“Tilly” a poem by James Joyce followed by a reflection

He travels after a winter sun,
Urging the cattle along a cold red road,
Calling to them, a voice they know,
He drives his beasts above Cabra.

The voice tells them home is warm.
They moo and make brute music with their hoofs.
He drives them with a flowering branch before him,
Smoke pluming their foreheads.

Boor, bond of the herd,
Tonight stretch full by the fire!
I bleed by the black stream
For my torn bough!

Reflections: (Spoiler: This is a plug for lucidity.) This was a very poignant poem for me, and I’m glad I chanced to find it. (I was reading Patti Smith’s memoir, “Just Kids” and she mentioned a collection of Joyce’s poems, Pomes Penyeach [1927]. “Tilly” is the first poem in this book.) Several of the images pulled me right in, like a dream. The images, all by themselves, spoke to me. I could identify with the herdsman on the red clay road driving his cows to the music of their plodding progress, the steam from their breathing enveloping their heads. The third and last stanza introduces an outside voice with a bitter message that casts a shadow over the first two stanzas in which “he” (the herdsman) is at one with the herd and content with his work. By contrast, the third stanza is spoken in the first person, which I assume  is the voice of the poet, or even Joyce himself. The poet cannot be the romantic who is content to stay with the herd and sleep on the ground by the fire at night. For the poet, the flowering bough that the herdsman uses to guide the cows, is the “torn bough”. The stream is black and he himself is bleeding, as if he identifies with the torn branch. The poet feels the pain of the world whereas his counterpart, the herdsman, is part of nature and lacks this awareness. This poem reenacts the fall, the exile from paradise, but not necessarily in the Christian sense of the fall. What it depicts for me is the fall into lucidity from which all meaningful living proceeds. In other words, the poet, we, are the bough torn from the tree of life, and with that revelation of separateness begins our long journey home again, a journey of healing on multiple levels via lucidity.


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