From CD #1:
I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls
From an opera composed by Michael Balfe;
libretto by Alfred Bunn
This song from The Bohemian Girl, a popular opera by Michael Balfe, shows up several times in Finnegans Wake. But the opera itself plays an integral part in two of Joyce's short stories in Dubliners. Note that the verse performed in the sample music clip provided here is the one that the character Maria omits in "Clay." The verse that she does sing can be heard in a sample clip performed by the Irish singer and musician Enya on the Lyrics page for the ballad.
"Eveline" and "Clay" (from Dubliners)
The figure of Maria in "Clay" presents a portrait of the kind of pitiable person that the title character of "Eveline" is fated to become. Thus, these two stories form a kind of diptych; and one of the elements that ties them together and helps advance our understanding of them is the opera The Bohemian Girl.
The young woman Eveline Hill of the first story has come to the realization that she has had quite enough of her unsatisfactory life. In her job at the Stores, she is abused by the management; while her father, a widower for whom she keeps house, continually berates her, squabbles with her over money, and even physically threatens her.
But all that is now about to change: her plan is to "run away with a fellow," to escape the confines of her mean existence in Dublin and to "explore another life" with Frank, the young man who has been courting her. That very evening they will board the night-boat to Argentina, where Frank will marry Eveline, and together they will settle down in his home in Buenos Ayres.
Unlike her curmudgeonly father, who disapproves of him, Frank is "kind, manly, and open-hearted." A handsome seaman with a face of bronze and a fondness for music, he takes her to see The Bohemian Girl, and sometimes playfully sings The Lass That Loves a Sailor* to Eveline when they are together, provoking in her a "pleasant confusion." This famous song by Charles Dibdin is a rousing toast to a sailor's "sweetheart or wife he loved as his life," and it celebrates
The wind that blows,
The Ship that goes,
And the lass that loves a sailor!
Although the words of this song are never explicitly quoted in the story, the mere mention of it introduces the idea that, for Eveline, love and romance will be the catalyst for positive change and forward motion in her life — and that a ship will be her means of escape.
The reference to The Bohemian Girl is a subtle but important one. In the opera, the character Arline (Count Arnheim's daughter, who had been abducted by gypsies as a child and raised by them) falls in love with Thaddeus, a Polish nobleman and political exile who has joined the gypsy band. When she sings "I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls," she is describing the splendors of a dimly remembered childhood. Eveline's affair with her would-be "abductor" Frank (an emigrant and sea-rover full of "tales of distant lands") echoes the relationship between Arline and Thaddeus. The difference is that Arline's "dream" is mainly about an opulent past, while Eveline's is focused on the exotic future.
That dream comes crashing to an abrupt halt at the end of the story. The name Eveline inevitably suggests that of Eve, the First Temptress. But it may also be in part derived from the subject of "Eveleen's Bower," a poem by Thomas Moore included in the Irish Melodies, which tells of the stain upon the honor of a young woman who has yielded her maidenhood to an unchivalrous Lord:
Oh! weep for the hour,
When to Eveleen's bower
The Lord of the Valley with false vows came;
The moon hid her light
From the heavens that night,
And wept behind the clouds o'er the maiden's shame.
It is irrelevant whether or not Joyce deliberately chose to name his character Eveline because of these connotations; their real value lies in pointing to clues that will help the reader discover the reasons for Eveline's sudden change of heart. Good Irish Catholic girls don't run away with strange men — and if they do, no good can come of it! As she is about to board the vessel that is her passageway to freedom, the combined weight of her religious upbringing; her dying mother's admonition for Eveline to "keep the home together as long as she could"; her father's contempt for foreigners; and even the memory of the nameless priest whose yellowing photograph hangs on the wall beside the broken harmonium — all these familiar and tyrannical pieces of her past existence fill her mind and tumble about her heart like all the seas of the world. She experiences then what can only be described as a "deer-caught-in-the-headlights" moment. She panics and then pulls away from Frank, who must board the ship alone, leaving Eveline to her life of drudgery, uneventful singleness, and "commonplace sacrifice" in a Dublin that, for Joyce, has a habit of blasting young dreams.
The same terms can be used to characterize the existence of Maria Donnelly in "Clay," which may be summed up in a single phrase: "she had become accustomed to the life of the laundry." Though advanced in years, she values her independence. By modern feminist standards, the self-reliance of this elderly spinster is commendable; but within the literary context of the story, the very quality of her singleness renders her incomplete and empty.
Unmarried and childless, Maria surely has motherly qualities. Indeed, she used to nurse and helped raise the character Joe and his estranged brother Alphy in the story; of Maria, Joe is fond of saying:
— Mamma is mamma but Maria is my proper mother.
Her name, like that of her younger counterpart Eveline, is suggestive too. The reader cannot help but associate Maria with another figure from the Bible: not with the Temptress this time, but rather with the Virgin Mother, who is at once sacred — and untouchable. But the womb of that Mother was at least fruitful (having borne the Word made flesh); Maria's is as barren as her life.
There is a carnal side to her as well, indicated by the way she looks in the mirror "with quaint affection at the diminutive body which she had so often adorned." And in her encounter with the polite, "colonel-looking" gentleman who makes room for her on the tram, she flirts outrageously, favoring him "with demure nods." Their behavior resembles a miniature courtship. But it is a courtship that comes to nothing.
Joyce goes to some lengths to point out Maria's most prominent physical feature: "the tip of her nose nearly met the tip of her chin." Her witch-like countenance is appropriate to the time frame of the story, which takes place on Hallow Eve (Hallowe'en in the United States), a day with sinister significance. In pagan Ireland and Scotland, it was known as Samhain, a sort of Celtic Day of the Dead, a festival of witches and warlocks, vampires and ghouls, during which the souls of the departed would revisit their homes. This was also considered to be the most favorable time of year for divinations concerning such matters as luck, health, and marriage.
In "Clay," marriage is clearly not in the cards for Maria; and just as clearly, despite her apparently agreeable demeanor, spinsterhood is a sore subject for her. At the shop in Henry Street where she goes to buy the plumcake, the lady behind the counter grows annoyed with Maria and asks whether it was wedding cake she wanted, which causes Maria to blush. Then, at the end of the story, when she sings "I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls," she leaves out the second verse, and instead repeats the first. This second verse involves suitors and a bridegroom:
I dreamt that suitors sought my hand;
That knights upon bended knee,
And with vows no maiden heart could withstand,
They pledg'd their faith to me;
And I dreamt that one of that noble host
Came forth my hand to claim.
But I also dreamt, which charmed me most,
That you lov'd me still the same ...
Whether this omission is inadvertent or deliberate, to save herself embarrassment, we can only speculate.
Thus are revealed the three principal facets of this character. Maria is at once virgin, harlot, and crone — all opposite to the three ideal states of the feminine life force: mother, wife, and bride. She is none of those things, nor ever will be. The outcome of the children's divination game in the story, with its roots in the pagan festival of Samhain, is proof of that.
Maria will leave this world without ever having brought anything into it. Year after year she has participated in the game, but not once did she ever "get the ring" auguring marriage. This year she does not even choose the glass of water (which means that a sea voyage, much like Eveline's, may be in the offing). Instead, she lays her hand on a lump of clay. The outcome of the game is not merely a prognostication of her death; it is a forthright acknowledgment that her passing is a fait accompli. She has been dead for as long as anyone can remember; and the "marble halls" she sings about are not the dwelling space of a mansion, but the confines of a crypt.
The title of the song is comically mutilated in the "Triv & Quad" chapter:
When you dreamt that you'd wealth in marble arch do you ever think of pool beg slowe.
[264:(F2); emphasis added]
Even more amusing is this instance of avian wordplay:
... at this passing moment by localoption in the birds' lodging, me pheasants among, where I'll dreamt that I'll dwealth mid warblers' walls when throstles and choughs to my sigh hiehied,...
[449:17; emphasis added]