on BBC in which his poems were recited and sung. In his prefatory remarks he was careful to distinguish what he meant by ‘singing’:

Why not feel up the space between poem and poem with musical notes and so enable the mind to free itself from one group of ideas, while preparing for another group, and yet keep it receptive and dreaming? Furthermore to rest and vary the attention I have suggested that certain parts of poems should be sung.


Inspired on a trip to Ireland, Frank Dunne and Michael Tuft, two journalists who had the idea of a compilation album featuring the works of Yeats performed by various artists, approached the Grapevine Records to make it real. It was released on January 28 of 1997 – 58 years to the week after the poet died. From the earliest poem in the collection, The Stolen Child, written in 1886, to the latest, Under Ben Bulben, written over fifty years later and ranging from alternative pop/rock to psychedelic rock and Irish folk, poetry speaks  to a wide audience through music.


In An Appointment With Mr. Yeats, a series of concerts and a studio album (which will be released this September by Proper Records), Mike Scott, The Waterboys frontman, set the poetry of Yeats to music in a truly unique and ambitious musical way.

Scott, who declares himself an “archivist” of Yeats adaptations says: Since 1991, when I sang a few Yeats interpretations, I’ve had the vision of a whole show and an album using Yeats’ words as song lyrics. My purpose isn’t to treat Yeats as a museum piece, but to connect with the soul of the poems.

Mike Scott’s long artistic and spiritual relationship with Yeats, can be traced to the symbolism of his own lyrics and the pagan spirit of The Waterboys early albums.

I have chosen two of my favorite poems with many and interesting music adaptations.


The poem The Stolen Child was written in 1886 and is considered to be one of Yeat’s most notable early poem. Based on Irish legend and concerning faeries beguiling a child to come away with them, reflects Yeats great interest in Irish mythology and Romantic literature, resulting the publication of Fairy and Folk Tales Of The Irish Peasantry in 1888 and Folk Tales of Ireland in 1892.

●        The poem was set to music and recorded by Loreena McKennitton her 1985 debut album Elemental.

●        Mike Scott engrafted new love to Yeat’s poetry in 1988, when he set a musical accompaniment to the poem, appearing on The Waterboys 1988 album Fisherman’s Blues, with portions of the poem spoken by Tomas Mac Eoin.

●        Sean Tyrrell used iton Belladonna album (2002).

●         Heather Alexander on her 1994 album Wanderlust and

●        Hamilton Camp on his 2005 album Sweet Joy in the song Celts.

●        Another version set to music and recorded on the Danny Ellis album 800 Voices, was released in 2006.


The poem Down by the Salley Gardens, previously titled asAn Old Song Re-Sung, was published in The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems in1889 and its a reconstruction of an old song, probably the ballad The Rambling Boys of Pleasure, that anold peasant woman was singing in the village of Ballisodare, Sligo. It was only changed to the Down By The Salley Gardens when it was published again in 1895 in his collection Poems.


Many singers and groups included verses or the whole poem in their repertoire. Some notable adaptations are:

●        Tamalin, recorded an Irish language version on the 1997 compilation album Now And In Time To Be.

●        Marianne Faithfull on her debut album of folk songs Come My Way (1965)

●        Loreena McKennitt, the Canadian singer and songwriter on her album The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2010).

●        German electronic music group, Tangerine Dream, with an instrumental version for their Choise EP (2008)

●        Irish musical group Clannad, on their live album Clannad in Concert (1979) and on the compilation album Celtic Myst (1997)

●        Tomas Mac Eoin recorded it with instrumental accompaniment by The Waterboys and released it as a single in 1989. Also, on The Waterboys 2008 album Room To Roam.

●        The Rankin Family on 1996 album Collection.

●        Irish singer and actress Maura O’Connell on her 1997 album Wandering Home.

●        Orla Fallon, Irish songwriter and former member of Celtic Woman on her 2000 solo album The Water Is Wide.

●        Kathy Kelly on her 2002 album Straight From My Heart.

●        Redbird on the 2005 Redbird album.

●        Welsh singer and songwriter Judith Owen on Richard Thompsons’ 2008 DVD, 1000 Years Of Popular Music. And finally,

●        Japanese singer Hitomi Azuma as closing theme of Fractale anime.


The Song Of Wandering Aengus, counts over twenty adaptations and has been sung by Judy CollinsRitchie HavensDave Van RonkDonovan, Terry CallierChristy Moore (Ride On )Sean Tyrrell (Orchard, 2006), David Gray and many others.


There are numerous adaptations of Yeats by artists famous and obscure.

●        Since the 1970s Yeats’ words have been sung by Van Morrison (Crazy Jane on God, Before the World Was Made ), Joni Mitchell (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, adapted from The Second Coming) , Bono of U2 (Mad as the Mist and Snow) and plenty of other artists.

●         Loreena McKennit, has set two more Yeats poems to music: The Two Trees  and The Rambling Boys Of Pleasure with the Irish musical group Chieftains.

●        The song A Bad Dream by English rock band Keane, appearing on their second album Under The Iron Sea (2007), was partially based on the poem  An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.

●        Those Dancing Days Are Gone and Before The World Was Made, are both performed by the Italian-French singer Carla Bruni on her second album No Promises (2007).


Man’s soul was Wilde’s deepest concern. For him, the purpose of art was more than its obvious aesthetic use. The most important was to guide life.

Musical works inspired by Oscar Wilde’s work are numerous in the field of classical music, in literature and films. As Morrissey, frontman of The Smiths suggests: 

Wilde is not only a literary figure but also an attitude, a stance, a sexuality even. Wilde represents isolation within one’s own world and at the same time a very grand set of theories about the most irrelevant or absurd things.


●        Australian musician Nick Cave wrote a 5-act play entitled Salomé which is included in the 1988 collection of Cave’s writings

●        The Selfish Giant, rock opera by Jim and Dee Patton of Bongo and the Point.

●        The Virgin Prunes an 80′s avant-garde/experimental Irish punk  band include the first three strophes of Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol in their song Theme For Thought.

●        Irish singer and songwriter and former leader of the Virgin PrunesGavin Friday, set the The Ballad of Reading Gaol to original music in his song Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves.

●        A song named Oscar Wilde appears on the debut album Ordinary Riches by indie rock group Company Of Thieves.

●        Salome is the title of a track by Pete Dohertyon his 2009 album Grace/Wastelands, which shares several lyrical references to Wilde’s work.

●        Much of Velvet Goldmine’s script, a 1998 British/American drama film that tells the story of a pop star based mainly on David Bowie‘s ‘Ziggy Stardustt consists of quotations from various works of Oscar Wilde.

●        One man who has mimicked Wilde the most, is Steven Patrick Morrissey, lead singer of 1980s band The Smiths.Morrissey says :

Most of my inspiration comes from outside music – especially literature and particularly Oscar Wilde.

●        The words Flower-like life in the Smiths Miserable Lie were very likely lifted by Morrissey from Wilde’s De Profundis .

●        The words The Impotence of Ernest found between the Smiths’Hatful Of Hollow album is a pun on the title of the Wilde play The Importance Of Being Earnest.


Wilde’s involvement in the rising philosophy of aestheticism was intense, while he sought to contrast the beauty he saw in art onto daily life.

Wilde vigorously responded, writing to the Editor of the Scots Observer :

 If a work of art is rich and vital and complete, those who have artistic instincts will see its beauty and those to whom ethics appeal more strongly will see its moral lesson.

This is more than evident in his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is the one that brought him more lasting recognition and became a never ending inspiration for many cinematic, literary, and artistic adaptations as for many pop and rock musicians, like:

●        Dubliners U2 in The Ocean (from the Boy album, 1980)

●        English rock band The Libertines in Narcissist song (from their 2004 album The Libertines)

●        James Blunt in Tears and Rain (from his 2004 debut album Back To Bedlam)

●        English alternative rock band The Smiths in Cemetry Gates (from their 1986 album The Queen Is Dead).

●        Suzanne Vega & John Cale in Long Voyage

●        English group Television Personalities in their song A Picture Of Dorian Gray (Part Time Punks – The Very Best of the Television Personalities, 1999)

Irish singer and songwriter Gavin Friday says: I believe that Oscar Wilde is as relevant today as he was one hundred years ago, whereas rock and roll culture is made up of hair-brained Americans, while Morrisey quotes:  It is his wonderful aesthetic who let beauty exist.

Joyce’s, Yeats’ and Wilde’s passions excluded the commonplace, as throughout their lifetime, they had an abiding interest in what we call today popular culture. The impact caused by these artists is continuous even nowadays.  Thus, it’s not surprising to see various popular art forms, like cinema, pop and rock music literature, mimicking their image and being inspired by their work.

Eleni Mitsiaki
1 October 2011

(This article is based on the author’s oral presentation at the IAML Annual Meeting in Dublin, 24-29/7/2011)