The voice of Joyce

I believe these are the only extant recordings of James Joyce reading his work. They’re on the Public Domain Review, and add up to about 12½ minutes. Even though they’re fragments, I listened to them because I wanted to hear his voice. To me he doesn’t sound Irish, but sort of a hybrid between Irish and English. (Those with a better ear might correct me.)

The two sections are from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake; the former from the Aeolus episode (the one with the newspaper headlines); the latter a bit about Anna Livia Plurabelle. I like the latter better, and it almost seems to make sense out of that big gallimaufry of a book. (Full disclosure: I’ve read Ulysses but was defeated early on by Finnegans Wake. In desperation, I read Edmund Wilson’s essay on the Big Book, but just got depressed that that great critic could grasp it so well, while I remained mystified). 

Aeolus (all notes from the website):

Joyce made this recording in Paris at the HMV studios at the insistence of Sylvia Beach (the woman behind Shakespeare and Company, the publisher’s of Ulysses), although HMV would only loan out their equipment at a cost and would have as little to do with the recording as possible. Beach recounts:

Joyce himself was anxious to have this record made, but the day I took him in a taxi to the factory in Billancourt, quite a distance from town, he was suffering with his eyes and very nervous. Luckily, he and Coppola were soon quite at home with each other, bursting into Italian to discuss music. But the recording was an ordeal for Joyce, and the first attempt was a failure. We went back and began again, and I think the Ulysses record is a wonderful performance. I never hear it without being deeply moved. Joyce had chosen the speech in the Aeolus episode, the only passage that could be lifted out of Ulysses, he said, and the only one that was “declamatory” and therefore suitable for recital. I have an idea that it was not for declamatory reasons alone that he chose this passage from Aeolus. I believe that it expressed something he wanted said and preserved in his own voice. As it rings out – ‘he lifted his voice above it boldly’ – it is more, one feels, than mere oratory.

Anna Livia Plurabelle:

This recording of Joyce reading was made in 1929 by C.K. Ogden (the linguist, philosopher, and inventor of Basic English) in the studio of the Orthological Society in Cambridge. Ogden boasted of the two biggest recording machines in the world and wanted to do a better recording of Joyce than the Ulysses recording of 5 years earlier which he regarded as being of very poor quality. Sylvia Beach again:

How beautiful the “Anna Livia” recording is, and how amusing Joyce’s rendering of an Irish washerwoman’s brogue! This is a treasure we owe to C. K. Ogden and Basic English. Joyce, with his famous memory, must have known “Anna Livia” by heart. Nevertheless, he faltered at one place and, as in the Ulysses recording, they had to begin again. Ogden gave me both the first and second versions. Joyce gave me the immense sheets on which Ogden had had “Anna Livia” printed in huge type so that the author-his sight was growing dimmer-could read it without effort. I wondered where Mr. Ogden had got hold of such big type, until my friend Maurice Saillet, examining it, told me that the corresponding pages in the book had been photographed and much enlarged.

I like these better than recordings of Dylan Thomas and T. S. Eliot reading their work (with the exception of the ensemble play Under Milk Wood, which you must listen to); those other dudes seemed to recite their poetry in a monotone.

Click on the screenshot to go to the recordings (you can also download the mp3s). The text is given should you want to read along. But I wish they’d recorded the last few pages of The Dead!

h/t: Stephen


  1. Posted February 18, 2018 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    In a matter of seconds, my heart just exploded. I love him!

  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 18, 2018 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Joyce himself was anxious to have this record made, but the day I took him in a taxi to the factory ..

    Wonder if they took the route along riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay?

    • Frank
      Posted February 18, 2018 at 7:40 pm | Permalink


  3. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted February 18, 2018 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Eliot’s readings are indeed rather colorless. I think Eliot may be trying to convey a sense of weariness/dreariness that are the dominant emotions in his poems. But often the net effect is simply a dull tediousness.

    While it kinda/sorta works for poems like “Ash Wednesday”, Eliot simply isn’t up to reading “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”. John Gielgud does “Cats” much better, bringing the appropriate jollity to the work.

    Even Eliot’s gloomier poems are read much better by Alec Guinness. AG sounds rightly somber, serious, and contemplative, but in Eliot the funereal tone is far more dominant to the point of gracelessness.

    Here is Eliot reading “Four Quartets”

    and Alec Guinness reading same

  4. Lurker111
    Posted February 18, 2018 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    SMBC recently took on Finnegans Wake:

    Full comic with red button here:

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 18, 2018 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I’d never heard that before, boss. Thx.

    Joyce sounds more Irish to me in the second excerpt, from Finnegans Wake, than the one from Ulysses.

  6. Posted February 18, 2018 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    We should caveat that accents change over time. In the Aeolus excerpt, in my opinion, Joyce’s accent starts as educated RP, as in the South of England. As the monologue develops it acquires a more educated Scottish trill, possibly because the character is called McHugh, and Joyce is trying to imitate that difficult slightly pompous idea – think of Miss Jean Brodie if she had a much more pronounced English accent. Occasionally, Joyce sounds as if he comes from the North-east of Northern Ireland, and that accent, in its most upper-middle class form, can often sound extremely similar to the South-west Scotland educated accent, just across the water. Although the American Sylvia Beach comments about it being in Joyce’s own voice, I would say that he is putting on an accent, because he clearly speaks in different ones within the same recording. He could not quite do what he wanted to do, and occasionally the accent slipped.

    Again in the Anna Livia Plurabelle recording he is putting on a rural southern Irish accent.

    I am fairly well attuned to differences in accent, I suspect because my parents both had Derry accents (from the north west of Northern Ireland) and I have a Brummie one. You do not have to go far in NI for the accent to change: Derry is different to Belfast for example. I have an idea that children of parents with different accents are better able to distinguish between sounds and to imitate them. Plus, I am a former Modern Languages teacher.

    I am not convinced we hear Joyce’s informal speaking voice here. He is acting. Nevertheless, great to hear, and thank you, Jerry, for posting it.

  7. kieran
    Posted February 18, 2018 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    First is closer to his speaking accent, Dublin middle class that went to UCD. It’s not a very strong accent for Dublin.

    The second is story telling mode so the accent is added and exaggerated to the story telling.

  8. Posted February 18, 2018 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    FYI, Anjelica Huston (who starred in The Dead) made a nice documentary about Joyce(James Joyce: A Shout in the Street) that was shown on BBC 4 recently. Atm, it can’t be seen on the BBC iPlayer, but it can be seen here:

  9. Kevin
    Posted February 18, 2018 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    The second recording from Finnegan’s Wake has Joyce with more of the Dublin brogue than the first. My mother was born in Sandymount/Ringsend where much of Ulysses took place and I went there more than maybe seventy times since 1956 when I was six weeks old. Two stones in the park line up to point to Joyce’s tower across Dublin Bay at Seapoint from the Strand Road in front of my mother’s family house.
    I have an English accent when I speak, but you can hear the slow pace and rhythm of Dublin there. My mother’s accent has never faded after sixty years in England.
    I read Joyce in my teens and no other author has evoked the same impression since. The depiction of the human condition by mastery of language.

  10. Posted February 18, 2018 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    This is priceless! Thanks, PCC(E)!

  11. Tim Harris
    Posted February 18, 2018 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    Thank you. Anna Livia Plurabelle is particularly fine – Joyce was of course a good singer, with a fine tenor voice, and his clear diction is that of a god singer. But I also, knowing Wales, admire Dylan Thomas – you should hear him reading Dai’s Boast in the BBC recording of parts of David Jones’s ‘In Parenthesis’, one of the greatest books to come out of the First World War, and one of the greatest long poems in English of the 20th century; the wonderful Richard Burton reads most of the rest: he himself thought it his best piece of work for the BBC. Another great recording is Micheál Mac Liammóir’s recording of Edmund Spenser’s ‘Epithalamion’. And if people are interested, I recommend listening to Sorley MacLean’s (Somhairle MacGill-Eain in Gaelic)readings of his poetry in Scottish Gaelic, in particular the great poem ‘Hallaig’; MacLean and his friend Hugh MacDiarmid (who has also recorded some of his poems) are the two greatest Scottish poets of the twentieth century.

    • Posted February 19, 2018 at 1:54 am | Permalink

      The Joyce recordings have been available on Caedmon records for years. It’s great to be reminded of them.

      The recording of “Under Milk Wood” by Richard Burton and an all Welsh is superb.

      In 1971, the wonderful Irish actress, Siobhán McKenna, did a show in NY called “Here be ladies!”. Among other things, she did the washer women scene from the Wake and of course ended with Molly’s soliloquy from “Ulysses”. Absolutely mesmerizing!

  12. James Walker
    Posted February 19, 2018 at 1:39 am | Permalink

    I’ve been so inundated with news coverage here in Australia that my first reading of this headline had something to do with the circus that is the current leadership 😛

  13. greybloon
    Posted February 19, 2018 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    His accent is impeccably Irish.

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