I am studying Samuel Barber's art song "Nuvoletta", whose text is adapted from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. I have not studied Finnegans Wake. The music is very beautiful.

As I understand it, Nuvoletta is likened to wind, dew, and cloud, and she disappeared in the end of the excerpt. What does the event suggest and signify? What is the background of Nuvoletta (whom I suppose is a character in the novel) that makes such metaphor appropriate?


2 Answers 2

  • As I understand it, Nuvoletta ... disappeared in the end of the excerpt.

In Finnegans Wake, no one ever disappears, at least not for very long, because they always have to begin again!

While the song you are studying misleadingly ends (159.6-10)

Then Nuvoletta reflected for the last time in her little long life
and she made up all her myriads of drifting minds in one. She
cancelled all her engauzements. She climbed over the bannistars;
she gave a childy cloudy cry: Nuée! Nuée! A lightdress fluttered.
She was gone.

the very next lines in the book are (159.10-18)

And into the river that had been a stream ... there fell a tear,
a singult tear, the loveliest of all tears ...
for it was a leaptear.
But the river tripped on her by and by,
lapping as though her heart was brook:
Why, why, why! Weh, O weh!
I’se so silly to be flowing but I no canna stay!

  • What is the background of Nuvoletta (whom I suppose is a character in the novel) that makes such metaphor appropriate?

Nuvoletta is a form of Issy (I), the canonical girl child. Issy has 28=(7x4) "nubied companions" (157.13). "Hence" Issy is 29, the leap-year child.

She has witnessed her twin brothers quarrelling across the banks of a river. The text of Finnegans Wake is a river, and the mother of these three children, Anna (ALP), is all rivers ("Missis-liffi" 159.12), in the never ending cycle river-sea-cloud-river. As such, Anna is the renewer. Of course Anna was/is an Issy, and Issy must become an Anna.

Nuvoletta attempts to get her brothers' attention using "all the winsome wonsome ways" (157.31), but fails, ultimately because they are men ("There are menner" 158.5) like their (step?) father HCE ("conclaved with Heliogobbleus and Commodus and Enobarbarus" 157.26).

Washerwomen (themselves forms of Anna) come and take the boys home, leaving Nuvoletta alone.

After leaping (suicide?), Nuvoletta becomes a tear, but falls into the river (her mother Anna). We know the tear is Novuletta (Issy), since the tear is a "leaptear" and leaptear → leapyear. Nuvoletta is reborn and flowing again, and no matter how she feels, she "canna" (Anna) remain at rest.

But what will happen if Anna stops flowing?

  • As I understand it, Nuvoletta is likened to wind, dew, and cloud ....

Issy is often likened to objects that participate in the water cycle other than the river and sea: dew, cloud, rain, puddles, tears, drops of urine etc. I don't think she is likened to wind, but I stand to be corrected.

  • What does the event suggest and signify?

On a simple level, the event suggests that even though Nuvoletta might be so sad that she wishes to die, her mother can heal "her heart [that] was brook". Because that is what mothers do. It signifies "death" leading to "rebirth" via Anna.

But, every Anna is/was an Issy. Anna has such desperate feelings, only worse: everyone depends on her for rebirth. What happens when Anna leaves?

I am passing out. O
bitter ending! I’ll slip away before they’re up. They’ll never see.
Nor know. Nor miss me. (627.33)

The tear must become a river.


The section you mentioned actually comes within a larger section called "The Mooks and the Gripes" which is named in a way to evoke the fox and the grapes. The whole section is full of fairy tale allusions. At the beginning of this there's some funny dialogue between the instructor and the kids and at the end as well. The next lines after what you were looking at are the instructor yelling at the kids. "No applause, please! Bast! The romescot nattleshaker will go round your circulation in diu dursus." So that's the context within the larger stories. This section is kind of a summary of the rest of the book. Nuvoletta is Issy, the girl child Issy is and is not Anna Livia Plurabelle, who both represent archetypes of women. Joseph Campbell discussed this section specifically in a few lectures. His description of the physical analogies to Issy or Anna, could be helpful. Water in the ocean is evaporated and lifted to heaven the carried to the mountains where it rains and small babbling brooks (Issy) carry the water down towards Dublin, where HCE is. Once there, they become the river Liffey and entwine with the physical landscape of Dublin which represent HCE. Then they flow down towards the ocean and back again for recirculation. Issy is the river, usually represented as small babbling brooks and Anna is the older version of the archetypal woman usually represented by the river Liffey. It's simply that the river keeps flowing as we all do towards death and Heaven and recirculation, in a way. Biographically speaking, it's worth noting that though the book was written between 1922-1939, this section was written specifically between 1927-1929. It was published August of 1929, which was around the time that James Joyces daughter Lucia had seen real success in dancing (May 1929), dated Samuel Beckett, and Alexander Calder. She would begin showing signs of mental illness that year as well nd would be institutionalized only 3 years later. So Nuvoletta, may share some traits with the biographical Lucia Joyce.

  • 2
    Could you please edit this answer to add some paragraph breaks, for readability?
    – bobble
    Commented Dec 17, 2021 at 17:59

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